This tweet has triggered such an inferno amongst British media types, the response would probably have been more measured if I’d told every single one of their mothers to F off in person. OK, the British media, you aren’t intolerant of critics and you don’t hound internal dissenters, you can call the dogs off now. I’ve argued for many years that the media is a closed shop for the privileged and full of groupthink: I’ve written two books making that case. This particular tweet provoked what can only described as mass hysteria.
As one journalist put it to me: “Can’t believe you forgot the golden rule of working in the media: never show the others their own reflection. Even though that’s what they do to everyone else all day.” Another senior broadcast journalist said I’d “touched a nerve”. The response has ranged from fury to outright abuse, and a fascinating parade of journalists presenting their own personal backgrounds, who really do seem to think that the plural of ‘anecdote’ is data. But none of them — not one — tried to counter the actual facts with facts of their own.
Just to make this clear. There are brilliant journalists in the British media, including those are from privileged backgrounds: decent, full of integrity, and genuinely driven by a commitment to truth. Two things here. Firstly, talking about systemic problems is not an attack on the individual, just as discussing male privilege is not a personal attack on all individual men. Secondly, I was talking about the media elite of the national titles and broadcasters: not the army of poorly paid and insecure freelancers or local reporters who are deeply undervalued.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to this own facts,” said US politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And these are the facts about the utterly scandalous state of the British media.
The media is a closed shop
Nothing caused so much anger as my suggestion that the British media is profoundly socially exclusive. The journalists denying this are waging a crusade against undeniable fact, evidence and data — and, by doubling down, are helping to ensure that this profound injustice is not rectified.
Just 7% of the British population are privately educated. But according to the Sutton Trust in 2016, 51% of Britain’s top journalists are privately educated. Just 19% attended a comprehensive school — unlike nearly 90% of the population.
According to the ‘Elitist Britain’ report — published by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in 2014, 43% of newspaper columnists are privately educated; just 23% went to comprehensives. Two thirds of new entrants to journalism came from managerial and professional backgrounds: more than twice the level of the rest of the population.
According to another government study, journalists are second only to doctors when it comes to the dominance of those from professional or managerial parental backgrounds. In other words: journalism is one of the most socially exclusive professions in Britain.
The issue is not just class. A study in 2016 suggested that 94% of journalists are white and 55% are men. While 5% of Britons are Muslims and 3% are black, just 0.4% of journalists are Muslim and 0.2% are black. Women are paid considerably less, and men dominate senior roles.
There are many factors conspiring to make a bad situation worse. The decline of local newspapers isn’t just bad for local democracy: here was a traditional route for non-privileged aspirational journalists into the media. There are even examples of some who left school age 16, started out by making tea in a local paper, and climbed the ranks. Fewer jobs in the local press means fewer young working-class people from Manchester, Glasgow and the Rhondda making it into the media.
The fact that, like so many other industries, the media is so concentrated in London — one of the most expensive cities on Earth — is another block on access.
The proliferation of unpaid internships is another barrier to the non-privileged. Entry to the media is often dependent on working for free with no guarantee of a job at the end of it all. This discriminates in favour of those who can live off the Bank of Mum and Dad; for others, working for no income — particularly in London — is simply impossible.
Then there’s the rise of expensive postgraduate journalism qualifications: again, often critical to getting a media job. Paying thousands of pounds for a masters degree — and that’s before living costs — is simply not an option for most people.
Then there’s nepotism, connections, and getting ahead because of who you know. The most famous example of the former Tory Chancellor George Osborne being appointed the editor of the Evening Standard like some new toy for him to play with. It is far more rampant than that, of course. As one Times journalist wrote wrote in 2016: “Media organisations have for decades recruited from a pool of working experience people working in offices for free, and, unfortunately, this free labour invariably comes from the friends and offspring of individuals who already have contacts in media. No one else stands much of a chance.”
A government study in 2015 found that less bright richer children were 35% more likely to become high earners than those who were more intelligent but less-well off. Why? Partly because their parents used their social networks to help them get jobs or funded unpaid internships. That is the case in every profession — but it of course includes journalism.
As the journalist Etan Smallman told me, when he applied for a work experience for The Times in 2003, he got a letter back saying they only took relatives of staff. “They wouldn’t put that in print today,” he said, “but I fear not too much else has changed.” He gave other examples: of when he got work experience at his first national newspaper, being told “it was ‘a coup’ that I had managed to get it without being the progeny of any of the editors,” and gave numerous examples of other journalists getting jobs through personal connections. This is rife in the British media and anyone honest working in the industry knows it.
Those from comprehensive schools who have made it into the media on their own merit using their own personal experience to disprove how socially exclusive the media is are no different from those who say “I made it out of poverty so therefore anyone who tried hard can, too.” They are kicking away the ladder and failing to challenge a rigged system.
Oh, and finally, full disclosure: I’m white, I’m male, I’m middle-class. I may have gone to a Northern comprehensive but my dad was a white-collar local authority worker and my mum an IT lecturer at Salford University. I went to Oxford University — and though I want other comp kids to go to Oxbridge, and would point out that the ‘Oxbridge elite’ are overwhelmingly the ‘privately educated Oxbridge elite’ — the media is dominated by Oxbridge types. Above all else this fact reinforces a sense of cliquiness which I’ll come on to.
After the Grenfell disaster, the Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow wrote about how disconnected the media was from the rest of society. “I felt on the wrong side of the terrible divide that exists in present-day society and in which we, the media are major players,” he wrote. “We can accuse the political classes for their failures, and we do. But we are guilty of them ourselves.” As the Sky News Political Correspondent Lewis Goodall wrote in response to my originaltweet, “there is group think and I’ve succumbed to it plenty of times, despite the fact I went to a comp.”
There are famous examples of groupthink: from when Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership, his support was dismissed as a cult-like self-destructive spasm of delusion. Both Brexit and Donald Trump becoming US President were seen as laughable impossibilities. But it goes much much further and deeper than that.
The response to ‘groupthink’ by some senior journalists was ‘no-one tells me what to think’. I really do have to put it to them that they don’t know what ‘groupthink’ means: they don’t have to be told what to think, that’s almost the point?
Groupthink is partly a consequence of how socially exclusive the British media is. Our backgrounds inevitably have an impact on how we see the world, particularly if we are denial about our own privilege. If you have so many people from such similar backgrounds — from a small and relatively privileged slither of British society — then similar prejudices and worldviews will reinforce each other. There will be a similar approach to which issues are selected as priorities and which are ignored, and the angle with which certain issues are approached.
There are other factors at play, too. Most of the British press is a) owned by rich oligarchs and b) supports the Conservative Party as an editorial position. This basic fact has an impact on who can rise to the top. It doesn’t mean you have to be a rampant Tory: but if you have firmly left-wing politics, you are practically disqualified from most positions.
The BBC use the main stories of the press to determine their own broadcast news priorities. And given most of the press is ardently pro-Tory: well, you see the problem here.
That’s not to say the press is full of Tory journalists, by the way. Groupthink tends to be socially liberal (even among journalists writing stories demonising Muslims and immigrants and refugees: many of them don’t believe what they’re writing, I’m afraid) and economically liberal. A view of politics revolving around a sacred ‘centre-ground’ is gospel: so Labour lurching to the left is seen as an innately doomed enterprise.
Perhaps the most striking example of groupthink are media huddles. After, say, Prime Minister’s Questions or after a a party leader does their annual Conference speech, the political lobby journalists will often huddle together and discuss the shared lines to take. [Edited, see below]
(EDIT: For clarity, there is a difference between ‘the huddle’ and ‘a huddle’. ‘The huddle’ is a briefing to/Q&A with journalists by party / official spokespeople. Here you get groupthink in three ways. As right-wing blogger Paul Staines puts it (no sympathiser of mine): “I have been to huddles and it is true that almost by osmosis hacks reach a consensus sometimes. There is for example peer pressure on new hacks to not rock the boat. Even if it is just an exasperated collective groan if someone asks a dissonant question. It takes a brave Lobby hack to reach different conclusions to other hacks after a huddle. You could argue the huddle reaches a consensus about the truth or that it constricts the reporting to a common take. Not a conspiracy, just peer pressure.” Secondly, as one witness puts it: “They do stand around discussing it after. But more annoyingly they lay into [Corbyn spokesperson] Seumas Milne about crazy tiny details about if Jeremy Corbyn has 1 or 2 sugars in his coffee with a Czech Bob Geldoff. Whereas with №10 it’s all pretty straightforward questioning and they generally accept their answers.” Thirdly, lobby journalists will often stand together and/or walk back to the press lobby together and agree on ‘what just happened’, if you like.
But actually more important are just unofficial ‘huddles’: lobby journalists grouping together to arrive at shared interpretations and conclusions. This is a process I’ve been briefed on by three past and current lobby journalists. As the New Statesman put it in 1999:
“The most pernicious aspect of Westminster’s lobby being learnt fast by the Holyrood press gang is the pack mentality. After each briefing another briefing takes place. Reporters huddle together and work out their interpretation of what was said. “Did Whitton mean that Dewar threatened to resign?” “Yes, that’s obviously what he meant.” “So that’s the line — Dewar resign threat.” Even when the following day’s headlines are all denounced as wrong, the reporters can stick to their line because there is safety in numbers. But if what was actually said is on videotape and can be seen by everyone, including newspaper editors, the scope for such creative interpretation by the press is dramatically reduced.”
More recently as the New Statesman put it: “Lobby journalists also spend a lot of time with each other, and while they still compete viciously, the set-up is prone to groupthink. The practice of discussing what the “best line” is from any announcement or speech often leads to homogenised news coverage. It’s less conspiracy and more seeking safety in numbers. After all, if everyone else has the same story, then yours can’t be wrong.”
As a senior political journalist put it to me: “Those of us who attended party conference saw the entire fucking lobby with our two eyes group together and discuss ‘the line’ to take on the leader’s speech.”
As the writer Matthew Green put it: “I remember observing this phenomenon during a press trip with Cameron to Afghanistan. It struck me at the time as odd; reminiscent of everyone copying each other’s homework.”
As a senior lobby journalist put it to me today, these huddles do routinely happen. Sometimes it can be innocent stuff like — “what was the quote?” But often it was about sharing interpretations of “what just happened there”, of — as they put it — “groupthink”.)
As former Daily Mirror political editor Vincent Moss put it to me: “One of the problems with political-lobby journalists is that they’re obsessed about issues that affect them an their peers”, which are “often London-based issues,”, and the risk is their priorities are “not closed to a lot of issues that affect many ordinary people and many of their readers.”
There is also the problem that the media is a social scene. People in the same profession being mates with each other is kind of inevitable, I hear you say. Yes, sure: but the media really is awash with cliques, with journalists from ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ papers and blogs spending a lot of time hanging out with each other at parties. It is, for many, one of the perks, and cements a sense of togetherness and solidarity — as well as, again, shared worldviews.
Now, take Corbynism. My argument here is misconstrued as ‘my objection to the media is they don’t have partisan support for the Labour left’. That’s untrue. One of the recurring problems with the British media is simply a lack of political and intellectual curiosity towards the Labour left. It is simply easily dismissed — even after the election — as cult-like, delusional, irrational, quasi-religious, hysterical, intolerant, totalitarian-even. It is the refusal to want to understand which remains the problem.
The media has to change
What I wrote has, yes, caused outrage and a closing of ranks. Partly it’s the recurring problem that any attack on systemic privilege is taken as a personal attack. Everyone wants to feel that their successes are down to their own talents; none of us like to contend that odds stacked in our favour have helped us get where we are today. The other is that journalists like to think they are highly individualistic, driven by the high-minded pursuit of the truth. That they are influenced by groupthink is seen as profoundly insulting, but it is nonetheless true. The media elite also feels besieged, not least because politics has dramatically polarised in a short space of time, and social media means journalists are subject to unprecedented scrutiny at a time when the media generally is in crisis.
And oh boy they did not like my suggestion that much of the media was cult-like. I guess all I’d say is: if you deal it out, learn to take it. Much of the media has spent the last three years treating a mass movement of hundreds of thousands of people as a “cult”, which it persists in doing even after a left-led Labour Party won the support of 40% of the electorate. I’m not sure that the pile on I’ve received in the last few days has thoroughly convinced me that much of the media isn’t cult-like, sorry to say.
The media really is its own worst enemy. Journalists in this country are less trusted than estate agents. Newspaper circulation is in a state of collapse and an array of new media websites — despised and maligned by much of the media — are being fuelled by a sense that media groupthink sidelines ideas and beliefs which millions of Britons hold dear.
I do find it absurd that I’m one of the only employed columnists in Britain who is not hostile to the Labour leadership, let alone sympathetic, even after 40% of voters plumped for Corbyn’s Labour Party. This isn’t a plea for sympathy, but my word does it feel isolating, particularly when the left is under massive assault: and that’s indicative of how suffocating media groupthink really is.
Things do have to change. The abolition of unpaid internships. Paid scholarships for those from underrepresented backgrounds. A challenge to media ownership. More of a platform for dissenting voices. More political curiosity. A greater focus on ignored social issues.
This matters. The media is a crucial pillar of democracy. It shapes the national debate, it determines the political and social priorities of the nation, it is supposed to inform people about the world around them and challenge and scrutinise elites. All too often it hounds those lacking a voice — immigrants, refugees, Muslims, benefit claimants, and so on — with horrifying consequences. It is not immune from criticism and scrutiny. The British media is broken, it is not fit for purpose — and despite the howls of outrage (and worse) I’ve received — it is going to have to change.