A Sutton Trust report has highlighted a significant Oxbridge bias in an industry with more influence than most. Lee Elliot Major reports
This is a tale of such deep-rooted social inequality that it would, under normal circumstances, have the national news media champing at the bit. More than half the leading figures in a sector that wields huge influence over British society come from private schools - the fee-paying elite that account for just 7 per cent of the school population as a whole.
And of those leading figures who attended university, more than a third went to one institution: Oxford University. So why isn't the press bringing this scandal to the public's attention? Because it's the news media we're talking about.
"We are not awfully good at examining our own issues," concedes John Humphrys, the relentless interrogator of BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "But if there was a preponderance of privately educated people, and it was out of kilter with the population as a whole, then you would have to worry about that. I would worry about that."
Indeed it will be difficult for the newspaper trade, as it likes to call itself, to spike this story, particularly as it seems the sector is becoming more unequal.
The facts have emerged from a study of the news media that raises profound questions. How can it be that the school or university you attended has such a big impact on whether you make it as a leading journalist? As Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust charity, which commissioned the report, asks: "Is it healthy that those who are most influential in determining and interpreting the news agenda have educational backgrounds that are so fundamentally different from the vast majority of the population?" The report highlights how, in professions where postgraduate training is increasingly important, universities are helping to reassert the educational advantages that have benefited the rich since time immemorial.
The study considered how the educational backgrounds of 100 leading news journalists - national newspaper editors and columnists, TV news presenters and editors - had changed over the past 20 years. It found that of the top 100 journalists in 2006, 54 per cent were privately educated - a rise from 49 per cent in 1986. Meanwhile, 45 per cent of the leading journalists overall in 2006 (or 56 per cent of those who went to university) attended Oxbridge. And just under 37 per cent of the journalists in 2006 who were graduates came from Oxford.
More worrying perhaps are the results of the survey among today's journalists and editors. This found that the most recent new recruits to the national news media are even more likely to come from privileged backgrounds than those of previous generations. The reasons for this include low pay and insecurity at junior levels and the high costs of living in London (factors that can be overcome by those with wealthy families who live in or near London); the increasing cost of postgraduate courses; the stronger skills, such as well-developed self-confidence, deemed to be exhibited by those from private schools; and a bias towards those with family or personal connections amid a largely informal recruitment process.
One senior national journalist spoke about how he had once recommended a promising young journalist who was working for one of the news agencies.
The deputy editor didn't take much notice. But as soon as he mentioned the journalist's surname, the deputy editor's eyes lit up. He was the son of a respected former Fleet Street editor. It was this fact that got him the job. Such stories are manifold.
What the report does not suggest is that editors routinely favour journalists from posh backgrounds. Far from it: journalism is seen as meritocratic, and people are judged on how they perform. But what it does point to is a systematic bias towards those from privileged backgrounds at the entry stage. This is critical in the national news media because job opportunities at senior levels are scarce. "We very rarely advertise for editorial staff," said one editor in a typical response to the survey.
"Vacancies are almost invariably filled by people with experience in national newspapers who are known to us. The interview process is relatively informal."
Another issue is the media's increasing use of freelancers. John Lloyd, head of Oxford's new Institute for the Study of Journalism, says this "puts a premium on people who are confident and who can rely on support during lean times".
Students who lack financial backing are also not able to fork out the sums needed for the fees and living costs - as high as £15,000 a year - associated with postgraduate journalism courses. Editors increasingly see a postgraduate qualification as a prerequisite for getting into the industry.
And universities have been only too happy to develop them. The figures speak for themselves. In 1996-97, there were fewer than 400 students on such courses. By 2004-05, there were 5,600. The numbers of students on media studies undergraduate courses have grown from just under 7,000 to nearly ,000 over the same period, but the industry does not regard such courses as relevant to a job in the media.
Peter Cole, head of Sheffield University's respected journalism department and former deputy editor of The Guardian , says: "There is a clear distinction between journalism and media studies courses, the former teaching students how to do journalism, the latter studying the products of journalism in the way that English literature studies literary products. Media studies students do not get jobs as journalists, or very rarely."
He adds: "I think there is an obligation on universities to be clearer about the courses they offer, in not badging them journalism when they are media studies. But it is a fact that if you put the word 'journalism' in the title it draws applications and is therefore open to abuse by the bums-on-seats brigade."
The proliferation of postgraduate courses illustrates how money talks in the higher education market. This is likely to be even more the case in the era of top-up fees. Lloyd says there is a danger that, as in the US, newsrooms will reflect the ethnic make-up of society but not its class structure.
For journalists, there are plenty of unresolved questions raised by the study. Is news coverage preoccupied with the issues and interests of the small slice of society that journalists represent? Some argue not, pointing to Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail . He sends his children to Eton, but this doesn't mean that the newspaper gives more column inches to private schools, they say. The paper is successful because it addresses the concerns of its readers, not those of its editor. But others are more suspicious. They point to the space and time given in the media to the particular concerns of London's middle classes.
Cole comments: "The dangers of having a particular section of society, white, middle class, often privately educated, are that they see society from that vantage point. It is perhaps why we see such metropolitan bias in our national newspapers, why house prices are always a big story, why expensive restaurants in London are the ones reviewed."
So, what should or could be done? Lloyd says "a deliberate outreach drive" is needed to increase the representation of working-class journalists in the media. "You need to intervene, ask people from less privileged backgrounds if they want to be a journalist, and say that it doesn't have to be a middle-class ghetto," he says.
The Sutton Trust says the professions should consider more scholarships for journalism students from poor backgrounds. And the BBC has introduced policies geared to employing staff from a range of backgrounds.
But the first sign of if there is a real appetite to consider these questions will come this week as the Sutton Trust report is delivered to news editors' desks.
For the record, four out of 24 Times Higher staff have an Oxbridge degree.
Two paths, one passion
John Humphrys, presenter of BBC Radio 4's Today programme, is highly sceptical about the benefits of university courses for journalists - particularly media studies degrees.
"I don't like the idea that you absolutely have to have some media training," he says. "If you want to be a journalist, then what you need is an inquiring mind. Whether you can learn the skill of asking certain questions I doubt; that comes from experience.
"I personally think that a media studies degree is more harmful than helpful, and if I were recruiting for the Today programme I would prefer to have someone who had done their degree in history, economics, politics - whatever it happens to be - and then if necessary a year on one of the better postgraduate courses."
Humphrys worked on local papers after leaving grammar school at the age of 15. A glittering career followed at the BBC, where he was the first full-time television correspondent in the US, the youngest television foreign correspondent, and then, in 1981, the main presenter of The Nine O'Clock News team before moving to Today in 1987.
He says: "One or two of my senior colleagues over the years have said, 'we don't want Oxbridge people.' That is as daft as saying everyone has got to be Oxbridge.
"You must reflect the population you serve, it seems to me. I just feel instinctively that if, say, 30, 40, 50, 60 per cent of journalists at the BBC were public school it wouldn't be right."
Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian , says he is conscious of the lack of diversity in the backgrounds of news journalists, but says his newspaper is restricted in the extent to which it can tackle the issue.
"We have a separate problem, which is very low turnover. The more there is insecurity in the industry at large, the less people are able or willing to move jobs," he says. "We have instituted quite a number of small schemes to attract people from different and diverse backgrounds (for instance, the paper funds bursaries on postgraduate journalism courses).
You can put all that in place, but if you can do that for only a few jobs, you can make only limited change."
Unlike most national newspapers, The Guardian also advertises jobs externally.
Rusbridger, who was privately educated, worked on the Cambridge Evening News after graduating from Cambridge University. After serving as a reporter, columnist, features editor and deputy editor of The Guardian , he became editor in 1995.
But he doesn't think that his Oxbridge background helped in his career. "I didn't know anyone in Fleet Street. No one I knew at Cambridge had got into journalism. The Guardian will have looked at my cuttings and seen I could write."