The political class: journalists
In the third of our posts on the political class, we investigate senior journalists in the mainstream media, in particular the specialist correspondents on social policy. This is part of series examining the political class – who they are, what their background and experience is, and what qualifies them to shape and inform public policy. In previous posts we’ve looked at ‘professional politicians‘, in particular the extent to which the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet comprise ‘political insiders’ who have little practical experience outside of the Westminster bubble, and special advisers, a role that has increasingly come to represent an important stepping stone to becoming an MP and frontbench politician. But what about the journalists who are supposed to hold them to account, and who in many ways influence policy by helping to decide what the public debate around it actually is (though they might deny that this is the case). What’s immediately apparent is that the senior journalistic class shares many similarities with the rest of the political class. Typically they have been educated at a small number of elite universities, go straight into their chosen profession, lack much wider experience (especially any practical experience of the public services and issues they report on), and are essentially generalists who have been given a specialist brief. This isn’t to suggest that they’re not competent journalists – you don’t get to this level in the profession without being talented, and many of these people have broken important stories. But it does have broader implications, discussed further below. We looked at the senior specialist editors (and correspondents in lieu of editors) across social policy (health, education, home affairs as it relates to policing and justice issues, and social affairs generally) for most of the UK-wide press, the BBC, ITN/Channel 4 News and Sky News (totaling 66 people). We searched for biographical information for these people, including LinkedIn profiles, where this exists. This obviously isn’t a proper academic study; it’s necessarily and deliberately impressionistic, but the impression it creates chimes with that of the political class as a whole. It also echoes the findings over many years of serious research on the mainstream media and how it selects and shapes social policy issues from an essentially conservative or elite perspective, such as that conducted by Professor Greg Philo and his colleagues at the Glasgow Media Group. The first thing worth noting is that this senior journalistic class also shares another characteristic with one part of the political class we’ve already looked at, namely special advisers – it’s actually quite difficult to find much information about them, for example educational background, detailed career history, or experience outside journalism (perhaps in the latter case because it is so limited). We were only able to find more detailed biographical information on just over half of these correspondents, and it proved easier to find this information for television journalists than it was for their print counterparts. The exceptions to this also seem to be untypical in other ways – for example Graeme Paton, Education Editor at the Daily Telegraph, went to a comprehensive school in Warrington and then the University of Hull (as proudly noted in his official biography on the paper’s website) and Hannah Fearn of the Guardian attended a comprehensive school in Didcot and Manchester University. In general however, the biographies available on media outlets’ websites tend to be rather thin, and surprisingly few of these journalists have profiles on LinkedIn. In this respect this particular set of journalists differ from the typically better-known political editors and star columnists, who tend to be much more public figures (and/or self-publicising, depending on your point of view). But it’s the specialist correspondents who play an important role not only in reporting on their particular areas of responsibility, but also in determining for the public what matters in these areas. Without wanting to sound conspiratorial, shouldn’t we know a bit more about who these people are and what – beyond their professional journalistic skills – particularly qualifies them for their roles? Journalists are the first to call for greater transparency and accountability from others; the last couple of years in particular have highlighted that journalism has significant transparency issues of its own to address. This obviously isn’t a major issue compared to phone hacking or the corruption of public officials, but it seems unusual for people in such influential public roles. What is clear however is the typical career path of these journalists – a local or regional first job, then onto a national newspaper or television in a junior role, perhaps a posting on a particular programme such as Newsnight or the Today programme, and often a period of experience as a generalist (Westminster) political correspondent. It’s after this that they get the gig as a specialist correspondent, before they move onto to other roles after a couple of years. Again, there are a small number of exceptions, such as Robert Verkaik, Legal Affairs and Security Editor at the Mail on Sunday, who has been a specialist correspondent in this policy area for 14 years. There are a small number of journalists with some wider experience, including Jeremy Laurance, the health editor for the Independent, who has worked with the Commonwealth Press Union and the British Council to train reporters in developing countries. David Brindle and Hannah Fearn, who both work for the Guardian, are trustees of charities, in David’s case this is the respected mental health charity the Richmond Fellowship. Some newspapers have frontline practitioners who write regular comment articles, such as Max Pemberton, a junior doctor who writes for the Telegraph, though this is pretty rare. The Guardian publishes far more practitioners than other papers as a result of its strength in social policy coverage and its online networks. These career histories are relevant because frontline bloggers, charities and campaign groups have often complained that many social policy issues are not being sufficiently covered by journalists – recent examples include aspects of the Government’s reforms to the NHS, the welfare reforms hitting disabled people, to mass protests against the bedroom tax. The oft-cited view is that over-caution (especially on the part of the BBC), and the essentially insider status of senior journalists – especially their focus on Westminster politics at the expense of the impact of policies on ‘ordinary people’ – means that journalists are more part of the political class than outsiders holding it to account. This said, one difference that this group holds from other senior political journalists – the typically more well-known Westminster correspondents and star columnists – is that they are typically less directly connected to the rest of the political class in terms of relationships (one exception is Sarah O’Grady, Social Affairs and Property Correspondent at the Daily Express, who is married to backbench Conservative MP Stewart Jackson). Nonetheless, the overall sense of insulation and insiderdom remains. This isn’t a recent phenomenon – it harks back to issues such as the poll tax and the 10p tax issue, among others, where the impact of policy on poorer households in particular was largely neglected until public anger became too prominent too ignore. In a period of significant reform in public services, how policies impact on people who earn much less than the senior journalistic class, and who lack the same access to policymakers, is obviously critical. No doubt these specialist correspondents fight hard for coverage of their areas of responsibility in busy news agendas, but we can’t afford those who help to set the public agenda to be in any way insulated from the public. The sense gained from the career histories of these journalists is much of the same narrowness of background and experience that afflicts other parts of the political class. It’s also worth noting that, given the tightening economics afflicting the mainstream media (in part due to the disruptive impact of the internet), specialist journalists are declining in number as media outlets have moved to a greater reliance on generalists and have shifted to seven day operations to save money, with implications for the depth of coverage; for example the Social and Religious Affairs desks were merged at the Telegraph, with the position now occupied by John Bingham. The Guardian and BBC have the most specialist journalists, while the red tops (the Mirror, the Sun and the Express) have very few. The Sun covers social affairs and education through its politics team, as is increasingly typical. Some papers have retained specialists in some areas, for example education is covered at the FT by Chris Cook but seemingly lacks specialists in other areas of social policy. We could only find a small number of specialists at the Observer and none for the Independent on Sunday, though the more generously resourced Sunday Times does better in this regard. The famous quotation about journalism, variously attributed to the press baron William Randolph Hearst and publishing magnate Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Daily Mail) among others, was that: “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.” If it is fair to characterise senior journalists as part of the political class – as typically being from the same kinds of background, lacking wider experience and practical understanding of the issues they are responsible for – then the concern is that their shared assumptions and perspectives result in a narrower public agenda, one reflecting the obsessions of the Westminster bubble more than it does the real world of ordinary people’s lives.