Copy boy grows up in Glasgow’s inky world of teleprinters and Linotypes, moves south to take his place in the vanguard of a technological revolution and rises to become editor of the most famous paper in the world. Oh yes, and on the way, he joins the Royal Marines and becomes a champion boxer.
What a film! The credits roll with our hero rolling up his sleeves to read the galley proofs, alone in a vast room lit only by a brass banker’s lamp with a green glass shade.
Except that this isn’t a movie; it’s real life, and the story doesn’t end there. Our editor is sacked after five years and moves to another great newspaper group, swapping one overpowering proprietor for another. By the age of 57 he has edited five newspapers and moved into the managing director’s corner office. A decade later he is firmly part of the Establishment, a millionaire equally at ease at Royal Ascot and point-to-point; with a wee dram or a bottle of Dom Perignon.
It couldn’t happen today.
Charlie Wilson is one of the great characters of late 20th and early 21st century journalism – a man with a silver tongue in a foul mouth. But if he were starting his career today, he’d be lucky to get through the door.
Our trade has taken to calling itself a profession and as such, it has room only for graduates – and graduates with a bit of money behind them. We have turned into a world inhabited by the white middle classes. Is this a good thing?
Today’s twentysomething Wilson would have gone to university and almost certainly have been enterprising enough to finance himself, but then what? Would his news instincts have been honed or diluted? Would his doggedness be enough to win a slot on a decent paper from which to launch his career? Probably. But I wouldn’t bet on the chances of others of his generation who were just a step behind him.
More than 85 per cent of journalists under 40 have a university degree, and many have a postgraduate qualification as well. When they emerge with a mortar board and £15,000 of debt, they can expect to work for nothing for months, according to a survey published last week by the NCTJ.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, 65 per cent of new entrants have a parent who is a professional, a manager or a director. How else could they afford to join our happy band? Only 3 per cent come from a family of shop-floor or other unskilled workers. As Alan Milburn’s report on social mobility last year remarked: ‘Journalism has shifted to a greater degree of social exclusivity than any other profession.’
Social exclusivity is not what we need in a journalist; we need the rough diamonds and the smooth talkers, the chancers and the charmers – and from all ethnic groups. We cannot populate our newsrooms entirely with people from a cosseted world where everyone has good hair and calls their parents Mummy and Daddy. They must go down a bundle at the dockyard or outside the sink school with rocketing fifth-form pregnancy rates.
We used to be a trade of great diversity and mixed talents, but we’re in danger of becoming homogeneous.
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