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25 June 2022

The media response to strikes proves we need more working-class journalists

I was raised in a council house by a single mum – but in my 20 years in journalism I’ve met few people like me.

By Terri White

Mick Lynch, the RMT union leader, got the UK talking this week. Yes, about the rail strikes, workers’ rights and the gross – and growing – wealth gap, but he made something else staggeringly clear too. As much of the national press moved against him and he encountered a series of hostile broadcast interviews, my head rang with one thought: we need more working-class journalists.

As he appeared on various news programmes, he was asked questions that not only revealed the lack of substance beneath much of today’s “gotcha” approach, but also conveyed a deep cynicism of industrial action as a tool to gain and maintain workers’ rights. Many of the journalists interviewing him had little to say on behalf of the people who need those rights more than ever.

I don’t call for more working-class journalists because I think all working-class people agree with each other, or automatically take the side of the worker. A glance at Twitter would quickly disabuse us of that notion. (Kay Burley, for example, comes from a working-class background, and her dad was a trade union leader).

Journalists, after all, are there to report, to shed light, to search for answers on behalf of their audience. To know what keeps people awake at night, and to push for the truth on the issues that dominate their lives.

But how is this done effectively? How do they know the pressures on a working-class man in, say, Preston, when the media – the very people asking the questions, writing opinion pieces, and framing political coverage – is wildly and increasingly upper class? Not only is progress not being made – we’re actually going backwards.  

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Last month, Press Gazette reported on new figures from the National Council for the Training of Journalists which revealed that 80 per cent of those in journalism are from upper-class backgrounds or have parents from higher-level occupations (vs 42 per cent of the general workforce). Bad news if you think the other 20 per cent are working class: that remainder covers both “lower” and “middle” socio-economic backgrounds. Only 2 per cent have a parent in the lowest two occupational groups. Two per cent.

I am in the 2 per cent. I was born in a north-east Derbyshire village to a teenage single mum who worked a variety of low-paying jobs as we grew up – factory worker, cleaner, barmaid, waitress, shop assistant, cook – and claimed benefits. My dad wasn’t around financially or otherwise, and even if he was, he was usually out of work. Me and my siblings received free school meals and clothing vouchers for our school uniforms. We lived in a council house. So, a fairly standard working-class background in the 1980s. Yet in the 20-odd years I spent working in staff jobs – starting with an internship on Marie Claire magazine in 1999 and finishing as editor-in-chief of Empire magazine in 2021 – I can count on two hands, maybe even one, the number of times I met or worked with people like me.

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Two decades ago, it was hard for me to get into the industry, but it seems nigh-on impossible today. I went to university – the first person in my family to stay in school post-16 – helped in no small part by the full government grant of £1,800 I received. This covered the cheapest self-catering university accommodation, leaving about £20 in change. To pay for the rest – food, books, clothes, buses – I took out a student loan and worked part-time jobs, first in the kitchens of the most expensive catered halls (trust me, you never want to be saying “sweetcorn or peas” to Too-Much-Gel Guy from your seminar group while wearing a hair net), then in a clothes shop.

I budgeted and lived on £15 a week – three crisp fivers spat out of the ATM in the union every Monday – and it was tight, but I made it work (just about). I did need to access the university hardship fund once, when I cut back on my hours in the shop to revise for my finals – ranking number one in the list of most humiliating moments of my life.

Why go through all of that just for a degree? Because I wanted an education and furiously resented being told I couldn’t have one just because of my background. But I also felt that I wouldn’t land the career I wanted – as a magazine journalist and eventual editor – without it.

That assumption was right. My first editor confirmed he was looking for degrees on the applications for the editorial assistant/PA job I eventually landed. I was arguably over-qualified to run the office, order stationary, screen his calls, manage his diary – but the crucial bit was that I’d be given the chance to write. And at that time, it was the tried and tested way into an actual journalism job.

[See also: This could be the labour movement’s summer of glory]

In 2022, jobs throughout the magazine masthead have been slashed, with the very top and the very bottom ones gutted entirely. My route in has all but disappeared.

And that education? I was not just one of the lucky ones, but one of the very last ones. While I was at university, the Labour government (Labour!) scrapped grants and introduced tuition fees. Now, rather than part-helping hand, part-debt, which is the deal I entered into, successive governments have stopped pretending they’re keen on social mobility and instead invite low-income students to take out huge loans. The average debt for those who finished a course in 2020 was £45,000. Imagine you are poor; you worry you will always be poor even with an education, and you must risk almost £50k on it. Would you still go to university?

Where does that leave us? Many young journalists are doing unpaid internships or writing for free. Both are practices that I cannot endorse. The latter is positioned as either being “valuable experience so you don’t need paying” or “unfortunate, because we don’t have the money”. If you can’t afford to pay writers, then you don’t have a functioning business model and shouldn’t be commissioning. If it’s good enough to publish, it’s good enough to pay for. Never mind how much of a gaslight it is to reframe free labour as opportunity. During my 1990s internship, I worked night shifts re-stocking clothes shops in London while working in the day at the magazine. I still didn’t have enough money to eat every day.

Yet the truth is my class has ended up being my super power. And my experiences – both childhood and early in my career – are what I draw on every day. When it came to recruiting journalists for my magazines, I had different expectations from other editors. A degree wasn’t necessary – I understood why it might not be an option. I looked for those who needed a break, who had raw talent over experience. I offered remote mentorships (and still do for working-class early-career journalists) rather than unpaid internships, which I scrapped. But the application inbox for staff jobs was usually absent of anyone who wasn’t middle class. How do you even dream of applying if you’re living in your hometown, without higher education, cash, experience or a network within the industry?

And when it comes to storytelling, I’ve always been interested in how the working-class are represented, and who is telling their stories – or not telling their stories. My perspective, my empathy, my creative preoccupations have always been a direct result of my class. And I would often be the only person in the room advocating for a certain position or angle. If the media is there for the people, it should speak with a plurality of voices, not a monolith. It should represent, as much as possible, the world in which we live and the people it works for: the readers.

If you only have upper-class voices speaking for and to the country – in newspapers, magazines or in broadcasting – can you really say that those voices can fully articulate and understand the struggles and priorities of women who can’t feed their kids, or men who can’t heat their homes? Journalism helps us to make sense of the world, of our place in it. But how can that be true for the working class if they aren’t shaping the stories we read, watch and listen to?

There is still a fairly consistent framing of working-class people as stupid, immoral and, frankly, less than human. It’s partly why you sense people are so impressed by Mick Lynch – wow, the man can talk coherently! Who’d have known? But imagine a world in which Lynch is being interviewed by a roll-call of working-class journalists. Imagine the difference in the conversation. Dream on, right?

[See also: Why the 2022 summer of strikes is about to get worse]