Elitism in UK Media: A Guide
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
It’s no secret that British journalism has a severe diversity issue. Whether it be social-economic status, education level, gender or race, there is a distinct lack of representation among the people at the top of the media food chain.
But why is this such an important issue? And what’s being done to combat the growing divide? Let’s take a look.
Firstly, what is elitism?
Elitism is the belief that some things are only for a few people who have special qualities or abilities. In society, this leads to power being concentrated in the hands of a limited group of individuals believed to be elite - mainly due to wealth, social status, intellect or experience.
The UK is a deeply elitist society. That is, it rewards those who fit the ‘elite’ category, which has historically been privately educated Oxbridge graduates. There is a huge disproportion in the number of privately educated individuals among the UK’s top professions in comparison to the general population.
According to research by Sutton Trust, just 7% of the UK general public attend independent schools, yet their alumni make up 65% of senior judges, 59% of Whitehall permanent secretaries and 52% of junior ministers.
Elitism extends far beyond whether someone studied at private school or not, however. Only 3% of Britain’s most powerful and influential people are from black and minority ethnic groups. Minorities face a wide range of obstacles in their professional lives, from workplace discrimination and glass ceilings to affinity bias (an unconscious bias that often leads people to hire individuals who look like them, leading to homogenous workforces).
Elitism in UK media: the stats
Journalism is a particularly elitist sector, with a staggering 92% of news media professionals (including newspaper and magazine editors, editors of major digital news outlets and TV and radio news presenters and editors) being university educated.
In a report on elitism in the UK’s top professions, the Sutton Trust found that 44% of newspaper columnists attended private school and went on to study at the prestigious Oxbridge universities.
The report also looked at individuals’ class background, finding that 64% of those working in journalism came from professional or managerial origins, whereas just over 10% came from a working class background.
The figures become even more worrying when you take race and gender into account. Researchers from Women in Journalism examined all media output during one week in July 2020, hoping to better understand the diversity of today’s media landscape. The results were deeply concerning:
Not a single black reporter was featured on the front page of any of the newspapers
Out of the 174 front-page bylines counted, just one in four went to women.
Seven of the 11 major newspapers checked did not feature a single BAME reporter on the front page.
Out of 877 expert guests featured on prime-time TV news shows during the week, just 30% were women.
Newsnight failed to include a single non-white expert guest.
How did we get here?
While Britain has always been a country rooted in class division and elitist rituals, recent economic strains have had a huge impact on diversity within the media.
The lower number of jobs in journalism - due to a decline in print media and the 2008 recession - has led to some worrying trends. Entry level roles are increasingly asking for post-graduate qualifications (for which funding is very rare) and there is an expectation to complete unpaid internships which is considered ‘paying your dues’, but in reality is often unattainable for those who cannot rely on their family for financial support.
In recent years newspapers have also hired less and less permanent staff writers, choosing instead to commission work from freelance journalists. Once again, working freelance can be an extremely precarious position which is yet another barrier for individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
Why is this dangerous?
For many, the lack of representation in journalism is not just unfair, it is also dangerous. Although media professionals strive (mostly) for impartiality, their personal experiences and biases will inevitably influence everything they do. This means that if all senior journalists come from the same backgrounds and have the same perspectives, there is an entire chunk of important stories, messaging and angles that will be overlooked.
The disconnect between the media and the UK population has real life consequences. In the aftermath of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, broadcaster Jon Snow commented:
“Why didn’t any of us see the Grenfell action blog? Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t we have contact? Why didn’t we enable the residents of Grenfell Tower – and indeed the other hundreds of towers like it around Britain – to find pathways to talk to us and for us to expose their story?
I felt on the wrong side of the terrible divide that exists in present day society. We can accuse the political classes for their failures, and we do. But we are guilty of them ourselves. We are too far removed from those who lived their lives in Grenfell Tower.”
Newsrooms have a responsibility to represent the views, concerns and interests of the general public, but is this truly possible when journalists are not representative of over half of the population?
What is being done?
There are several organisations which have been working to combat elitism within UK journalism and widen the power gap.
is a digital media literacy charity working to create a newsroom in every school in the UK and ensure all young people become critical media consumers.
is a social enterprise which connects interns to experienced journalists who can host them in London, fighting to lower the financial barrier of entry into journalism.
The Spectator’s ‘No CV’ internship
is limiting the importance of previous experience to try and increase opportunities in the media for people from a more diverse range of backgrounds.
The BBC was the first major broadcaster to monitor and make public the socio-economic background of their employees. Whilst they have made an effort to bridge the socio-economic gap, almost a third of their employees are still Oxbridge-educated.
Other major broadcasters including ITV and Sky have pledged to monitor their employees’ socio-economic backgrounds, but have done little else to combat the issue. While it’s a step in the right direction, monitoring does little except buy time.
For real change to occur, media outlets need to actively recruit a more diverse range of writers, provide more opportunities and pathways for students from lower income backgrounds, and stop expecting entry-level writers to work for free.
As for those of you reading this, you can support organisations such as the ones listed above who are fighting to make British journalism more diverse and let your chosen news providers know that you want to see more diversity in their content.
For more articles on the UK media, head to our dedicated Role of the Media section.