The media has always been a competitive industry, so there are always far more candidates than jobs. This is understandable, as it is a privilege to get to tell the stories that shape people’s perception of the world. But it is a role that is too important to be the preserve of the privileged alone.
A Writing Chance addresses inequalities within the media. Today, these equalities mean that most news and comment is authored by writers from a very narrow social class. They are, disproportionately likely to be white, middle-class, privately educated or Oxbridge graduates. Or all of these.
A tiny proportion of journalists are black – just 0.2%. Reading this, I felt little had changed since the start of my journalistic career over 25 years ago. It was sad to have to acknowledge that working class representation and racial inclusion are still so scarce.
When I first arrived at my first proper job in my mid-twenties, I was given a temporary desk away from my peers and colleagues. I was surrounded by older male journalists who worked on a different publication and was already nervous before I sat down.
That was before I learnt that they enjoyed talking to each other in the voice of ‘Chalkie’, a racist stereotype of a black man portrayed by the ‘comedian’ Jim Davidson. Often, they would attempt to sing reggae to each other in Chalkie’s voice.
They behaved as if I wasn’t there and never directed their antics at me. (After all, people who don’t exist can’t complain). I tried to simply ignore them, projecting a cool exterior while sitting, hour after hour, with tears pricking the back of my eyes. Tolerating them felt like a second job, because it was.
When I privately made it known to their manager that this behaviour was unacceptable, he told me it was plainly all good, morale-boosting fun. And asked, what was the matter with me that I couldn’t see that?
Now I see this as the all-purpose excuse of harassers and bullies in every workplace. And of course, this type of gaslighting can be done to anyone. Coming from a minority group just makes it easier. Then, when we leave a job, or the industry altogether, it is because we are not ‘tough enough’.
It wasn’t only I who suffered. When I started there, I was one of three journalists of colour at this large trade publisher. When I left, three years later, I was the only one still in the industry.
I am not suggesting these toxic environments flourish today. Back then, it wasn’t just getting into the media that was an issue. Learning to thrive within an openly hostile environment was a necessary skill. Today, my experience would hopefully land my employers a tribunal hearing and a reputational disaster. Back then, unfortunately, things were a little different.
However, it is clear that candidates from less-represented backgrounds are still finding it difficult to access media careers. And it is unlikely anything will change without them.
Now, like a breath of fresh air, A Writing Chance is broaching the possible barriers to entering the industry, and acknowledging that these may be multiple. You may not be white, be working class, or have experience of disability or mental illness. Or all of these.
A Writing Chance also challenges the widespread and largely unacknowledged idea that people who share the same narrow middle-class upbringing are a safe pair of hands, less risky, and can be trusted. What also goes unsaid is the assumption that those who aren’t are by implication risky, potentially disruptive and untrustworthy.
In fact, alternative viewpoints are simply absent from the media, and they are necessary. Most importantly, to make sure that the policies and actions of government are challenged on how they impact people who have less of a voice.
I was fortunate enough to contribute to Common People, an anthology of working-class life writing edited by Kit de Waal and developed and supported by New Writing North, and the result was a gloriously rich and varied range of viewpoints which shone a light on lives that are, still, largely ignored.
In fact, wouldn’t a breadth, not only of opinion, but also of viewpoint (a subtle but crucial difference) make the traditional media more relevant in a digitally-saturated world, rather than less? And wouldn’t it be an easy win if this could be achieved by recruiting writers more reflective of the society which it serves?
Katy Massey’s memoir of growing up in Leeds in the 1970s and 1980s Are we home yet?, was published by Jacaranda in 2020. She worked as a journalist before completing a PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University. As an editor and project leader she has worked to develop and publish neglected voices resulting in two memoir anthologies: Tangled Roots: True Life Stories About Mixed Race Britain, which included contributions from Bernardine Evaristo and Diana Evans, and Who are we now? A collection of true stories about Brexit, with foreword by Blake Morrison.