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March 6, 2024

‘Internal memos of the upper class’: Gary Younge says journalism is out of touch

Former Guardian journalist says "sometimes ‘dog bites man’ really is the story. The trouble is journalists keep missing it."

By Bron Maher

Journalist Gary Younge has warned that the narrow range of most British journalists’ backgrounds means it takes “a seismic event” for journalists to take an interest in problems that are for many people everyday realities.

Delivering the inaugural Rosemary Hollis Memorial lecture at City University he said “now more than ever we need reporters and commentators who can engage with the sources of discontent and alienation which fuel the assaults on our democratic space.

“But instead we have a commentariat, overwhelmingly from the same social class both as each other and the politicians they cover. Their reference points are limited, their comfort zone is narrow.

“Much as they may mock millennials for seeking safe spaces, that is entirely where they operate.”

Younge argued that when this commentariat witnesses an event “that they cannot understand, they think the problem is with the event, not with them. When political figures or moments emerge that make them feel uncomfortable or that they don’t like, they subject it not to analysis but parody.

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“Declarative in tone and dismissive in manner, they are more interested in denouncing what is happening than understanding why it is happening.”

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Noting a finding of the 2019 Sutton Trust and Social Mobility report that suggested journalism has one of the most privileged workforces of any British industry, Younge said that “when the media class is drawn from the same social strata as the political class, the spectrum of views is narrow, and the atmosphere in which they are aired, foetid”.

Later in the lecture Younge said there are people for whom journalism “is their life – this is all they’ve ever wanted to do, this is what their parents did, this is what their friends do. To occupy this space means everything to them.

“And they shuffle, almost literally, between the media class and the political class. Boris Johnson just got a [job] on GB News. He was a journalist and then prime minister, now he’s going to be a journalist again… George Osborne pauperises a significant section of the population, goes to the Evening Standard, runs a Christmas campaign for food banks.”

He added: “It’s a group of people talking to themselves. They used to call broadsheet journalism the internal memos of the middle class, but increasingly it’s the internal memos of the upper class.”

[2006 interview with Gary Younge: ‘I was never going to work for the Telegraph, put it that way’]

‘There is value in asking: why do dogs keep biting people?’

Younge recalled that when he was at City University studying journalism on a Scott Trust bursary, one of the things he was taught was the famous saying: “When a dog bites a man, that is not news; when a man bites a dog that is news.”

But he said he had often wondered whether the truism needed “a qualifying footnote”, because “sometimes events derive their potential news value precisely because they happen so often”. 

“There are things that happen with such regularity and predictability that journalists have simply ceased to recognise their news value – not least if those things are least likely to happen to the people most likely to be journalists. 

“Much of what we have come to accept as commonplace has dulled our curiosity to why so much of what is commonplace is unacceptable… there is value in asking: ‘Why do dogs keep biting people?’, ‘Who owns these dogs?’ and ‘Why do the same people keep getting bitten?’”

Younge noted, for example, that the number of black people killed by US police was not significantly higher over the past decade than it was previously.

He said that instead, the killings “became news simply because those who make the news – journalists – could no longer ignore them.

“The world didn’t change: what changed was the journalists’ ability to pass off the grotesque as unremarkable.”

Following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Younge said, the US Justice Department “produced a report into how the city was being run that, I believe, any enterprising journalist could have produced themselves if they had not become inured to this kind of systemic discrimination”.

The Department of Justice investigators, he said, “found that every time a police dog bit someone in the city of Ferguson the victim was black.

“That suggests sometimes ‘dog bites man’ really is the story. The trouble is journalists keep missing it.” 

Media ‘discovers’ everyday realities in ‘the same way teenagers discover sex’

As in the cases of Ferguson or the police killing of George Floyd that precipitated the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Younge said “it generally takes a seismic event… for the media to take an interest in the underlying structural issues that shape the lives of so many.

“At which point they ‘discover’ these daily realities in much the same way that teenagers discover sex – urgently, earnestly, voraciously and carelessly, with great self-indulgence but precious little self-awareness.”

Although concerns around newsroom diversity are “usually filed under diversity and passed on to HR”, Younge said, they “could and should just as rightly be filed under journalism and passed on to editorial”.

But he insisted that “what I am not saying here – and I couldn’t emphasise this enough – is that the rich are not capable of covering the poor or white journalists cannot understand the challenges black people face. That way madness lies”.

For example he pointed to the story, reported over a series of months in 2018 by The Guardian, that people who had migrated to the UK from Commonwealth countries decades ago faced deportation under Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policies for migrants.

Younge said that the Windrush scandal, as it came to be known, “was broken in the mainstream press by a white journalist who was educated at St Paul’s private school and Wadham College, Oxford, and is married to Lord Johnson of Marylebone, the brother of former prime minister, Boris Johnson MP”. That journalist, Amelia Gentleman, subsequently won Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards for her work.

Younge continued: “The point is not that it is impossible to travel these social distances to get to the story and tell it — it’s that the further people have to travel, the less likely they are to complete the journey.

“I simply cannot help thinking that if there had been more journalists in the mainstream newsrooms with relatives who knew or were related to elderly Caribbean people it wouldn’t have taken six months for anyone else to follow the story up.”

Look at the Cabinet’: Representation is not whole solution

Younge said he was wary of saying that adequate newsroom representation alone would fix these issues. Asked whether commissioning biases favouring white journalists would be solved by hiring more editors of colour, he said: “One way to answer that would be to look at the Cabinet – the Cabinet that wants to fly people to Rwanda, the cabinet that wasn’t sure what to do about Lee Anderson until things got hot.”

Younge was speaking shortly after Anderson had the Tory whip removed for saying Islamists had “got control” of London mayor Sadiq Khan.

“Look at the number of brown faces and black faces in that Cabinet and you realise that [representation] is part of the solution, but clearly it can’t be the whole solution.

“I don’t believe that there are people being strapped to a chair in a plane saying ‘well at least it was a brown-skinned woman who got me here to deport me to Rwanda’. The machinery can still work with different colour hands.”

And he noted that, “if in order to circulate an idea, a story, widely, you need a few million, billion pounds in your pocket, then we shouldn’t be surprised if the media represents a certain kind of interest – the interest of the rich”.

So Younge said even if representational issues in journalism were fixed, journalists would still need “courage” to write about things that would prompt a backlash.

“You know what’s going to get you in trouble,” he said. “I know that if I write a piece saying: ‘let’s have an open and honest conversation about white people’ – that’s going to get me in trouble, I shouldn’t do it.

“But I know that if I wrote something that said: ‘black boys should pull their pants up, that’s the real problem’ – my life would be easier…

“The flipside of that is, if all you have is courage – well then you’ll be the soldier who goes over the top in the field and gets shot.

“And so there is a necessary, strategic intervention that has to be made in order to get from where we are to where we want to go. And to be honest, I wouldn’t be standing here, having been 26 years in journalism, if I had just run my mouth a lot… Throughout my career I’ve made calculations about what I thought I could manage.”

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