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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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.