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June 25, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 7:58am

Study reveals drop in privately-educated journalists at top of media over last five years

By James Walker

The proportion of privately-educated top journalists has fallen over the past five years but the media continues to be one of the UK’s most elite professions, new research has shown.

A study by social mobility charity The Sutton Trust found that 43 per cent of the UK’s 100 most influential editors and broadcasters, as per its News Media 100 list, went to private school, an 11 per cent drop from 2014.

But it also found that the proportion of newspaper columnists who studied at independent schools rose by one percentage point to 44 per cent.

The share of journalists who went to private schools is still disproportionate to the general population, among which the figure is just 7 per cent.

Top journalist attendance at either Oxford University or Cambridge University was also significantly higher than the national average. Less than 1 per cent of the UK population attended one of the elite institutions.

A little under half (44 per cent) of newspaper columnists went to Oxbridge, down 3 per cent over the past five years, as did more than a third (36 per cent) of the News Media 100 list of editors and broadcasters, down 9 per cent.

The Sutton Trust found that both newspaper columnists and those on the News Media 100 list were among the ten professions with the most Oxbridge and private school graduates.

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Fewer BBC executives studied at private schools (29 per cent) and Oxbridge (31 per cent) than the average for the industry, according to the charity.

It used Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism research on the reach of news outlets to identify editors and other senior journalists for its News Media 100 list – which now includes digital editors and more regional news staff.

A third of the 100 top journalists went to comprehensive schools – an 18 percentage point increase on 2014 – while almost all (92 per cent) of them went to university.

A fifth (19 per cent) of newspaper columnists studied at a comprehensive, compared to just under half (45 per cent) of BBC executives.

The Sutton Trust’s Elitist Britain report said: “While most news journalists will aspire to leave their opinions outside their place of work, it is somewhat inevitable that they will bring their experiences with them.

“Journalists need to know about a story to cover it, but if journalists and others working in the media all come from a similar background and have similar experiences, there is a danger that even with the best efforts to reach out, there are likely to be important stories, nuances or angles that they simply miss.”

The report added that journalists from privileged backgrounds were also in danger of blowing some stories out of proportion.

It also said: “Trends in the sector, including budget cuts, the closure of many local media organisations, the increasing casualisation of work and high numbers of unpaid internships, contribute to the ongoing under-representation of those from less well-off backgrounds across the media.”

It predicted that the gap would likely increase as local media faced further decline.

Regional news outlets are “both an important first rung on the ladder for many aspiring journalists and a vital source of news stories from diverse communities across the country”, the report said.

It flagged the precarious conditions faced by many freelance journalists as a possible barrier to people from poorer backgrounds entering the trade.

“Across the media, much more needs to be done to increase access and break down barriers for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds,” it said.

The overall Sutton Trust study collected data on the education backgrounds of around 5,000 powerful individuals across 37 professions.

Sutton Trust founder Sir Peter Lampl said: “Britain is an increasingly divided society. Divided by politics, by class, by geography. Social mobility, the potential for those to achieve success regardless of their background, remains low.

“As our report shows, the most influential people across sport, politics, the media, film and TV are five times as likely to have attended a fee-paying school.

“As well as academic achievement an independent education tends to develop essential skills such as confidence, articulacy and team work which are vital to career success.

“The key to improving social mobility at the top is to tackle financial barriers, adopt contextual recruitment and admissions practices and tackle social segregation in schools.”

He also pushed for private schools to be opened up to anyone based on merit rather than finances.

Picture: Reuters/Regis Duvignau

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