Danielle Wall may be the managing editor of the Spectator, but she still feels like the odd one out at some corporate events. Not because she is one of the weekly title’s most senior women, but because she left school at 16. “It can make me feel uncomfortable,” she said last week.
Wall’s journalistic flair and fierce work ethic first brought her to the attention of the editor, Fraser Nelson, when she was his PA 10 years ago. Her rise is the inspiration behind an internship programme at the magazine, which is one of the most innovative in journalism.
Three years ago, the Spectator dropped the requirement to include a CV when applying for a paid internship and instead chose from applicants on the basis of editorial aptitude tests. This year, applicants’ names will be removed when the tests are assessed to create the most level playing field possible.
Nelson explains: “Nothing on her CV would hint at her ability. I wondered, ‘How can we get more people like Danielle?’”
Unfortunately Wall’s is a rare good news story in an industry that has become more and more socially exclusive. Journalists from working-class backgrounds without tertiary education are an endangered species. A combination of nepotism and a dearth of well-paid entry level jobs, tied to the near collapse of local journalism, has largely handed the media over to the wealthy, white and well connected. A much-needed push towards greater gender and ethnic diversity has done little to address the dimension of class.
The Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation report in 2016 found that just 11% of journalists were from working-class backgrounds. Most senior editors and columnists attended private school in a country where less than 10% of the population do the same. A report by City University found that the British journalism industry is 94% white and 86% university-educated. Not that education is a bad thing but, by and large, journalists don’t look or sound like most of the people they report on.
Disappointingly, journalism is falling behind other bastions of elitism such as law and banking, which are doing more to redress glaring inequalities. This despite the fact that the skills needed – an eye for a story and tenacity – can be found in any age, race, gender, class or background.
Laudable though the Spectator’s scheme is, internship programmes are hardly the solution to the problem. Research from the SMC found that 82% of people who became journalists in a three-year period did some form of work placement or internship, 92% of which was unpaid. Applicants without family or friends in London, where the majority of internships are offered, need to pay for accommodation, which rules it out for many.
This makes innovations like PressPad, which aims to link hosts offering accommodation to wannabe journalists, so important. Recently awarded the Georgina Henry prize for innovation from Women in Journalism, the scheme is to launch a new marketplace this autumn that will offer some funding because of new financial support. The economic challenges are enormous.
But in terms of selection bias at least, is the Spectator’s no-name admission strategy working? In a tweet last week, Nelson said two of the best interns last year were an “Oxford-educated classics don in her 30s looking for a career change and a teenager with two Es at A-levels”. Another was Madeleine Fearns, who tried to be an opera singer, then a teacher and was worried that her arty background would fail to convince media outfits of her seriousness. She now writes for the National Review in New York.
An earlier success was 48-year-old Katherine Forster who applied for the internship after 15 years at home looking after her three sons. Some years older than the editor, Forster forced herself to go up to Nelson at a readers’ event before her internship in order to lessen the inevitable surprise when she arrived at the office. She is now a staff writer at the Sunday Times.
The Spectator scheme has so far failed to encourage many BAME interns but David Johnston, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, says there is evidence that blind admissions benefit black and minority ethnic candidates.
The policy also allows the children of the famous to claim they got there on merit. Nelson calls the decision to drop names “the Dan Hitchens clause”. The awarding of an internship to the son of the well-known journalist, Peter Hitchens, had prompted accusations of nepotism, much to the editor’s chagrin. Hitchens is now deputy editor of the Catholic Herald and Nelson says his career “would have been launched under a no-name system. No name would remove any lingering doubt”.
I have some sympathy with this position, having judged the student media awards for many years and read outstanding work from, first, the son of the former editor of the Times and then from an Old Etonian and Cambridge student who went on to be an award-winning author and foreign correspondent for the Guardian and the New York Times. In both cases, I would rather not have known who they were and where they went to school.
Organisations are trying. The Financial Times, which recently appointed a diversity officer, is toying with removing the name and educational details from its graduate trainee and internship schemes. The Guardian, where a relatively low 17% attended a private school according to figures released last month, runs a positive action scheme for BAME and people with disabilities.
Others are funding scholarships on postgraduate courses such as the one I now run part-time at City University. And from the Mail group which funds the Stephen Lawrence scholarships to the Marjorie Deane foundation which provides bursaries in financial journalism, organisations are helping to support the next generation of journalists.
Why aren’t more organisations taking no-name CVs? Nelson believes the time and effort involved is prohibitive and thinks the Spectator’s relatively small size – just 14 members of editorial staff – makes the scheme feasible.
Wall remains an anomaly in her own workplace as well as the industry at large. The Spectator is dominated by white, privately educated journalists, which doesn’t make them bad journalists. It just makes them unrepresentative of society.
Wall admits she would not have applied for one of the internships without having already being given the chance by Nelson to show what she could do. With her background and lack of formal education, she says she would never have imagined herself doing such a job. “We are trying to bridge the gap between people who wouldn’t have read the Spectator or, like me, wouldn’t really have known what the Spectator was and the people who work here.”
Across the British media that gap is widening, not narrowing. The Spectator scheme is a chink of light in a darkening sky. But there is so much more that needs to be done if class is not to define destiny when it comes to a career in the media.