Listen to Kelvin. You don’t need to learn about journalism to be a journalist

I can’t do 100 words a minute shorthand, have never sat through a council meeting or done a death kn

Agreeing with Kelvin MacKenzie makes me angry. I wince as I type these words. But here it is: he's right about something.

I don't agree with MacKenzie about a lot of things, or really anything most of the time. When he turns up on Question Time, as he regularly does, I end up having to instal a brick-proof screen in front of the TV. But when I read his article of last week saying that you don't need to learn about journalism to be a journalist, I found myself nodding in agreement. And then feeling horrible about myself, as if I'd just French-kissed a putrid badger. But there it is: I can't help it.

I speak as someone who not only did one of those much-derided media studies degrees at one of those unloved former polytechnics, but also managed to sneak into a career in journalism without doing the required training. (A career that never really scaled any giddy heights and which will soon be shunted off into the Jobcentre Plus via a small cheque and a "Thank you very much for all the hard work", but a career nevertheless.) So I can see it from both sides, I suppose.

I can't do 100 words a minute shorthand, have never sat through a council meeting or done a death knock, and have never written anything, ever, about Oxdown school. In short, I am a fraud. Or am I? I think it depends on what you see journalism as being.

If you're going to be doing court cases, it makes sense to get some practice in and know what you're doing, read the law books and all that; if you're going to be interviewing footballers for a living, it's a waste of everyone's time. What kind of journalist do you want to be? What skills are you going to need?

Don't get me wrong, many of my best friends are journos and all of that. It's just that I think that their skills have shone out because of their talents and hard work, not necessarily because of their training. Compared to those of many other professions, the qualifications to enter journalism are not spectacularly strong, being just one series of tests that people do once. Often there is no ongoing professional training or development.

Yet that's apparently enough to see you through a 30- or 40-year career, if you're lucky. I've seen enough brilliantly qualified numpties and enough kids on work experience who managed to "get it" within minutes to make me wonder.

The problem, I think, is that journalism is not a profession or a trade, but rather, as Hunter S Thompson so memorably put it, "a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits". As Kurt Vonnegut said of the writing trades, "They allow mediocre people who are patient and industrious to revise their stupidity, to edit themselves into something like intelligence.

"They also allow lunatics to seem saner than sane."

Which sounds about right to me, as a patient and industrious but ultimately mediocre person. We're all just trying to edit ourselves into something like intelligence with every article we write, with every set of words we put on the page. One day, we hope, we might get there. I know I do.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA