I NEVER thought I’d commit this in writing, but I do have a certain sympathy for Dominic Cummings.
You may recall that Cummings, widely acknowledged as the power behind the throne at No 10, put out the most unusual recruitment ad of the year (so far) calling for ‘Weirdos and misfits with odd skills’ to apply for a job at the seat of Government.
“We want to hire an unusual set of people with different skills and backgrounds to work in Downing Street…we’re hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos,” the Prime Minister’s chief adviser wrote in a beguilingly readable 3,000-word blog post.
By way of explanation, subsection G. of the off-the-wall job ad is entitled ‘Super-talented weirdos’ and goes on to explain: “People in SW1 talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity’. They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity blah blah’. What SW1 needs is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity.”
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The point he was making is that it takes all sorts to make a Government – and the same is true for journalism. Sadly, like many professions – no, let's not start that debate again now – journalism is still a rich young person’s game, dominated by expensive university programmes and accredited training courses plus unpaid work experience and internships.
But the fightback is on.
When I started as a junior reporter on a weekly newspaper group in the mid-70s I was one of six – yes SIX – trainees all fresh from school ranging in age from 16 to 18. We were chaperoned by the redoubtable David Scott who was the training editor. On the trainee intake just in front of me was Mike Parker, who went on to be the Daily Express man in Los Angeles, and behind me was Lisa Hampele who forged a long and successful career at the BBC.
We had all grown up in the area and been to school there. While we may not have had much credibility in the street as naïve teenagers, we certainly had some street cred, knowing our way around the towns and villages we covered. One accidental diversity box checked was one for youth, with the average age of the newsroom instantly plummeting
I’m not saying it was right or wrong, or better or worse than today, it was just different.
Now there is a concerted move to regain some of that ground and attract recruits into journalism who have more to offer than simply the ability to pay.
Apprenticeship schemes, like at major newspaper groups Iliffe and JPI Media, are gaining traction and the NCTJ’s Journalism Diversity Fund continues to plug a diversity-sized gap with a small ‘d’.
The fund was set up in 2005 with a donation of £100,000 from the Newspaper Licensing Agency (now NLA media access), with the aim of encouraging more diverse people to train as journalists and making newsrooms better reflect the communities they serve.
“Journalism is a typically white, middle class profession, which needs to change. If you feel you could bring something different to a newsroom – such as your social background, life experiences or ethnicity – then we want to hear from you,” says the promotional blurb for potential applicants.
Eight bursaries were awarded in the final round of 2019 taking the total number of people helped into a new career to 347. These aspiring journalists were awarded funding to begin their journalism training at NCTJ-accredited courses and bursaries that can help fund their course fees and living expenses.
|Claire French: " I have always believed in speaking out"|
One of those recipients was Claire French who completed her journalism training at City College Brighton and Hove and went on to be the business editor at The News in Portsmouth.
“I was awarded the bursary for arguing that my background – being brought up in an unemployed, single-parent household – was not a particularly well-represented demographic in the industry,” she said. “As well as being made up of white men, the news media industry as a whole continues to be rather middle class. I have always believed in speaking out, and about, the people who have the least power in society.”
Now media relations manager at Royal Bank of Scotland, French reflects: “It was such a great privilege that has unlocked a lot of opportunities for my career.”
Over at the BBC they take their Diversity – with a big D – very seriously and have just appointed presenter June Sarpong as the BBC’s first ‘director of creative diversity’. Sarpong sees her role to rapidly increase black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) representation at senior levels and also boost disability representation on and off screen in the next year.
“Diversity is not a “nice to have” but an essential part of the BBC’s agenda and positive action is already underway with urgency,” she says.
“In the pursuit of diversity we are not looking to exclude those who have already succeeded, but to allow room for new voices to be included. Ultimately, I believe the BBC’s window into the UK will be all the richer as a result, and hopefully one that more people see themselves reflected in too,” says Sarpong.
Cummings’s approach cued wailing and gnashing at from predictable corners – political opposition, unions, civil service types – but also some support from unlikely quarters, including broadcaster and former newspaper editor Janet Street-Porter.
“I would never have passed an interview for a post at the BBC – or in Whitehall for that matter,” she wrote. “I didn’t have a degree when I was appointed directly by the director general and was probably the only senior executive without one for almost a decade.
“I was stroppy, and overconfident that the BBC was lucky to have me, rather than the other way around.
“As an editor I made radical changes to The Independent on Sunday. New people were chosen for their ability to argue and challenge my way of thinking, to have confidence in their own intelligence. Of course, this method attracts annoying people, people who might not look right or have social graces, but if they are loyal and signed up to your project you could not wish for better workers.”
- This article first appeared in the February 2020 issue of PJ News