John Humphrys - whatever happened to the working class?

June 30, 2023, 9:37 AM GMT+0

The death of an old friend is not something that has ever before featured in one of these columns, but I hope you’ll agree that it is justified on the basis of its timing. My friend was Norman Rees and the day he died the Radio Times was publishing an interview with one of our greatest broadcasters, the noble Lord Bragg. Not that there was anything remotely “noble” about either Norman or Melvyn. They were both born into the working class. Today Melvyn is widely regarded as one of the great cultural icons of the age. He has been with the BBC for six decades. He used the interview to attack it for representing white working-class people today as “miserable, broke or in despair”. Is he right?

As it happens, I have Norman to thank for my own career in broadcasting. I’d known him since I was a child. We were neighbours in a dirt-poor district of Cardiff called Splott. The sort of district where indoor lavatories were about as rare as Michelin-starred restaurants. He was, if anything, even poorer than me. At least I had a father doing his darndest to put food on the table. Norman’s mother was widowed. We both left school at fifteen. University, in those days, wasn’t for the likes of us. We were barely aware it existed.

But we had something else in common. For reasons I’ve never been properly able to account for, both of us wanted to be reporters. And fifteen years later something truly remarkable happened. Something which defied all the laws of coincidence.

The setting was the Oval Office of the White House. Behind the desk the most powerful man in the world: the President of the United States. In front of him two young men with identical backgrounds. I was one of them and Norman was the other. The same thought occurred to us simultaneously but Norman was the first to voice it: He leaned across and whispered: “Not bad for two kids from Splott eh?”

He had a point. Not bad that those two working class kids had risen to the top of the reporting ladder in two of the world’s most respected news organisations. Norman was Washington correspondent for ITN. I was the same for the BBC. The chances of anything remotely similar happening today are about as great as President Putin winning this year’s Nobel Prize for Peace.

Melvyn Bragg, who knows the BBC better than most, says the BBC is the prime culprit among broadcasters in failing to feature on screen people from across society. Specifically what we called the working class.

Here's how he described the working class to the Radio Times: “They worked so hard . . . they came up from the mines and factories. And what did they do? They created a huge culture that was completely unrecognised. These people are [portrayed today] as either miserable, broke or in despair.” And the reason for that, he said, is that the BBC “only want working-class people if they are miserable”. That, he said, is despite the fact that “70 to 80 per cent of the population comes from much the same background as I do. I wanted them to be represented. They’ve always been underestimated.”

Bragg is not alone in his views. In November Ofcom, the body that regulates broadcasting, ordered it to tackle the imbalance. It found that the BBC “persistently under-serves” audiences on lower incomes. In its annual report on the corporation, the regulator said communities of lower socio-economic groups were “less likely to use BBC services” and were “less satisfied with the BBC as a whole . . . Those classified as falling within lower socio-economic groups represent almost a quarter of the UK population and are more likely to be older, unemployed, retired on a state pension or disabled.”

Many politicians are uneasy too. Nadine Dorries is one. She rose from poverty herself to become the former culture secretary. She suggested the BBC had “almost forgotten” poorer towns and cities with big council estates and strong working-class communities.

As for the BBC, it acknowledges that it hasn’t got it right. In its response to Ofcom a spokesman said: “While the BBC is the most used media brand for low socio-economic groups, we know we have further to go both on and off screen. So we are commissioning ever more varied content that reflects UK communities and we’ve set a new staff target for 25 per cent of staff to come from low socio-economic backgrounds to ensure we’re serving all audiences.”

According to its latest figures, 12 per cent of staff attended fee-paying schools and 15 per cent were educated at state selective schools. The statistics for the big bosses present an even more elitist picture. Almost a third of the most senior BBC executives graduated from either Oxford or Cambridge. That compares with one in a hundred of the population as a whole. Seven in ten of them went to one of the country's top Russell Group universities.

Matt Goodwin, professor of politics at Kent University and a commissioner on the Social Mobility Commission, takes a pretty dim view of the BBC’s attitude to the working class. He describes himself as someone from a single-parent, working-class family where money was always a problem and an academic who has “analysed the political establishment's disdain for ordinary working people”. He reckons that Bragg is “spot on in his criticism.”

He wrote in the Daily Mail: “The modern BBC loves to flaunt its commitment to diversity, its embrace of all elements of society. Yet when it comes to the traditional working class, it is openly patronising and falls back on the worst kind of stereotypes.” He argues that Melvyn Bragg could have gone even further. Here’s how he put it:

“The BBC does not merely paint working people as 'miserable, broke or in despair' but as feckless scroungers, racists, idiots, alcoholics, drug addicts, anti-social criminals, and worse. Why is this? The answer is simple. It's because the BBC is dominated by people from what I call the New Elite — a self-regarding nexus of middle-class, graduate urban professionals who live in the big cities and university towns and who hail from privileged families in the managerial and professional classes.

“In the snobbish caste system adopted by metropolitan sophisticates of the New Elite, the working class have become the 'untouchables', the people whom newspaper columnist Matthew Parris once derided as 'going nowhere', or who Hillary Clinton notoriously derided in 2016 as belonging in 'a basket of deplorables'. Where once this group was viewed as the backbone of Britain, today it is treated as a reactionary threat to the woke agenda of the ruling class, so it is demonised. And nowhere is this ruling class more evident than at the BBC. Despite its obsession with diversity, in truth there is a cloying uniformity about the advantaged backgrounds of its top ranks.

“This is why the Corporation repeatedly gets life in Britain so wrong, routinely portraying the country as they want to see it, rather than as how most of us experience it. No longer in tune with, or even appearing to like, the country that surrounds them, the BBC's production teams operate from a lofty position of ignorance, like anthropologists studying alien tribes.”

Defenders of the BBC point out that, whether we like it or not, the world has changed since people like Melvyn Bragg and indeed yours truly, were young men. In those days the working class was made up of miners and steelworkers and vast numbers of labourers. Now the mines have closed and so have most of the steelworks. Countless men employed on assembly lines in factories and car plants have been replaced by robots. One huge machine controlled by a computer in the vast fields of an arable farm can do the work of a hundred farm labourers.

It was not in the least unusual for people like me and Norman to leave school at fifteen. Quite the opposite. The only contact we had with university was gawping at privileged students in their striped college scarves celebrating rag days in the city centre. It’s only a couple of decades ago that Tony Blair made the seemingly impossible pledge that half of all young people would go to university. Whether that has proved a wise target is hotly debated, but what cannot be contested is the profound effect it has had on how we now define “working class”.

The BBC also faces the charge, levelled by Matt Goodwin and others, that the lack of diversity of class and education in its ranks is matched by an absence of diversity in thought and perspective. Audiences, they say, are dramatically shrinking for flagship BBC shows such as Radio 4's Today programme and the share of people who say they “trust BBC News journalists to tell the truth” has collapsed from 81 per cent in 2003 to 44 per cent in 2019?

But, BBC defenders point out, the media environment has changed beyond recognition since the days of the old “working class”. When Bragg and I left school the word “media” did not even exist. We had the BBC and we had newspapers. Anyone who suggested that in our lifetimes we’d be carrying a tiny gadget that would provide us instantly with more information than existed in a thousand libraries and endless sources of news and entertainment would have been patted on the head and told to take a little rest.

If the BBC is to survive, they say, it has to give young people what they expect and demand. If it doesn’t they will go elsewhere. And, inevitably, many are doing just that. And the same applies if it fails to recognise that the “working class” has become a very different construct from what it was two or three generations ago.

Where do you stand in this debate? Do you identify yourself as working class and, if you do, are you ignored by the BBC or treated as a pretty miserable specimen of humanity? Or do you believe, quite simply, that people like Bragg and Goodwin are simply spouting nonsense?

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