During a recent interview in front of a room full of journalists, Harry Evans was asked, among other things, to explain some of the causes of the problems in journalism. Much of what he said was incisive, funny and extremely quotable, but one of the things that interested me most was Evans’ suggestion that a part of the reason for the declining quality of journalism was a result of the people entering and representing the profession. Too many people with the same university and post-graduate journalism background and not enough “salaried eccentrics” or people from alternative professional backgrounds. The result, according to Evans, is that the majority of journalists nowadays are educated in a way that makes them insufficiently critically-minded. This group, so the argument goes, is too likely to swallow the official line and not question what is being suppressed. He used the Iraq war as an example of the press’s failure to challenge the Government effectively on its motivations to go to war, suggesting it reflected a sparsity of truly questioning journalists.
It’s a point probably few are as qualified as Evans to make and one which reflects as much the rigid qualifications expected of journalists and rampant competition for jobs as it does the actual qualities of those entering journalism. With often several hundred applicants per job, post-graduate qualifications and reams of work experience are a necessary means for candidates to (attempt) to distinguish themselves from one another. But taken to extremes, this leads to a self-selecting group of people rising to the top: namely those from the most privileged backgrounds. Many who can afford it take work experience placements during their gap years and university holidays, and after finishing university, move directly to post-graduate education, while their less fortunate contemporaries are forced to work to payoff overdrafts and save money. Those who are particularly fortunate train at City University London or Cardiff – year-long courses with large tuition fees. With such an impressive record of education and commitment to journalism, it is inevitable that this largely privileged group has the upper hand applying for jobs, because simply put, they’re the best qualified candidates. There are of course exceptions, and many find ways to save money to fund their entry into journalism, but it requires a lot of determination to pledge so much time, money and education to get a foot on the ladder of an industry many talk so bleakly of.
So what can be done to change things? It would be easy to suggest that media organisations should be encouraged to choose candidates from more diverse backgrounds, and some probably do, but is it the responsibility of ailing papers fighting to be profitable to show some corporate responsibility? Probably not, which is why it comes back to what Evans said about the virtues of heterogeneity itself. In a time where politicians across the three main parties seem like copies of each other, people don’t want the journalists they read to be an equally homogeneous elite. They want a range of voices from different backgrounds, each with genuinely different things to say. Media organisations shouldn’t attempt to hire a range of people because of corporate responsibility, but rather, because it makes for a more interesting product for their readers.