At least the public agree on one thing in such divisive times: journalists, or the supposedly homogeneous âmediaâ, are to blame for just about everything. These bleak, post-Brexit weeks have underlined the glaring disconnect between downtrodden public and âmetropolitan eliteâ media in startling clarity.
Yet while many of those in the media increasingly realise how disconnected it is from the reality experienced by much of the UK, the barriers stopping those from poorer backgrounds or minorities making it into the countryâs newsrooms remain dauntingly high, and may be getting higher.
According to the 2012 Milburn report on social mobility, âjournalism has shifted to a greater degree of social exclusivity than any other professionâ and itâs little surprise that this year the Sutton Trust found that 51% of Britainâs top 100 journalists went to private school â more than seven times the UK average.
As the National Union of Journalists said in its submission to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility this week, journalism remains âthe preserve of the privilegedâ.
Roy Greenslade, Guardian columnist and professor on one of the countryâs most respected journalism courses at City University thinks industry trends are not going in the right direction. He is pessimistic, suggesting todayâs expected routes into the industry âmilitate against working class [people]â..
âSince I started in the 60s, there has a been a geographic and demographic shift (towards wealthy journalists from the south-east). Itâs partly because of the closing down of Glasgow and Manchester offices, which were a talent pool.
âPeople once saw a career ladder, from a local weekly, to a regional paper, onto a national. But people are now going straight from masterâs [degrees] to Fleet Street.â
The financial burdens of those courses are immediately obvious if you talk to anybody considering taking one.
A working class student, who wishes to remain anonymous, bemoans how the best courses simply are not available to âpeople without incredibly generous parentsâ.
âI spent hours applying for the bursaries on offer but was unsuccessful, so I decided there was no conceivable way that Iâd be able to pay,â she says. âAfter working solidly since I left uni, I still [canât] comfortably afford it. Iâve had to abandon my place and, painfully, the Â£500 deposit I put down.â
The Student Publication Association says it will be researching just how many people have a similar story over the coming year, but the organisation is already conscious of how problematic journalism training is: Niamh McGovern, its Ireland officer, labels it âfinancially cripplingâ.
Greenslade rejects the idea that there are enough scholarships around to allow more underprivileged students onto courses, though there are worthwhile initiatives. The governmentâs incoming postgraduate loans will also make a difference, though more debt â probably well over Â£60,000 when coupled with an undergraduate degree â is unlikely to entice those already put off university by the extortionate cost.
The likes of the Scott Trust, the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), the Press Association and the National Union of Journalists help fund a handful of aspiring journalists â generally from minority groups â every year.
For the rest, though, it is easy to slip through the net, particularly in Natasha Clarkâs position. During her time at the University of Warwick, where she edited the student newspaper, Clark financed a plethora of unpaid internships with a job at Pret a Manger, before being offered a place on Cityâs postgraduate course.
âFinancing was bloody difficult,â she says of her time there. âI ended up getting a career development loan. Iâd be working 9-5 at City and then 5-9 or 5-10 at Pret.
âI strained all of my savings, paid for my fees, living costs, train fares. It was incredibly difficult. Absolutely, without the job, without a couple of grandâs worth of savings which I spent on living, I couldnât have done it.â
Clark now works for the Timesâs Red Box supplement and so proves that it is possible to âmake itâ without significant financial backing and parental contacts, though not without serious hard work.
Another major consideration for aspiring journalists is that getting a work experience placement is essential. Yet the majority are London-based, unpaid, and acquired through contacts. That means those living outside the capital, and without financial resources or well connected parents are immediately at a huge disadvantage.
Everyone in the industry acknowledges these issues in the same resigned how-will-this-ever-change tones. To become a journalist it clearly helps to be well educated, well connected and wealthy, so itâs not difficult to see why the public perceive us much like politicians: all the same and out of touch.
The Sunday Times journalist Rebecca Myers, however, takes a more optimistic stance. She reels off recommendations for self-help, including considering the shorter training courses offered by the Press Association, learning languages, searching hard for funding opportunities, taking all opportunities to contact current journalists and finding a mentor.
âLocal paper experience is highly respected and you are likely to get more bylines than at a national. Doing work for free is frustrating but it can be a good way to learn â you are allowed to make mistakes and thatâs how you learn fastest,â she says, noting how she could later tell editors about the success of her unpaid articles.
âWork experience cost me around Â£300 a month to get the train â without lunch! But if youâre looking at a couple of hundred for travel expenses versus a Â£10,000 masterâs, unpaid internships can be a great way to train on the job â¦ [And] I donât believe you can learn [journalism] in a classroom.â
Myers, who funded her own travel to internships after a âluckyâ first break into paid journalism, remains convinced that people from all backgrounds can become journalists, and that a masterâs is not essential â as her career path shows.
Yet itâs still clear that if you are from outside the elite then, as Greenslade says, âthe odds are stacked against youâ.
And those odds are borne out in the results, with just 3% of new entrants into journalism in 2012 having parents in the âlowest, unskilled occupationsâ, compared with 17% in the wider economy.
That has consequences for the wider political agenda and society as a whole, as the writer Sunny Hundal points out. Hundal, who has written about diversity in the media for over a decade, is concerned that a homogeneous elite negatively effects the news agenda, the sources journalists use and media organisationsâ culture, whilst also narrowing potential audiences. He does not see diversification as a solve all solution, though.
âRecruiting people from different backgrounds doesnât necessarily mean that those audiences are more likely to trust and respect you,â he says. âIt just means that you end up doing news from those communities, still fitting the kind of agenda and outlook you have of the world. The Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday have loads of Muslim journalists, but their job is exclusively to pick out the kind of stories that their white audience is interested in, like âthereâs a terrorist plotâ or âsome hate preacher has said something offensiveâ.â
Nonetheless, as a prominent journalist from an ethnic minority background, he views diversifying as a necessary if not sufficient step and âthe only hopeâ as new media, forcing broadcasters to follow their lead.
However, heâs less convinced that newspapers can escape the âvicious cycleâ that has left them with so much difficulty representing the wider public.
That is only going to create more problems for newspapers already struggling to cope with changes in the way people â especially the young â consume news. Their failure to recruit from a beyond a limited pool of people threatens not just their ability to accurately reflect UK society but also, in the long term, their ability to stay relevant to their readership.