Owen Jones: reforming the press

Two weeks ago Owen Jones, author of Chavs and The Establishment And How They Get Away With It, came to Staffordshire University for a two day residency to speak to hundreds of students and members of the public on all manner of topics including journalism careers and the "politics of hope".

Last week I discussed a topic Jones spoke about at length - how we can go beyond "preaching to the converted" and encourage people who are currently disinterested in politics to engage with it. Across the talks he gave there was another topic he touched on several times - how the press can be reformed to work better and more fairly for everyone.

When asked directly for his opinion on the topic, his main objection to the current structure of the press was the ownership of it. It's renowned that Rupert Murdoch owns more than his fair share of the press, especially in Australia, and Jones described Murdoch's open aim as to "shift the political agenda - and it works, people are scared of him."

To have one voice controlling so much of the media by pushing their ideals out through every outlet they can, especially when the voice is one so far from the consumers', means the public opinion can be swayed, en mass, by the press.

In the weeks leading up to the 1992 general election, opinion polls indicated either that the Labour party would win by a small majority, or there would be a hung parliament. Leading up polling day, The Sun ran a campaign for the Conservative Party, and on the day of the election the paper published a front page headline against the leader of the Labour party: "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights."

The Conservatives went on to win by a landslide and on Saturday 11th April The Sun ran the headline: "It's The Sun Wot Won It." Though there's no empirical proof of it, the Saturday headline is generally believed to be true: The Sun swayed public opinion enough to orchestrate the next party into government.

In a talk on journalism careers, Jones spoke specifically about the small left wing papers such as The Morning Star. When a member of the audience spoke about having written a hundred articles for them, "because it gets you access, saying you've written for a national newspaper", but never having been paid for any of his work, Jones described it as "outrageous".

After discussing how left wing papers can't rely on major advertising to fund them - as this results in a conflict of interests, such as the Telegraph not reporting on a HSBC scandal as they received advertising money from the bank - he proposed an alternative way of funding papers which can't rely on advertising: crowd source journalism. "You get people together to crowd source to pay for journalism projects", citing how it has worked in other countries.

I wasn't then only person to ask about how we can get a more fair demographic in newsrooms, and Jones had some pretty clear ideas about how to go about, and how to not go about, getting to a point of fairer representation.

After some explanation on the problems with unpaid internships - that can often go on for months or years with no promise of any job at the end - Jones expressed how strongly he believes that they should be scrapped. He suggested that they should instead be replaced with scholarships for journalism graduates, especially aimed at those from underrepresented backgrounds.

In regards to getting more women into senior positions in newsrooms, he commented on a related, non-media issue: the cost of childcare. In the UK, childcare can take up to a third or half of a wage whereas in Sweden it's capped at 4% - in relation to this, there are more women in the jobs market in Sweden, particularly in media, politics and law professions.

However, when it comes to a variety of backgrounds, Jones believes that: "the answer to all the world's ills isn't to parachute a few more working class people into politics and the media, as just because you have a certain background doesn't mean you believe a certain thing", but he did say that if people in positions of influence were aware or affected by issues - such as millions being stuck on a social housing waiting list - then the situations would be "more likely to be addressed".

He offered an example: "If you had more Muslims writing the news then Muslims wouldn't always be portrayed as a bunch of terrorists, or more people who've been on benefits, that would have an impact on how it's reported."

But he accepts that this plan still isn't a flawless one: "When you end up in the top end of the press and you end up only going to the same dinner parties or breakfast think tanks it becomes hard to be critical of it. You might have been brought up in total poverty but that might seem like a total universe away."

Finally, he discussed what he sees for the future of the press, in a world where so much is being dumbed down for the internet and convenience. "There's always an appetite for features", he said, mentioning The Guardian's long reads of four or five thousand words. "Sadly people are reading less books, they're reading more online".

But he still thinks there's a purpose to brief, short news - and to BuzzFeed - saying that, "there's a place for bullet point news but I don't want it to just become that; I want balance, I want variety, I want diversity. Being accessible doesn't mean being dumbed down to the lowest common denominator."

Although there are both people who want the news in short bursts to get brief updates, and those who want longer pieces to hear a detailed opinion or read a more intimate feature, I think a new type of journalism is on the way.

Over the past few years we've seen the popularisation of local anonymous messaging app YikYak, as well as SnapChat's "local" and "event" stories. These are both methods of allowing people to get in touch with what's happening around them, and I think we're not too far from a Wikipedia-esque style of local news reporting via apps which let members of the public as much as official news outlets contribute to local news stories via text, images and video.

Whilst this may debunk the function of local news, I believe the appeal of communities connecting in that way, as well as being able to easily see similar localised journalism across the globe, would outweigh the power of local print,


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