“If we truly lived in a meritocracy, it would be the most talented and conscientious who would succeed, instead of the Oxbridge-educated minority with their parents’ money behind them.”
I want to be in journalism because I want my voice to be heard. I want to write things that alter opinions and open up the parameters of meaningful debate. However, it seems that no matter how hard I try to break in, I’m permanently left outside a door that’s closed.
According to the Sutton Trust, 45% of top journalists were educated at Oxford or Cambridge. Even the most inspiring left-wing voices come from Oxbridge graduates like Laurie Penny and Owen Jones. They might have more radical political perspectives, but ultimately they belong to the same club.
Journalism is full of people who know each other. Prolific editors and columnists and reporters and feature writers have mutual university friends and they move in the same social circles. They exchange cosy witticisms on Twitter and ask each other to write if there’s a piece in the Guardian going spare. The overrepresentation of Oxbridge graduates in politics, journalism, law, business, and top positions in the arts, is well-documented and anyone who believes that this is coincidental is kidding themselves. In the 2015 leadership election, three out of four candidates are Oxbridge-educated. Oxbridge graduates know how to network, they have connections, and they know that their elite education has put them on the path to success.
As for me, I knew from being a very small child that I was meant to write. I never considered that I would do anything else.
I attended a secondary school in an area of high deprivation, where resources were either missing or spoiled, and teachers too busy managing discipline problems to do much for students who weren’t actively disruptive. As a tiny Year 7, I was pushed down a flight of stairs and punched in the face by kids from older years, without the slightest provocation. I don’t remember there being any recourse.
Oxbridge wasn’t mentioned until the very last minute. The importance of choosing subjects that would be appealing to a top university and padding out the personal statement with ‘well-rounded’ extra-curricular activities was skipped over. Despite struggling with my mental health for the largest part of seven years, I was predicted top A Level results and became a last minute Cambridge hopeful.
I turned up at my interview completely unprepared. In the toilets, mothers were busy curling their daughters’ hair and pumping them with compliments and advice. The female candidates adjusted clinging business suits that made them look at least twenty five. I was wearing un-ironed clothes and my dad had fucked off to look for vinyl in the charity shops. Between the interviews and written tests, all candidates were invited to wait in a room that looked like it should’ve been in a cathedral. I was consumed by nerves, and sat in the corner, trying to read. I didn’t know that we were all being observed, and that the candidates sprawled over the sofas, laughing loudly and acting like they’d already been accepted, were the ones who would get in.
Needless to say, I wasn’t offered a place. I was too quiet, too scruffy, too nervous. I had no chance against kids who had been primed for Oxbridge from the early stages of their educational careers. A friend who attended the only fee-paying secondary school in my home town was accepted by Cambridge, despite having fewer As at A Level than I did. This isn’t a plea for sympathy, but a real life example of how the kind of school you went to and the level of coaching you received will open or seal shut the doors of Britain’s elite institutions.
I made my first forays into the world of journalism age 21, naïve enough to believe that my writing would be enough. My experience interning at a London-based national newspaper firmly put paid to that idea. I could only do the internship for a week, because I didn’t have the money to pay for a hotel room (or a flat) and I was already putting out friends enough by kipping in their tiny living room for a week.
The internship was too short to be really useful. In the office, I met a young man who had been working unpaid for over three months, hoping they would offer him a job. (Spoiler: they didn’t). He was able to do this because he stayed with his sister in London. He worked unbelievably hard and was usually the first and the last person in the office.
I pushed for some money to cover my travel to the office each day and my lunch in the ‘subsidized’ canteen. My requests were politely declined, so I stopped eating lunch. The internship showed me that my writing skills weren’t worth a damn and I didn’t have a cat’s chance in hell of ever being hired by a newspaper because to gain the necessary news desk experience and make valuable contacts, you have to:
a) Have parents living in London who you can stay with, rent-free, while you intern
b) Have parents wealthy enough to set you up in a flat or hotel and pay for your travel and food while you work for free
c) Live at home and work to make the inordinate amount of money you need to do the internship that might not even get you a position, while your peers actually enter the job market
This isn’t ok. This has to change.
The problem with privilege in the media, and in politics, business and the creative industries, is that it ends up being the same voices that are represented, over and over again. If the only way you can get a staff job at a newspaper is by interning for months in London for no money, you’re going to have two types of people getting those jobs: Londoners and the wealthy. The Chris Bryant/James Blunt spat is a reminder that it takes a disgruntled, posh pop star slinging creative insults like ‘classist gimp’ to get us talking about privilege.
A healthy, vibrant media where a diverse array of voices are heard is not just desirable, it’s necessary. Even well-meaning publications are staffed by writers completely out of touch with what it means to be disadvantaged in Britain today, who make little effort to help young writers, and fail to acknowledge the sickness of elitism within the media. They have the privilege of their positions, and find their seats more and more comfortable as the years wear on. The thing about privilege is that the more you have, the more disinclined you become to do anything about it.
Of course, it’s not as easy as to say ‘if you didn’t go to Oxbridge, you can’t be in journalism’. This isn’t true. But it’s harder if you didn’t, and it’s also harder if you went to a tough school, where you weren’t taught the innate confidence and self-belief that many privately-educated candidates seem to take for granted. Privately educated students make up 7% of the population, but they take 44% of Oxford places and 38% at Cambridge. If 38% seems low, consider that the remaining 62% will include students from grammar schools, business-funded academies, and international institutions. How many are from failing state schools?
If we truly lived in a meritocracy, it would be the most talented and conscientious who would succeed, instead of the Oxbridge-educated minority with their parents’ money behind them. I’ve used a couple of personal stories in this piece, but I need to write about what I know and what I’ve seen. I’m not saying I’m the most deserving or disadvantaged example, but I know a rigged game when I see one.
I don’t want to give up on my dream, on a job that I’m more than capable of doing and would give every scrap of passion and diligence to, because I don’t have the money. The culture of unpaid interning and the overrepresentation of certain voices within the media must be tackled urgently. Oxford and Cambridge should not be exclusive clubs, closed to those from impoverished or chaotic backgrounds and those who attend underperforming state schools. The chip on my shoulder might be a mile wide but I’m not going to stop criticising the system that does its best to filter out people like me.