Channel 4 recently announced that it will be setting up a new headquarters in Leeds in addition to its established one in London. The British broadcaster gave its reason for this move as “an attempt to boost the way it reflects life outside of London”.
The move to the West Yorkshire city has more than just geographical implications. It also raises some very important questions about the state of British journalism today and its efforts to represent all groups in society. Is journalism too white? Is journalism elitist? And most importantly, is British journalism too Londony?
The 21st century public and political sphere is one of stark polarisation – a diversity of hard-line views and opinions with very little shouting room for “the liberals” in the middle. The success of populist regimes in the US, Germany, Brazil and the vote for Brexit here in Britain are proof enough. Journalists today are faced with a rather arduous balancing act of trying to represent all sides of the debate without appearing to be paying too much homage to one particular view. The strict code of impartiality enforced by the Office of Communications makes this almost impossible for broadcasters in particular.
As well as the problem of impartiality, journalists face the problem of representation. Many criticise the “mainstream media” of having a bias towards fairness. Coverage of Brexit is a good example. You will often hear the process of exiting the European Union being spoken of in the context of Remainers and Leavers with very little emphasis placed on the more nuanced positions in between. The assumption here is that there are two sides to every story, and while this might be the view expressed in the capital, it certainly isn’t the case in the other 69 cities in the UK where there may be eight, nine or even ten sides to a story.
Channel 4 has no doubt recognised the industry’s failed attempts at diverse reporting and the office in Leeds is an attempt to tackle the problem. Unfortunately, news migration simply isn’t enough – a building doesn’t make the news, the people in it do.
London is to young journalists what Los Angeles is to young actors. Many student journalists have dreams of spending their summers interning in the glossy red newsrooms of Broadcasting House in Langham Place. After some three weeks of experiencing the rush that a London newsroom brings, those dreams of an internship become the realities of spending the next ten years taking the London Underground to work every morning. The dreamers and graduates come from a range of different backgrounds – rich and poor, white and, like myself, black, and so you would at least expect the capital’s newsrooms to reflect the city’s diverse culture. But the reality could not be more different.
London in one of the most expensive cities in the world, so cost of living is one of the biggest barriers of entry for young aspiring journalists. Already facing a crippling student debt, graduates are also met with overbearing travel costs, unreasonably high coffee prices, and an average rent price of £1,250 a month with no guarantee of a professional salary. Some are willing to take the plunge into uncertainty, because speaking truth to power and preserving democracy far outstrips any personal financial struggle they might have to go through – these sadly, are the minority.
There are also those who are unfazed by the financial burden because, as the latest study by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) has revealed, they come from homes where their parents work in one of the top three professions. For such graduates, money is not an issue. Sadly, they are the majority. Then there are those who come from homes where want, struggle and squalor are all too common. For them, the prospect of returning to such circumstances, having just spent the past three years bending over backwards to wrap their heads around media law and shorthand, is undesirable. These are the graduates who best reflect the silent working-class majority in Britain, yet they are the minority in London newsrooms.
Setting up a newsroom to less expensive cities, as Channel 4 has done, is a step in the right direction and leaves me feeling optimistic. However, too many employers in the capital fail to match their efforts to diversify with financial support for students to make it happen. Too many talented young journalists are slipping through the cracks of London’s pavements because they have no sponsor.
Newsrooms in the capital must and should do more to support the upcoming generation of journalists or risk losing them altogether. We are already seeing young viewers turning away from the news. The average age of those who watch TV news at ten o’clock is 62. A simple solution to this heartbreaking statistic is to employ younger broadcasters and reporters – people12-25 year-olds can actually relate to.
More needs to be done to diversify our London newsrooms, not just in terms of age but also the ethnic and social-economic backgrounds of their reporters. Failure to do this will result in a return to the 18th century, where the news served only the elite.