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Class politics and the media - breaking through the barriers

Marie Antoinette may not really have said “Let them eat cake”. (She probably would have benefited from having a better spin doctor.) The story has stuck because it is plausible: the well-nourished aristocrat sheltered from the realities of life being experienced by the poor.

Are the newsrooms of our great media organisations anything like Versailles or the Palais des Tuileries, housing a pampered and protected elite? Well, no, obviously not. Indeed, life for many professional journalists is getting grimmer by the week. This is an industry in some turmoil, whose very “business model” – ie how you make money – is threatened by the arrival of new media channels such as… well, such as blogs like this. When there is so much stuff out there for free, a lot of it very good, why pay money for anything?

But a stroll round the editorial offices of the national media might just throw up the odd “let them eat cake” moment. Ask a few (non-specialist) reporters, and perhaps some more senior staff, what they think average UK full-time earnings are, and I doubt they would all get the answer right (£26,500). In fact, I can’t help suspecting that quite a few would guess a much higher figure. Partly this has to do with the London effect – the way in which the more prosperous parts of the south east have become Another Country. The results of this can be quite stark: I sat in a room full of journalists and other liberal, creative types a few months ago taking part in a quiz, and very few knew what the national minimum wage rates were. My table was helped by a passing waiter. He knew. It was what he was getting paid.

Is it surprising if “difficult” stories such as benefits cuts and changes to tax credits get mangled or downplayed by the media?

Some reporters will have limited experience of these issues. They may not have much grasp of the sort of constrained budgets people are living on. And this is not aspirational, feel-good stuff, of course. It is not advertiser-friendly (see the comments about the collapsing business model above). You do not have to sign up to all of Noam Chomsky’s “manufacturing consent” thesis to see that there might be a bit of a problem getting editors to cover these developments as fully as they could, and should.

The social make-up of people working in the media has changed quite a bit over the years. In 1986, according to the Sutton Trust, the educational charity, 49% of top journalists had gone to private schools. Twenty years later that figure was 54%, while only 14% had attended comprehensives (with 33% coming from grammar schools). I have not seen more up-to-date research since the 2006 work, but I don’t think this is a trend that has been halted, or reversed.

Now, going to a private secondary school, as I did, doesn’t mean you will ignore stories that involve less privileged people. Good journalists are curious about everything, and ask the right questions.

But there must be a risk that, as salaries at the top in media have risen, a career path has opened up that rewards a certain compliance with the orthodoxies, the status quo. Boat-rockers may find it hard to advance. Proprietors and senior executives may not want to see too many stories that upset readers and advertisers, or that challenge or undermine their position, or that of their friends.

In this climate, the shame of the “bedroom tax” has to be filmed and thrust in the face of editors before they start to engage with the realities of it. And the slow-burning miseries of people being told they are fit for work, when clearly they aren’t, do not get reported in much detail by the mainstream media.

Campaigners on these issues, such as charities and trade unions, have to be very nifty if they are to win the attention of the media and get the coverage they deserve. This is a familiar saga to trade union press officers, who have long known that unless their union is calling a strike their work gets very little coverage at all. The national media have hardly any specialist reporters left covering trade union and workplace issues, even as more people than ever (30 million of us) are going to work full or part-time.

There is one bit of good news. It is that the rise of social media – of blogs and tweets and Facebook pages – does make it possible for people to make their views known. Mainstream media has brought some of its problems on itself. It is losing (paying) customers. This is what the Thatcher government used to call “market testing”, and not all are enjoying the experience.

If the media will not report the sort of stories that we think should be covered, then the media will have to be “disintermediated”. With blogs and tweets, as well as occasional collaboration with mainstream media, the message can get out. These are interesting times indeed, and some traditional power bases are in more trouble than they perhaps realise, or would like to admit.