The UK media has a huge class problem. Last month, it was revealed eighty percent of journalists come from professional or upper-class backgrounds, according to the Diversity in Journalism report from the NCTJ. This compares with seventy-five percent in 2020. Journalists were almost twice as likely as the general population to come from privileged backgrounds, and social class was the only diversity metric measured by the report that was getting worse.
While this was a shock to many people in the industry, who perhaps had not realised how severe the problem was, it was no surprise to the handful of working-class people who have overcome some significant barriers to work as a journalist.
For me, a journalist who grew up on a council estate and was entitled to free school meals, this problem has been glaringly obvious for quite some time. Working as a news reporter, I have always felt a disparity between the experiences of the people I reported on and those who made up the newsroom. I have been asked to write stories based on caricatures of working-class people, while stories I have pitched with nuance have been dismissed because they stray too far from the established narrative.
Working-class experiences are erased and diminished, while middle-class experiences are prized as the universal standard and simply the norm. So it seems no coincidence that the industry is suffering a crisis of trust while being made up predominantly of people from privileged backgrounds.
While I have met many well-meaning middle- and upper-class people writing about working-class people in this country, there is always a point at which their writing deviates from reality. I have seen countless times that when writers outside the working class who purport to know about what the working-class people think are criticised by those with lived experience of being working class, they tend to be defensive and narrow-minded. I am sorry to say in my experience this is true as much on the left as it is on the right.
And this creates a trust gap. There is really nothing more frustrating than seeing people writing with pure ignorance about a group you belong to based on mixing some data with some appalling stereotypes, as though you are not capable of reading or following the conversation. These people often have very loud voices and little-to-no experience of the people they are writing about, and while it does not show to middle-class editors, it stands out a mile off for working-class readers.
But it is not just about alienating the consumers of media. This has a larger effect, one that is as damaging for society as it is for those who are fighting the system from within. In a practical sense, having a media packed full of middle and upper-class journalists leads to easily correctable falsehoods to become record.
For example, the notion of working-class people being flag-waving, xenophobic bigots—easily detectable as false for anyone who spends any time at all in the company of working-class people—is treated with borderline scientific reverence by even the most sympathetic media. This is despite all evidence showing the opposite. Research consistently shows that working-class people are less bigoted than other classes, more likely to embrace people from other cultures to their own, and more likely to be accepting of differences in lifestyle, such as same-sex and mixed race relationships.
Large swathes of the media blamed working-class people for the Tory government and Brexit, despite reliable research showing that was not the case at all. The people thought of as ‘gammons’, who pop up in radio phone-ins and on BBC Question Time, are consistently shown to be middle class.
Frustratingly, the people who have the right knowledge and personal experience to correct this record are not in positions where they would be able to do that. We are forced instead to quietly roll our eyes behind the scenes or send a cringing email gently asserting, ‘I’m sure it’s an honest mistake but that article you wrote had some harmful stereotypes that are not actually correct.’
There is a time when I would have liked to have been a columnist or a ‘political writer’, but the pay at the bottom rung is so poor and the need for connections so great that it would have been very difficult for me. I am now relieved—nothing about this job would have suited me.
Yet somehow, I have managed to have a platform to write freely whenever I want about class, which I am thankful for, but it strikes me that I might be literally the only journalist of my background in the UK afforded this privilege. In the two weeks following a tweet I did about the problem, I was asked to write three opinion pieces, invited onto two quite prestigious panels, interviewed twice for mainstream publications and one podcast, featured in at least three newsletters and asked to appear in a debate on Good Morning Britain (which I declined).
I was also approached for jobs from two different media companies which seemed to have perhaps panicked when reflecting on their lack of class diversity and thought that they might be able to score a rare working-class journalist with something of a profile under the mistaken assumption that I am probably desperate for work and can be paid not very much.
And while I am grateful to be in the position to turn down work that I do not feel like doing, I have to admit frustration that these invitations only extend to ‘working-class issues’ and no further—i.e., I am only called upon when it would be out of the question to commission a middle- or upper-class writer.
In fact, there are few working-class columnists in national media, and only one I can think of who is afforded the privilege of writing political opinion and analysis. The most competitive areas of journalism, such as political and economic opinion writing, are reserved purely for those who have been through a very precise funnel, which usually involves a fee-paying school and a prestigious university.
Some of this evidently comes down to having connections, some of it confidence, and a lot of it comes down to having the stability of parents who can pay some or all of their rent while they establish their place at the media table. But I also get the sense that working-class writers, no matter how talented, are deemed not the ‘political columnist’ type.
I want to be clear: middle and upper-class allies are essential, and I know so many brilliant ones who I am incredibly grateful to for amplifying the voices of working-class people. But I find it heartbreaking to think how many stories remain hidden because middle and upper-class journalists do not know about them and how many times a working-class writer may offer a different perspective in the first version of history, even on issues that are not directly related to class or indeed poverty.
There are many ways to solve this problem and I am not sparing any space for them here because I believe media organisations know what the problem is and know what they can do to address it—or at least follow the logic to its conclusion.
Fundamentally, however, what would make things easier for everyone is a culture in which class simply does not matter: or to put it simply, an equal society. And that is something we have to fight to move towards.