According to the great man that is Jon Snow, the UK’s media doesn’t accurately reflect the people it represents.
The broadcasting legend and every self-respecting news hound’s hero used a keynote speech at the Edinburgh International Television Festival to talk about how reporting on the Grenfell Tower fire had made him feel on the “wrong side of the social divide”.
As is now well documented, the residents of Grenfell had been calling for action for years, warning with a chilling accuracy of an impending disaster.
Snow asked why journalists didn’t give residents access to “pathways to talk to us, for us to expose their stories”.
There is a gulf between the reporters and the reported and the reasons include the pool from which we are recruited and the dismantling of the local press.
What about hair dressing?
Growing up, all I ever wanted to be was a journalist. My love of words started young — my granddad, a painter and decorator, had taught me to read before I had even started school. He had high hopes for me.
It soon became clear that it wasn’t a realistic dream, though. At 14 a careers guidance adviser told me I should concentrate on a back-up plan, like hairdressing, as I’d need to go to university if I wanted to be a journalist. So, bored to tears with school and knowing I’d never make it any way, I stopped going. I started doing things I shouldn’t and basically “went off the rails”, as my mum put it.
It wasn’t until I was 22 that I realised maybe working class kids could be journalists, too. A degree, an NCTJ-accredited post-grad diploma and more debt than I like to mention later, I moved to a town I hardly knew existed to start my first job as a cub reporter.
I listened with envy to the old-school hacks who told me how they had joined the local paper as teenagers and were trained on the job in the good old days.
Reporter of the people
The good old days: when local journalists were recruited from local schools, had local knowledge, local contacts and really represented the local community. They lived on the local estates and they spent real time with local people. They would have known what was going on in Grenfell Tower because at least a few of them would have lived there.
As my first editor (on a par with Jon Snow in my eyes) told me, journalism used to be a job for the clever working class lads and lasses, the ones who stayed on to get their A Levels. By the time I got there, it was a middle class profession, with a degree entry requirement.
During my five-year stint on local papers, I saw staff levels cut the point where there was no one to cover council meetings or court cases. Lone reporters were, and are, left to run entire papers by themselves and no one has time to leave the office to look for stories.
Local papers have an important role to play: holding those in power to account. And if no one has time to cover a council meeting, no one hears the disgruntled residents calling for change or pleading for help. Reporting by press release is a dangerous game.
Public interest pipeline
Snow said the “pathways” to attracting national media attention let the residents of Grenfell Tower down. The route to national media attention for stories like these used to be the local press.
The system worked, but with the pipeline blocked at one end, public interest exposure isn’t flowing out the other.
Work is being done to address the imbalance of representation seen in the “liberal elite media”. Our friends and neighbours, Brighton Journalist Works, for example, run several National Council for the Training of Journalists-accredited courses that do not require a degree.
How we regenerate the local press, however, is a bigger conundrum.