A week in British media, and what it says about inequality and journalism

Two weeks ago, members of Britain’s National Union of Journalists who work at titles owned by Reach, a major publisher of national and local newspapers, voted to institute rolling strikes, starting from today. Bosses had offered staffers a 3 percent raise, but NUJ members rejected it as inadequate as the cost of living in the UK spirals—not least via rising energy bills, a matter of concern to Reach staffers given that many of them now work largely from home after the company shuttered most of its physical newsrooms (opening regional hubs instead). One Reach journalist told The Guardian’s Jim Waterson that their pay is so low they often have to dip into their overdraft. A regional NUJ official told a local news site that some journalists in his area had resorted to using food banks. Novara Media’s Moya Lothian-McLean reported, meanwhile, that dozens of Reach staffers have taken on second jobs, working in bars, for example, or selling things on Etsy. Last year, some of them attended a skills session for Reach staffers titled “How to Side Hustle.”

As numerous observers, including Waterson and Lothian-McLean, have noted, Reach’s two most recognizable national titles—the Mirror and the Express—are very different politically: the former is liberal whereas the latter is very conservative. Striking journalists at the Mirror have accused their bosses of hypocrisy given that the paper has taken a generally pro-worker, anti–“fat cat” line amid a broader summer of industrial action in the UK, pointing out that Jim Mullen, Reach’s CEO, earned in the area of four million US dollars last year. (Reach has disputed this, pointing out that much of Mullen’s pay packet is locked into shares that have since declined sharply in value.) Striking journalists at the Express, on the other hand, have sometimes expressed concern that they will be accused of hypocrisy in light of the paper’s strident anti-union politics—one staffer acknowledged to Waterson that their strike vote is a “satirist’s dream”—while insisting, as another put it to Lothian-McLean, that they are “like any other group of workers.” The latter staffer called Reach “the worst possible case of capitalism in the twenty-first century,” accusing it of being in hock to the interests of “shareholders and pensioners.”

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Labor unrest and the rising cost of living have been big stories in Britain’s media of late; since I wrote two months ago about rail strikes that made an unlikely media star of a transit-union leader who deftly deflected vilification from right-wing newspapers and TV hosts, the stakes have only grown. In the past week or so, we’ve seen dire front-page headlines like “SHOCK RATES SURGE TO FIGHT BILLS CRISIS”; “INFLATION ‘TO HIT 18%’… HOW WILL MILLIONS COPE?”; and “£6,800 ENERGY CAP FEAR”—and those were just in the Express.

Not that such coverage has always been sympathetic: earlier this week, the arch-conservative Telegraph made a splash after it pulled together older readers’ reactions to young people’s complaints about the cost-of-living crisis and intergenerational unfairness under the headline “It’s time for the young to pay for us and stop complaining.” Nor has the cost of living been the only story in town—others have competed with it for attention, with varying degrees of urgency. We’ve heard a lot about the killing of a nine-year-old girl in Liverpool, for instance. We’ve also heard a lot about the killing of Princess Diana, whose death in a car crash, as paparazzi gave chase, was twenty-five years ago next week: the Daily Star (another Reach title) splashed an “exclusive” interview with a former Diana bodyguard who thinks Britain’s spy services may have caused her death by mistake; other titles, including the Express, speculated as to what Diana might be doing today if she were still alive. The press can cover multiple things at once, of course. What the British press often struggles with, especially in the print world, is proportion.

Brexit has been back in the news, too, if it ever really went away. One Brexit story this week has doubled as an important media story: Emily Maitlis, a former star BBC anchor (who US readers might remember filleting Prince Andrew in 2019), gave a prestigious media lecture in which she characterized Brexit as a harbinger of a dangerous populist political climate and accused her former public-media bosses of covering its ongoing consequences with timid bothsidesism and neglect; she also described a former government spin doctor who now serves on the BBC’s board (and who I’ve had cause to write about here before) as an “agent” who polices the BBC’s impartiality rules to the government’s benefit. Maitlis and Jon Sopel—until recently the BBC’s man in Washington, who has also recently criticized its Brexit coverage—have been promoting a new podcast that they will launch next week after leaving the BBC for the world of commercial media. (Both earned well into the six figures at the BBC. They will reportedly earn even more now.)

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Brexit has also been back in the news in a more overarching context, cropping up as a story line in the race to succeed Boris Johnson as Britain’s prime minister, which is entering its final stages. The two contenders left standing—Liz Truss, the foreign minister and clear favorite to win, and Rishi Sunak, the former finance minister—have been making the rounds at a seemingly interminable series of campaign events for Conservative Party members, whose job it is to pick Johnson’s successor. These events have often been moderated by journalists (one of whom fainted while moderating a televised debate), though that hasn’t stopped Truss, in particular, from using them to bash the press for its supposed left-wing bias. Last week, at an event hosted by GB News, Truss compared that upstart right-wing network favorably to the BBC. (“You actually get your facts right,” she said.) Last night, at an event moderated by the right-wing broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer, Truss bashed the BBC again. Conservative officials, meanwhile, blocked reporters from PoliticsJOE, a news site, from entering the event, apparently in retaliation for its coverage. PoliticsJOE often has an irreverent tone, but it is accredited to cover Parliament.

Back to Brexit: at the event last night, Truss said that “the jury is out” as to whether Emmanuel Macron, the French president, is a “friend or foe” of the UK. covid lockdowns came up as well, even though it’s been more than a year since England enforced one. This was largely thanks to the trailing candidate, Sunak, having earlier made a splashy—yet apparently not desperate and premeditated, even though he has been accused of “thrashing around” like a “wounded stoat”—intervention, telling The Spectator, a right-wing magazine that Johnson used to run, that the government in which he served was probably too cautious during the pandemic. Politico described the interview as “a wet dream come true” for The Spectator’s lockdown-skeptical editor, who splashed it on the front page of the magazine under the headline “THE LOCKDOWN FILES.” (I’m still trying to work out what “files” are being referenced here. ICIJ, this is not.)

The event last night did, in fairness, also feature prominent questions on the cost of living, with Hartley-Brewer putting it to both Sunak and Truss that their current proposals for helping people, particularly with soaring energy bills, won’t be enough. These proposals have emerged as a dividing line in the contest, with Sunak, broadly, promising some targeted intervention and Truss, broadly, preferring tax cuts and deregulation. Still, there is a sense that Britain is currently rudderless even though the cost-of-living crisis is biting now—the new prime minister won’t take office until next month, and Johnson is leaving big decisions to them. Indeed, sections of the press have recently been playing a game of “Where’s Boris?”; he popped up in Kyiv this week to express solidarity with Ukraine six months on from Russia’s invasion, but he has also taken two vacations in recent weeks, with photographers papping him unshaven in a T-shirt (not red-and-white striped, sadly) in Greece. This morning, Britain’s energy regulator confirmed a devastating impending rise in bills this coming winter, a story that made international headlines. Johnson’s government did not put up an official to take media questions about it on the morning broadcast round.

In all this coverage, another sense comes across—explicitly, at more liberal-leaning and centrist titles; implicitly or even by omission, in the right-wing press—of a country that has always been unequal growing ever more sharply so. The strike vote at Reach is a useful reminder that journalists are not immune from the economic pressures they’re covering (or, sometimes, not), a trend that is not limited to the UK and has already reared its head in the US and elsewhere. It’s a reminder, too, that the profession of journalism should never be off-limits to those without deep financial resources—as a matter of basic equity but also because the absence of voices from less privileged backgrounds makes our coverage weaker, especially during tough times like these. Again, a lack of working-class representation in journalism isn’t limited to the UK, as Alissa Quart and others have chronicled for CJR. But it is very sharp in the UK. A report released earlier this year found that 80 percent of British journalists come from higher class strata—the only area in which the British media has grown less diverse over time.

Not every journalist at papers owned by Reach, it should be noted, was set to strike today; in the UK, staffers at a single title can belong to different unions, some of which already accepted bosses’ 3 percent pay offer, thinking it wouldn’t likely budge. In recent weeks, as the NUJ strike neared, bosses insisted that they simply couldn’t go any higher—citing rising costs that the company is facing, not least that of newsprint—and that strike threats would not sway them. Then, yesterday, at the eleventh hour, Reach said that it had moved to reopen talks with the NUJ, via an arbitrator. Today’s planned strike was averted, though a source suggested to Waterson that further strike days planned for next week would still go ahead unless Reach significantly improved its offer by then. Before the strike was averted, an NUJ official said its core demand was clear: “a dialogue with the company to make them understand that the cost of living is an issue that affects everyone, including journalists.”

Below, more on low pay in journalism and British media:

  • “How to Side Hustle”: For CJR’s 2018 issue on working in the journalism industry, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian wrote about the “pain and joy” of the side hustle. “For freelancers in particular, journalism can feel less like a job than a vocation masquerading as a profession and compensated like an art,” she wrote. Meanwhile, for the same issue, Meg Dalton wrote about needing to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. “The craft of journalism is invaluable. Those who practice it are not,” Dalton wrote. “In a profession that was once working-class, those who are lucky enough to not depend on their meager paychecks tend to be from more privileged upbringings—and that transition has had a serious impact on the coverage of different socioeconomic strata.”
  • Also from CJR: In April, Quart, the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, wrote for CJR about the need to make journalism work for those not born into the elite. “Those who cover issues intersecting with financial stress, and whose own lives include it, don’t need ‘grit’ to work in journalism; they need thoughtful approaches,” Quart advised. More recently, Quart wrote again for CJR, about how the media might better represent class in its coverage. “Working-class and financially stressed people are often featured in coverage that otherizes or minimizes them,” she wrote. “Sometimes it can even imperil them.”
  • foia emoji: In 2020, the news site openDemocracy reported on a secret “Clearing House” system through which the British government was vetting journalistic requests filed under the country’s Freedom of Information laws. Two years later, following a review, the government has promised to overhaul the system, replacing the Clearing House with a foia “center of excellence.” OpenDemocracy also recently assessed Truss’s and Sunak’s records at responding to public-records requests, and found that they were not good—last year, the department overseen by Sunak refused to fulfill more requests than any other, while Truss’s department was the slowest at releasing requested information.
  • Cereal: Earlier this month, Neil Parish, then a Conservative Party lawmaker, was forced to resign from Parliament after he was twice caught looking at pornography on his phone in the chamber of the House of Commons. Parish said that while the second time was intentional, he had initially been directed to a graphic website after searching for content related to tractors. Now Parish, who represented a rural district, is planning a comeback, of sorts, telling The i newspaper that he will soon launch a podcast about agriculture. He may also attempt to win back his old seat as an independent candidate.


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Liz Truss meets supporters at a Conservative Party leadership election hustings at the NEC, Birmingham, England, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are running to succeed Boris Johnson as party leader. The winner will be chosen by Conservative Party members across the country. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)