Have journalists become too far removed from ordinary people’s lives?

Jon Snow, the Channel 4 News presenter, spoke of one of this era’s most fascinating divisions in his keynote speech at the Edinburgh International Television Festival last week.

After reporting on the Grenfell Tower tragedy, he said it made him feel “on the wrong side” of Britain’s social divide.

It convinced him that he, and the current cohort of mainstream media journalists, had become too far removed from ordinary people’s lives.

The media, he said, was “comfortably with the elite, with little awareness, contact or connection with those not of the elite”.

He continued: “We can accuse the political classes for their failures, and we do. But we are guilty of them ourselves".

I found myself nodding in agreement with Snow and tweeted about the disconnection between the “twin elites” of “mainstream media and Westminster”.

Then, as so often after an instantaneous Twitter response, I had second thoughts. I had referred to the media as if it were a single entity, thereby falling into a trap I often warn my students to avoid.

In reality, mainstream media is more fragmented than the term suggests. Therefore, the various components – a range of newspapers, TV and radio news broadcasters – cannot be regarded as an elite.

These outlets approach their task of providing information, analysis and comment in very different ways. Similarly, they appeal to, and are consumed by, distinctive audiences.

It can be argued that the people who work for them are drawn from a relatively narrow segment of society, which has grown narrower in this millennium because of an increasing expectation that entrants must have university qualifications.

But several regional newspapers do recruit school-leavers. And certain national newspapers have also sought to ensure that they broaden their social class intake, often by setting up their own training programmes for young people who have not had tertiary education.

Most of these titles are regarded as populist and, by implication, anti-elitist. Thinking back through my career, I realise that I have, at different times, viewed populism in both positive and pejorative terms.

In my days as a tabloid journalist it seemed blindingly obvious that populism was a giant plus. It was about publishing content that accorded with the interests, opinions and aspirations of the greatest number of people, the majority of the population.

We were giving readers what they wanted or, at least, what we thought they wanted. The proof of that activity’s success or failure was simply registered by the resulting circulation figures.

After stepping away from the tabloids to become a commentator on the press for The Guardian, I disparaged the populist approach. I often wrote of tabloids “playing to the gallery” or “jumping on the bandwagon” or “appealing to the lowest common denominator”.

In what I now concede was an example of elitism on my part, not to mention condescension, I saw only negative connotations in populist journalism that appealed to “the masses”.

The Brexit vote was something of an eye-opener. Much as I sought to argue that populist mainstream media output had influenced Britons to vote to leave the European Union, I couldn’t deny the genuine groundswell of anti-EU feelings among a large swathe of the public.

Most populist newspapers had both fostered those opinions and represented the people who held them. But is it plausible to argue that the Brexit majority was entirely due to media coverage?

It suggests that populist papers are anything but elitist. Their views not only appeared to correlate closely with those of their audiences but, given that their total readership amounts to a minority of the total electorate, they also reflected the views of the majority of non-readers too.

The lesson of Brexit is, however, very different from that of the Grenfell inferno. Although I take issue with Snow’s charge of elitism, his point about journalistic remoteness from the lives of ordinary people has relevance.

Part of the reason can be found, as The Guardian’s Emily Bell contended, in the hollowing out of local media, which has reduced in-depth reporting. Not, in her opinion, that it ever existed. Claims about “high-quality local reporting” were “largely mythical”, she wrote.

I have to agree. Thinking back to my days as a weekly newspaper reporter in the poorest London borough, Barking and Dagenham, neither my paper – nor the rival titles across the whole of east London – got to the heart of the area’s social deprivation.   

Our journalism was reactive rather than pro-active. It was as if we accepted the situation rather than challenging it. For example, to paraphrase Tony Blair, we were good at reporting crime but hopeless at reporting the causes of crime.

Some may be tempted to argue that matters have improved. Emma Youle, a reporter with the Hackney Gazette, won this year’s Private Eye Paul Foot Award for investigative and campaigning journalism, for a five-week series of reports highlighting the plight of the borough’s hidden homeless. No remoteness there. No elitism either.

All credit to Youle and her editor, because I fear that hers may be an isolated example of reporting on the reality – to quote Snow – of “ordinary people’s lives”. Why? Well, there’s the rub.

Is it because of a failing by media outlets or because their audiences, composed of other “ordinary people”, are not interested?

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO