The Privileged Class Background of BBC Staff, and the Problem of Oxbridge Public School Elitism

Earlier this week I put up a piece reviewing Tom Mills’ The BBC – Myth of a Public Service. This contributes immensely to the debate about the Corporation’s bias by showing how it consistently allies with the elite against the left and the working class.

And Mills makes a very strong case that, apart with the institutional methods of control the government exercises over the Beeb through the license fee and the appointment of its governors, the BBC also sides with the elite because of the elite, upper and very middle class origins of its managers and staff. Mills describes this background on pages 29 and 30. He writes

A 2014 report of the quasi-official Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission had no qualms about identifying these top BBC executives, and over a hundred other senior BBC managers, as members of ‘Britain’s elite’ – along with politicians, civil servants, the super-rich, FTSE 350 CEOs, newspaper columnists and other groups. The Commission’s survey of 125 BBC executives found that 26 per cent had attended private school (compared with 7 per cent of the population), 33 per cent had attended Oxbridge (compared with just 0.8 per cent of the population) and 62 per cent had attended one of the Russell Group of leading universities (compared with 11.4 per cent of the population) – figures which were comparable with those for other factions of Britain’s power elite, as the report shows. Senior BBC managers are also extremely well paid: in 2014/15, the seven executive members of the BBC’s Executive Board earned an average of over £424,000. Meanwhile, around eighty BBC executives are thought to earn over £150,000, even after policy measures were put in place to reduce executive pay following fierce criticism from the press. Among this executive cadre are around a hundred or so senior managers in editorial policy who on average earn just over £100,000, and the most senior of whom can earn two or three times that.

Below these senior editorial managers, we see similar patterns of privilege. In 2006, the Sutton Trust examined the educational backgrounds of 100 leading news journalists in the UK, of whom 31 worked at the BBC. It found that 54 per cent were privately educated and a remarkable 45 per cent had attended Oxbridge. Educational background is of course an indicator of shared class background. But it is also in itself a profoundly important basis for elite cohesion, forging along with other formative experiences, if not a shared set of ideas, then at least a shared demeanour and set of dispositions. Elitist recruiting practices – which are naturally justified in meritocratic terms, even if they are recognized to create serious problems in terms of legitimacy – thus create subtle forms of institutional and cross-institutional cohesion.

This bears out a comment made by one of the television directors Mike and I heard speak over two decades ago at a Doctor Who convention here in Bristol. He stated that it was very difficult to become a director at the Beeb unless you had been to Oxford or Cambridge. If you hadn’t, it was very difficult. If you had, on the other hand, it was very easy.

As for Oxbridge, I’m currently reading Gregory Benford’s SF novel Timescape (London: Gollancz 1980). The novel’s plot is split between the devastated Britain of 1998 and the optimistic California of 1963, as a group of scientists in Cambridge attempt to use tachyons to carry a message back to their counterparts in La Jolla to warn them of the coming ecological crisis which is gradually causing global civilization to collapse. Benford is an American, and one of the team of Cambridge scientists, Gregory Markham, also hails from across the Pond. The book therefore includes descriptions and meditations on Britain’s relationship to its past, compared with America, and the class structure of British society. On page 182, Benford comments on the educational segregation at Cambridge High Table.

He walked back towards the colleges, letting this feel of the press of time seep into him. He and Jan had been to High Table at several of the colleges, the ultimate Anglophile experience. Memorial plate that gleamed like quicksilver, and crested goblets. In the after-dinner room of polished wood, gilt frames held glowering portraits of the college founders. In the great dining hall Jan had been surprised to find de facto segregation: Etonians at one table, Harrovians at another, the lesser public schools’ alumni at a third, and, finally, state school graduates and everyone else at a motley last table. To an American in such a citadel of education, after the decades of ferocious equality-at-all-costs politics, it seemed strange. There persisted a reliance on inherited advantages, and even the idea that such a system was an inherited virtue as well.

This is not too far removed from the description of outright class snobbery Thackeray describes in his Book of Snobs. Casting his eye about England’s great, and at the time, only universities, he noted the way the class system affected even the type of gowns undergraduates wore:

If you consider, dear reader, what profound snobbishness the University system produced, you will allow that it is time to attack some of those feudal middle-age superstitions. If you go down for five shillings to look at the ‘College Youths’, you may see one sneaking down the court without a tassel to his cap; another with a gold or silver fringe to his velvet trencher; a third lad with a master’s gown and hat,, walking at ease over the sacred College grass-plats, which common men must not tread on.

Me may do it because he is a nobleman. Because a lad is a lord, the University grants him a degree at the end of two years which another is seven in acquiring. Because he is a lord, he has no call to go through an examination. Any man who has not been to College and back for five shillings [the price of the train fare to Oxford and Eton], would not believe in such distinctions in a place of education, so absurd and monstrous do they seem to be.

The lads with gold and silver lace are sons of rich gentlemen, and called Fellow Commoners; they are privileged to feed better than the pensioners, and to have wine with their victuals, which the latter can only get in their rooms.

The unlucky boys who have no tassels to their caps, are called sizars – servitors at Oxford – (a very pretty and gentlemanlike title). A distinction is made in their clothes because they are poor; for which reason they wear a badge of poverty, and are not allowed to take their meals with their fellow-students.(pp. 60-61).

One of the other, British characters in Benford’s novel, Renfrew, who has the idea of using tachyon radiation to transmit to the past, is also an outsider. He’s the son of a working class Yorkshireman, and because of this is also an outsider amongst the public schoolboys. At one point Renfrew remembers how, as an undergraduate walking down Oxford’s corridors, he passes another pair in gowns. One of these says very loudly in an Oxbridge drawl, ‘Oh God, not another oik come up on a scholarship!’

Oxford has been under considerable pressure to make its more democratic, and Robert Peston has said in his book, Who Runs Britain, that there’s an element of hypocrisy amongst some of the Scots universities, who tried to capitalize on the class scandals that have erupted over Oxbridge in recent years. Some of the Scots universities, particularly St. Andrews’, are even more elite and class-ridden.

It’s tempting to think of those days of class snobbishness as having vanished along with scholarships. However, as the Tories are intent are privatizing the British school system, and really, desperately, want to bring back grammar schools if they can get away with it, as well as cut away the last vestiges of the student grant to the poor, it’s likely that they’ll come back.

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4 Responses to “The Privileged Class Background of BBC Staff, and the Problem of Oxbridge Public School Elitism”

  1. vondreassen Says:

    yup we have a whole muddle class of people who muddle up everything they do – sad EH !

  2. Florence Says:

    It’s the sheer mediocrity of the majority coming through the elite system, though, that is holding us back as a nation. The greater the stranglehold the privileged have on our institutions, the more the UK resembles some long lost colonial outpost in the 1920s, when the “bright young things” indulged in conspicuous consumption while the native serfs were worked to death, conveniently out of sight. The BBC is a bastion for the whole damned class, and provide the blinkers to keep the natives misery hidden. The proportions of Oxbridge would be higher, except they actually need talented (working) people to keep the whole show on the road. Just as I remember it.

    Just one incident summed up my experience there. I was meeting with the Transmission and Engineering senior management (as I was in charge of automating the most technical part of it) and took my boss along. As the meeting was about to start, one of them lent forward and said to me in impeccable RP “you may find some of the words we use a bit long and difficult so make sure (your boss) helps you when you need to take notes”. I have a PhD. My boss stepped in and explained to them in insultingly short words that I was indeed a mighty intellect and they shouldn’t be afraid to ask if I left them behind at any point. He was Chinese and it is a fact that foreign nationals often excel because, as my best friend said, they can’t tell your class from your accent. Pathetic.

    • beastrabban Says:

      You have had an interesting life, Florence – doing voluntary work at Swindon for the railways, and working for the Beeb! And I think you’re absolutely right about the way the upper classes see working class Brits in the same colonial terms their older relatives saw the indigenous workers on their plantations. When I was doing voluntary work on the slavery documents at the former Empire and Commonwealth Museum, one of the government papers they had there was a report by a Major Moody from the 1820s discussing whether the enslaved people of the Caribbean were ready to be given their freedom. Moody states in the introduction that he was entirely suited for the task, having had considerable experience with labour. This seemed to cover the British laboring poor as well as the enslaved workers in the West Indies and elsewhere in the British Empire.

      One of mum’s stories about when she was a girl growing up in Southmead, one of the rougher parts of Bristol, also shows the weird, stereotypical attitude the Beeb then had to the working class. One of the young women she knew was an actress, who went to audition one day for a part in a BBC play. She was told by the producers that, as she was playing a working class character, she would drink her tea from the saucer. The girl then made the mistake of correcting them. She told them that working class people didn’t drink tea like that, but the same way everyone else did. Oh no, she was wrong! They insisted they knew right. She didn’t get the part.

      And considering the way that all manner of sins have been heaped on the working class in recent years, from ‘fecklessness’ by Gordon Brown and New Labour, to virulent racism – see the chapter on Owen Jones’ ‘Chavs’, it’s clear that we really are living in Disraeli’s ‘Two Nations’. And the Tories are desperately trying to keep it so, while all the while claiming that they’re all ‘One Nation’ and don’t believe in such distinctions.

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