Many of us, who went from Oxford into the media, will be a little surprised to discover that someone feels seasoned journalists and Oxbridge graduates are two distinct tribes.
An extraordinary article in the Press Gazette by former BBC journalist Michael Cole, blames the entire “crisis” in the corporation’s journalism on the employment of Oxbridge graduates.
“The rot set in 30 years ago,” he declares, “when the Oxbridge clever dicks ousted the seasoned journalists”
Michael Cole, who some of you may remember from the BBC between 1968 and 1988, goes on to argue that the BBC’s Current Affairs became “full of would-be intellectuals straight from university [who] despised the news hacks”
“The new Director General must have solid journalistic experience at a high level,” he continues. “A degree from a posh university guarantees nothing. For too long, the BBC has been the private playground of the exam-passing classes. That must stop.” What I felt myself was a simmering anger, at the suggestion that “solid journalistic experience at a high level”, and “a degree from a posh university” (whatever that is) might be mutually exclusive attributes.
Let’s not waste too much time unpicking the semantics of the slur “posh”, or the idea that Oxford graduates represent the “exam-passing classes”. I can only speak for my own generation of alumni, those thirty years ago, who would have laughed at the suggestion that their background might have determined their abilities in exams. Those were, after all, the days of both grammar schools and the Entrance Exam – and I’m not quite sure how your class was supposed to affect your ability in tutorials and Schools.
No, let’s instead just look at one example of someone who, roughly thirty years ago, did go on, after three years at Oxford, to achieve “solid journalistic experience at a high level”, at the BBC itself.
Mark Thompson left Merton in 1979, the same year as me, having read English and edited Isis. He joined the BBC after graduation as a production trainee, a hard-earned place in a slot for which dozens of contenders still furiously compete each year. However, presumably this makes him what Cole dismisses as a “would-be intellectual straight from university”.
In an enviable career, Thompson went on to edit both Nine O’Clock News and Panorama, which has to be “solid journalistic experience at a high level” in anyone’s book. He was Chief Executive of Channel 4, before becoming Director-General of the BBC. Far from treating it as a “private playground”, he achieved eight years of successful stewardship in that difficult role, and he has now gone on to become CEO of The New York Times.
(Michael Cole, having gone straight into his own career, used the head start he gained over those of us who spent three years at Oxford to propel his rise through journalism and the BBC, to become spokesman for Mohamed Al Fayed.)
The fact is that Oxford provides an education in so many things above and beyond passing exams, from the use of language, to social skills, and the ability to establish and argue a case, all of which are of enormous value in the media. Of course those skills need to be channelled into the professional requirements of journalism and the media, but that is what training is about – whether as a graduate or not. It is those skills which stand in enormously good stead in a media career, and not the place in which one gained them.
I can only guess at how Michael Cole must be feeling now, following the appointment of the BBC’s new Director-General. Tony Hall has “solid journalistic experience at a high level”, including Today, The World at One and The Nine O’Clock News. He has been Director of News across both TV and radio. He has been widely lauded as a safe pair of hands for the corporation.
And he joined the BBC as a trainee, “straight from university” – after graduating from Keble.