THE BLOG
09/15/2011 10:32 am ET Updated Nov 15, 2011

Johann's Industry Must be Judged Equally Guilty

Several years ago I entered one of those "looking up" staging posts of life and happened to observe mild career paralysis. My journey had taken me from a council estate in Margate, to nearly a decade in active (and Westminster) politics, but had never deviated too far from a first love of journalism and writing.

Seized with a new urgency, my mother very generously took out a 5k loan on my behalf (Experian found me as trustworthy as a Clegg) which I have repaid in one sense, but never can in another. I invested in an NCTJ reporter's course, conducted part time whilst I worked a full time job over a 7 day per week slog. Shorthand nearly killed the aspiration, local government diluted it and court reporting/note compiling and the rest created a temporary desire to get back to the swamp that sits between Embankment and St James's Park on the District line.

But persevere I did and despite the nightmares of dreaming in tee-line shorthand, passed with full spectrum rosettes. Post liberation, I have been lucky enough to contribute to The Independent, The Guardian, Sky News and other national outlets. But I am utterly exceptional either in sheer luck or what Oscar Wilde described as "getting the answer yes without asking a question" (charm).

On the whole, non-Oxbridge folk struggle like hell to make any kind of progress in national media careers. And it's not just "old-boys networks" that are the problem. It is the hard-wired cultural habit of Oxbridge educated editors and proprietors to only really value those that came via the journey they did, with a few inner city journalism scheme tokens slipped in for moral equilibrium.

The Sutton Trust reported a while back that over 50% of senior UK journalists were privately educated and approaching 70% of those with degrees obtained them from the elitist splendor of Oxford or Cambridge colleges.

Which brings me to dear young Johann Hari; his apology, sabbatical and back to basics announcement. Johann to my mind remains one of our finest writers on domestic social justice and international hypocrisy. I also take the view (and sincerely hope) he returns stronger and more prolific for his experience. He has issued a mea culpa, and is doing the right thing, though his punishment is surreally analogous to a surgeon being found to have conducted many incorrect and damaging operations and in turn been made to attend medical school.

But anyone who thinks that this problem is confined to one individual - however gifted - is quite wrong. The transmission belt of folks with flair from Oxbridge/privately educated backgrounds into the highest profile, most sought after positions in our national media is fast and accelerating. Combine that with the rise of comment based content (both declared and inter-woven) on virtually every page/screen, and we have a major problem.

But despite being as enjoyable as a sauna with Phillip Green, the solution of an NCTJ course instils hard discipline and reverence for both fact and ethical process. And by extension, if all of the multitudes of prospective writers and journalists banging on the doors of Derry St, Wapping and King's Place were made to endure it before being taken seriously as a prospective employee, or perhaps if titles offered NCTJ sponsorship to non-privileged applicants instead of parent sponsored internships to the privileged, we would have a far more pluralistic, disciplined and valuable media.

Reporters and commentators writing on issues including social deprivation and inequality who have lived and breathed social deprivation and inequality; good heavens, what would that look like? I suspect it will be many years until we have the answer, if ever.

A good start would be for those in a position to gift these cherished career opportunities to realise, and I mean really accept that an applicant can be bright, intellectually well-rounded and professional to the highest level, without having visited Cambridge or Oxford, and to acknowledge - perhaps publicly - that the industry that produced Johann and his bad habits is just as culpable in his failure, as it is in his success.