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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era