Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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Is Radio 4 too middle class?

The station's voices are most likely to be drawn from selective and private schools, white, middle aged and male. Does that matter, though?

BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4: too middle class?

Here’s a story for the hand-wringers at the BBC to think about: according to a survey by OurBeeb, Radio 4’s voices are most likely to be middle class, drawn from selective and private schools, white, middle aged and male. At least, that’s what they found when they spoke to 42 presenters and guests on Radio 4 on 4 June this year. The findings are not a shock to anyone, I’d imagine. But should Radio 4, the leading speech radio broadcaster in the land, be something other than a home for the establishment?

A similar diversity audit of any media outlet or publication might arrive at similar numbers. The route from fee-paying school to what we refer to as "the media", via Oxbridge and a stint as an unpaid intern, is fairly well-paved; and if you didn’t have to worry terribly about money, you’d want to do something fun and glamorous. (Which working in the media seems, I suppose, for a lot of us, until we got there.) As far as the Oxbridge aspect is concerned, you could see it as evidence that candidates from the "best" universities are rightly scooped up by the BBC. Another way of looking at it, of course, would be to suppose that not everyone reaches the peak of their abilities at 17 years of age, nor continues that upward trajectory throughout their lives, and that where you went to university shouldn’t matter as much as what skills and abilities you have. Call me a graduate of a former polytechnic with a chip on his shoulder if you like, I don’t mind.

Is this something that’s limited to Auntie? I doubt it. Even the less glamorous quarters of the media in which I’ve worked have been overwhelmingly white and middle class, and mainly managed by men, as are many other industries, I’m sure. Highly desirable jobs will attract highly motivated, highly qualified candidates. There are probably socio-economic factors behind some of the lack of diversity – who can actually afford to intern for free, for example, unless they’ve got some kind of family support? But there’s still a whiff of suspicion that "non-U" types are calibrated to fail the recruitment process.

I’ll always remember that the only ever job application form I completed which asked for the name of the school I attended - just the name - on the front page was for a national newspaper. Look, maybe they saw that as being a really, really important piece of information for some reason, and was therefore worth putting ahead of qualifications or experience. I’m sure there are plenty of sensible reasons for it. There’s no point getting worked up about these things, because you can never prove anything, and you end up looking rather bitter and jaded.

Regardless, there is a suspicion among some folk that the BBC, like the dustier quarters of the civil service, retains a "nod and a wink" policy for the old-school tie; and that the usual Tristrams will get waved through without having to be terribly bright. I don’t know if I share that particular paranoia, even though I’ve applied for BBC jobs a handful of times and never made the interview stage. Was that because I went to a state school, or because I just wasn’t good enough? (I suspect it’s the latter.)

What’s the answer then? Well, first we have to see if there’s a problem, which would require a more extensive survey than this, with many more participants. Secondly, we have to ask if it really is a problem of bias or a problem of lack of opportunity. Finally, if there is a problem, and if it is because of some kind of selection bias, employers could do worse than look at the principle of the "Rooney rule". That states that if you select from a diverse slate of candidates, and you end up through affirmative action seeing more candidates from different backgrounds reach the final phase of selection, you end up hiring a wider range of people, while still retaining quality. That is, if there’s a problem.

Maybe the Radio 4 audience is happy with the voices it has, and wouldn’t want anything to change. But maybe the country’s leading broadcaster has more to consider than that.