Is the BBC middle class enough?

April 15, 2012 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

It is a given that BBC Radio 4 is aimed at Middle England; the outburst of rage when Woman’s Hour was switched to a morning slot and the letters to the newspapers when someone dies in Ambridge are evidence of this truism. But how fair is it to describe Radio 4 itself as middle-class? Would not upper-middle/ruling class be more accurate? Let’s examine this notion, shall we?

A 2010 report entitled ‘Private Schooling in the UK and Australia’ found that 6.5 per cent of school kids in the UK are privately educated, and that fees average at £10,000 a year. It would seem fair, therefore, to conclude that the average middle class family is priced out of the independent sector, which is, actually, the preserve only of the wealthy few. Now, it may well be, for all I know, that the technicians, editorial staff and tea monitors at Radio 4 do largely come from the 93.5 per cent of the populace who attend, or attended State schools, but what of the people who actually bring us the news and comment?

The two doyens of the Today programme in the 1970s were the late Brian Redhead (educated at Royal Grammar School, Newcastle) and John Timpson (Merchant Taylors’ London); 100 per cent privately schooled then. But ah! I hear you say; that was then and this is now. Haven’t we moved on since those days and is Radio 4 not more democratic now? If so, employing Sue MacGregor (Herschel Girls School, Cape Town & Ecole de Commerce, Geneva) as replacement for Timpson and Redhead was an unpromising start, although John Humphrys and James Naughtie did at least have to pass their 11 plus exams to get into their respective Grammar schools in Cardiff and Aberdeen. Not so former stockbroker Sarah Montague, an alumnus of Blanchelande College, Guernsey, or Edward Stourton (Ampleforth College).

At lunch time, listeners in search of news turn to The World at One, presented by Martha Kearney (Brighton and Hove High School & George Watson’s College, Edinburgh) who herself replaced the late Nick Clarke (Westbourne House & Bradfield College). So let’s all be grateful for Eddie Mair, son of a nurse and a lorry driver from Dundee and presenter of PM at 5 o’clock. Eddie redresses the balance then, but to a very small degree. In fact, the proportion of private/State educated presenters on Radio 4 is, as it always has been, hugely contrary to those proportions among the general public.

Director General Mark Thompson (Stonyhurst) is a public schoolboy who has been under attack in the past year over huge redundancies among BBC journalists but he can at least relax in the bath now and then enjoy the reliably comforting Test Match Special and its beloved line-up of Jonathan Agnew (Uppingham), Vic Marks (Blundell’s), Henry Blofeld (Eton) and Christopher Martin-Jenkins (Marlborough). The Northern Uncle Tom role, once the preserve of Freddie Trueman, is now in the hands of fellow Yorkshireman Geoffrey Boycott, who certainly knows how to use his hands according to one ex-girlfriend and a French judge.

Even the most loyal Radio 4 listener must from time to time be tempted to switch on the TV for Newsnight because it is our number one television show for news and analysis and is synonymous with its four presenters, of whom only one, Emily Maitlis (King Edward VII Grammar School, Sheffield) was not privately educated. I don’t think we lower-class types can claim this particular lass as our own, though, since Emily’s father Peter is Emeritus Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Sheffield University and her husband, Mark, a City banker. No need, therefore, for her to feel intimidated in the presence of her colleagues Jeremy Paxman (Malvern College), Gavin Esler (George Heriot’s School, Edinburgh) and Kirsty Wark (Wellington School, Ayr).

The more downmarket 6 o’clock news is, sad to say, another home for the children of the elite; Llanelli Grammar School boy Huw Edwards may have succeeded through hard work and talent but career progress was probably a tad easier for George Alagiah (St John’s College, Southsea), Fiona Bruce (International School of Milan) and Sophie Raworth (Putney High School and St Paul’s School for girls, Hammersmith), while panels of political figures (themselves disproportionately from wealthy backgrounds) are quizzed on Question Time by David Dimbleby or Any Questions by brother Jonathan, both of whom schooled at Charterhouse.

Whether our news presenters can identify with the majority of their listeners and viewers must be doubtful since all of those mentioned above are very firmly in the upper tax bracket and most of them have enjoyed rare privilege for their entire lives and have a vested interest on the preservation of the political status quo. Just as well we have our light entertainers to brighten things up, then. Working class folk, it seems, are by and large not brainy enough to make it onto news programmes but what of the most ubiquitous of the BBC personalities we see on talk and game shows. Well, we have Paul Merton, product of a comprehensive in Wimbledon, and then there’s er………….Stephen Fry (Uppingham), Sue Perkins (Croham Hurst independent school for girls), David Mitchell (Abingdon School), Alexander Armstrong (St Mary’s Music School, Edinburgh & Durham) and, last but by no means least, Jeremy Clarkson (Repton, though he was expelled).

None of this is intended as a criticism of the individuals mentioned above. It isn’t their fault that they were born into their class. True, some of them appear to be smug and elitist but that attitude was probably thrashed into them at school. And I actually prefer the BBC to the commercial radio and TV stations which treat working-class people with contempt and appear to believe that we all are either salt-of-the-Earth types who love the Queen, support our troops and love a good knees-up or else live off benefits in “sink” estates (a term which always makes me think of Belfast sinks like the one the Council ripped out of our kitchen when my children were nippers) and have no interest in anything not covered on the front page of the Sun, but it is an indisputable fact that working-class, and for that matter middle-class people are vastly under-represented on the BBC’s airwaves and on our television screens.

The BBC is not, in my opinion, a middle-class organisation; it is actually worse than that. Far too many of its presenters and journalists have no experience of having to make ends meet, of buying goods on tick or of choosing whether they can afford to put the central heating on in winter, or even of getting the bus to school. When Paxman sneers at a Trade Union representative on Newsnight he is simply demonstrating the arrogance so typical of his class.

Since we all actually pay for the BBC, shouldn’t it by now be a genuine equal opportunities employer, taking on prospective journalists regardless of the school tie they used to wear or which executive was a contemporary of daddy at Oxford? Little wonder that the BBC has the reputation, like the Church of England and the MCC, of being a bastion of the Establishment. When rival political figures are invited into the Newsnight studio for a discussion and grilling from Paxo or one of his colleagues it is highly likely that everyone on screen is a product of the fee-paying school system, and this is a situation which is both unfair and deeply undemocratic.

The BBC belongs to all of us and is our main source of news; it’s evident ruling class bias is however a vital piece of the plutocracy, as opposed to democracy or meritocracy, under which we all continue to labour.


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This post was written by Felix McHugh

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