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?

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.

 

BBC Radio 4: too middle class?
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear