Editor's blog: Radio 4 and social class - the fall-out

What role does privilege play at the BBC in 2012 - and in the media at large? An ourBeeb survey into class and Radio 4 has touched a nerve in the press, and on the station itself.

Dan Hancox
2 August 2012

The ourBeeb report into the class backgrounds of Radio 4 presenters and guests last week has generated a satisfying amount of discussion – both of Radio 4 and the BBC itself, and meritocracy (or the lack thereof) in the British media in general. It’s worth looking at the comments on the original ourBeeb post, which address issues including grammar schools, nationalist bias, and this amusingly sarcastic comment about different media outlets and their demography:

“I'm LOLing at the implicit suggestion that Radio 4 be full of people under 30. What next? Money Box Live on NME Radio?”

The report was quickly picked up by the New Statesman blogger Steven Baxter, in this thoughtful piece on meritocracy and the Beeb. Baxter made a point I’ve heard a few times about the media at large, that you'd find the same privilege biases at Sky, The Guardian, The Telegraph, at openDemocracy, or anywhere else:

“A similar diversity audit of any media outlet or publication might arrive at similar numbers. The route from fee-paying school to what we refer to as "the media", via Oxbridge and a stint as an unpaid intern, is fairly well-paved. As far as the Oxbridge aspect is concerned, you could see it as evidence that candidates from the "best" universities are rightly scooped up by the BBC. Another way of looking at it, of course, would be to suppose that not everyone reaches the peak of their abilities at 17 years of age, nor continues that upward trajectory throughout their lives, and that where you went to university shouldn’t matter as much as what skills and abilities you have.”

The Guardian’s diary writer Hugh Muir made it his lead story last week too, opening with the general challenge that lies at the heart of ourBeeb: “We all have a stake in the BBC and yet some stakes are worth more than others.” The report was, he said “not exhaustive, but a snapshot, and the exercise itself was sufficient to ruffle a few feathers.” To reiterate the caveat we began with, it was never meant to be exhaustive, nor as an attack on Radio 4, just a starting point to foreground the debate of who speaks for (and on) the BBC - and thus, supposedly for all of us.

Finally, I’d recommend this week’s episode of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thinking Allowed’, which addressed exactly these issues, and brought the ourBeeb report into the belly of the beast itself, in an episode entitled Jobs For The Boys, which you can listen to again here.

We deliberately presented our initial findings without comment, in the hope that others would take on the mantle of interpreting them. Is it okay that Radio 4 has a heavily skewed demography, just as Radio 1, Radio 2 or 1Xtra have their own – achieving pluralism through a variety of outlets? Or is it a particular problem that Radio 4, with such influential institutions as the Today programme, is found to be the elite talking to itself about the vital issues of the day, to the detriment of those other audiences, ie the majority of the British public? And finally, is the BBC representative of those who fund it as a whole? Our humble survey is just a starting point.

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