Do We Really Need a Cabal of Posh Oxford-Educated Whites Telling Us How the World Should Be Run?

A shocking lack of diversity at “The Economist” is damaging the publication’s credibility

Alexander Matthews
Nov 20, 2019 · 6 min read
Edited in London, The Economist’s coverage of business and politics spans the globe. Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash

Of the many things that stand out in Pankaj Mishra’s masterful New Yorker review of Alexander Zevin’s Liberalism at Large, a history of The Economist since it began publishing in 1843, was this:

The staff, predominantly white, is recruited overwhelmingly from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and a disproportionate number of the most important editors have come from just one Oxford college, Magdalen.

It got me thinking about exactly how much racial diversity there was. A bit of digging showed that after the activist Ahmed Olayinka Sule wrote an open letter in February complaining about The Economist’s lack of black staff the publication admitted that, as of August 2018, less than 1% of employees were. (Scrolling through its media directory, I actually didn’t manage to spot a single black face.) In a letter in response to Sule, The Economist’s editor-in-chief Zanny Minton-Beddoes partly justified this shocking stat as being the result of the publication needing “to hire from the deepest talent pool possible”. It was a peculiar thing to suggest — given that the deepest talent pool is surely one that contains blacks.

You’d think, at the very least, that for covering Africa, black Africans might feature in the talent pool. But nope. The Economist’s Johannesburg-based Africa correspondent, John McDermott is a white male Brit (he went to the London School of Economics and Harvard — and not Oxford, for a change). Above him, Africa Editor Jonathan Rosenthal, is also white and male (though at least he grew up in South Africa). And above him, foreign editor Robert Guest is also very much white and male and a graduate of, you guessed it, Oxford.

Minton-Beddoes (another white Oxford graduate) told Sule that the minuscule number of black staff “is something we are conscious of and that we keep in mind when hiring. Like you, we recognise that we could do better and are striving to do so.” It was a transparent attempt to shirk responsibility. After all: if you do keep it in mind when hiring and truly are “striving” to change it, then why haven’t these efforts led to an increase in black talent? At the very least you could start on the African continent where there are many good black journalists. All this reeks of something — inertia, ineffectiveness, prejudice or indifference; or, perhaps, an unacceptable blend of all four.

Diversity is undoubtedly about far more than just race and the university you graduated from — but by having such a concentration of “Oxbridge” toffs as editors, it does mean that the perspectives they have are shaded by their own experiences as part of a privileged upper middle class (or indeed wealthy) élite. Perhaps this wouldn’t matter if The Economist was an obscure, inconsequential rag, but this is not the case. Its coverage spans the globe and it is widely read by influential decisionmakers in business and politics — to whom it feels quite comfortable telling what they should and shouldn’t do. If those breezily confident prescriptions are to be taken seriously, there needs to be a vibrant counterbalance to elitist mindsets within the newsroom and a drastic widening of the extremely narrow band of both lived and educational experience that typifies the vast majority of its masthead. How can that be achieved? By appointing talented people from vastly differing backgrounds.

Yes, Zanny, there are talented people who didn’t go to Oxford, who aren’t white, who didn’t grow up economically privileged, and who aren’t straight (I have it on good authority that queer sexualities in the newsroom are somewht rare). The outcome of having a truly diverse newsroom will be reportage and analysis and policy suggestions that are more empathetic, rigorous, nuanced and informed. Mishra aptly comments that:

[A] recent assessment of Brazil’s privatization drive — “Jair Bolsonaro is a dangerous populist, with some good ideas” — suggests that it is hard to tone down what the journalist James Fallows has described as the magazine’s “Oxford Union argumentative style,” a stance too “cocksure of its rightness and superiority.

I can’t help but think that this cocksureness not only diminishes the value of The Economist’s contents but is also very much the product of a monoculture which prizes firm and fiercely argued opinions over subtlety and an appreciation of complexity and ambiguity that quite often the facts on the ground demand.

After Mishra’s review cited a recent cover about Elizabeth Warren’s economic plans, I read the two articles and couldn’t escape the sense The Economist was attempting a scaremongering hit job. Although they weren’t wholly critical, the pieces claimed her proposals to reform American capitalism would send its economic system “into a severe shock” if enacted. In spite of the alarmist teeth-gnashing, vague and sweeping statements were a lot more common than specifics when it came to justify why this shock would occur.

The Economist placed far too great a premium on market dynamics (and their “creative destruction”) as the engine of American prosperity. While that has undoubtedly played an important role, equally if not more significant is the government funding and loans given to innovation that an at-time risk averse market didn’t want to touch. As Michael Lewis points out in his recent book, The Fifth Risk, many of our greatest innovations came to fruition thanks to government financial support at the very beginning.

With scant evidence to support it, The Economist suggested that Warren’s plans will sap market dynamism and allow for the “capture” of the state by those with nefarious motives. These are quaint justifications to mask resentment of her attempts to create a more level playing field. Regulation is not automatically anti-market; instead, if done well, they can be a means to make sure companies play fair and don’t ride roughshod over their customers, employees and competitors. A vigilant press and civil society as well as robust internal checks and balances can help to keep regulators and government agencies and their employees accountable — helping to minimise the “capture” that The Economist sees as inevitable.

Ironically for a publication that recently dedicated an entire issue to the climate crisis, it bemoaned Warren’s commitment to ban fracking. Ignoring the potential economic boon that will come with a surge of investment in renewables and battery technology, it also ignored that — as the Union of Concerned Scientists have pointed out — natural gas from fracking (or other sources) is simply not a long-term answer to tackling climate change.

It approvingly mentioned that Larry Summers (the economist who has long had a cosy relationship with the financial sector and the very wealthy) fears that such a tax “could depress enterprise”. Sorry, folks, but Jeff Bezos having his net worth halved is not going to make America economy catch a cold or make him any less likely to want to continue the relentless expansion of his businesses.

“She needs to find more room for the innovative and dynamic private sector that has always been at the heart of American prosperity,” the one article concludes, ignoring the fact that Warren’s primary focus is not to elbow the private sector out, but rather ensure that it reforms so that workers, small businesses and the environment all get a better and more equitable deal than is currently the case.

Last year, the publication called for a “liberalism for the people” — but given its coverage of Warren, that strikes me as a hollow rallying cry. It’s amply evident that, just like the billionaires its editors are fond of rubbing shoulders with at Davos, The Economist is perfectly comfortable with gross and increasing inequality and hates the idea of elites surrendering power and money. Those reading the publication on their Gulfstreams will find that immensely reassuring. The rest of us — not so much.

Which brings us back to diversity. It’s unlikely that a more diverse newsroom (one with a far wider range of nationalities, ethnicities, sexualities and educations) would have published such vacuous analysis or endeavoured to depict Warren as a grave threat to American prosperity. Why? Because instead of the thick stench of implicit bias in the air that leads to that kind of unsubstantiated certitude, the editors would instead have been forced to examine their blind spots, question their assumptions and scrutinise the consequences of the senator’s proposals in a much less blinkered, knee-jerk and ideologically-driven way.

Zanny Minton-Beddoes should ditch the empty platitudes and start to take the need for meaningful diversity seriously. Until she and her colleagues at this “newspaper” (as it insists on calling itself) start doing so, it will continue to give the impression that it is little more than a mouthpiece and echo chamber for the very rich and powerful.

Alexander Matthews

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journalist / globetrotter / bookworm ||| alexandermatthews.net/about

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