Making work experience work better

The New Statesman is partnering with the Social Mobility Foundation to improve access to the media.

"Internships" are a controversial subject at the moment. Several media companies - including the New Statesman - have been accused of "running on interns", and exploiting young people by asking them to work without pay. 

We take that charge seriously. But we also think that there's value in work experience, done correctly: if young people are given a chance to experience office life, to learn about what really goes into producing a successful magazine and website, and to receive feedback on their own writing, that gives them a better chance of finding a job. 

So I wanted to write a bit about what we've done to make our work experience programme better, and what happens next. First, we think there is an important distinction between internships - placements lasting months, often doing work which would otherwise fall to a paid member of staff - and work experience. 

The latter should last no more than a couple of weeks, so that it can be done around other work or study commitments. Placements should also involve as much effort on our part as from the person we're hosting. If you get work experience here, you'll be encouraged to pitch ideas for blogs related to your interests, and we will give you detailed constructive criticism on them, helping you develop as a writer. You won't be expected to spend all day doing routine administrative tasks, and there are no fixed hours. If we scrapped our work experience programme tomorrow, the New Statesman would continue to function exactly as before. That's the test of whether interns are replacing paid employees. As for paying our interns: we do. Anyone who stays beyond their initial placement - for example Phil, our current centenary research assistant; or editorial assistants such as the talented Duncan Robinson, now at the Financial Times - is paid. 

To make our work experience scheme as useful as possible, we host only two people in editorial at any one time (there is often a design work experience candidate, too, learning about layout, photoshop and picture editing with the art desk). Our placements are open to all, and we have a merit-based application system. 

What about the charge that work experience schemes give an unfair advantage to those whose parents live in London? There's truth in that, and so for the last few months we've tested a "virtual work experience" scheme where young people are mentored remotely by me and the web editor, Caroline Crampton. They pitch to us as if they were freelancers, and we give them feedback on their approach and their writing style. Everyone we've helped has said the help and advice we gave was useful. 

But that's not enough. We know that there is still a problem with the lack of diversity in the media, and it's something we want to address. The editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, recommended to me the work of the Social Mobility Foundation, which aims to get more bright students from non-traditional backgrounds working in careers such as journalism. 

The New Statesman will be working with the SMF in two main ways from now on. First, we've agreed to host Year 12 students selected by them this summer for one-week placements. Second, more than a dozen of our staff and bloggers have volunteered to be mentors to students for a one-year period starting in March. They'll be in regular email contact with them as they decide their career path and apply to university.

The SMF targets its help to those who have achieved 5 As at GCSE (6 for those who want to study Medicine) and be predicted at least ABB at A-level, and are either eligible for free school meals, or attend a school where 30 per cent of pupils are eligible, and are in the first generation of their family to attend university in the UK.

These are exactly the kind of people the media needs if it is to better reflect our society, and we’re proud to be working with the Social Mobility Foundation to make that happen.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder