The Matrix Database is an effort to document personal factors that undermine powerful journalists’ claims of objectivity and impartiality. We are on the lookout for significant conflicts of interest and likely causes of bias/imbalance along the most high-profile political and opinion journalists in the UK – and we’ve found plenty!
We have now completed the entries for the “top 20” UK journalists (ranked by Twitter following). Our results for the “top 20” are as follows:
45% (9/20) of the top 20 UK journalists studied at at least one private/independent school
50% (10/20) of the top 20 UK journalists studied at Oxford or Cambridge University
These figures compare with the overall British population as follows: 7% attended private/independent schools, 1% attended Oxbridge. The figures also correlate with those of the Elitist Britain Parliamentary Report, which found that 54 percent of the top 100 media professionals attended independent schools and 47 per cent of newspaper columnists attended Oxbridge.
These aren’t the only bare facts in our findings for the top 20 which cast doubt on how reflective of the population (and, ipso facto, the population’s interests) these journalists are.
35% (7/20) of the top 20 UK journalists have significant work experience in a rival field to journalism – i.e. a field such as politics or business those very same journalists are meant to hold to account. Anyone who doubts just how compromising this category is may wish to check out the entry for Daniel Finkelstein, who, among many other things, was speechwriter to Chancellor George Osborne while on The Times payroll for commentating on Osborne’s government!
80% (16/20) of the top 20 UK journalists earn in the region of 10 times the average UK salary of £26,193 or more (Average UK salary figure as per the Office of National Statistics).
In reality, all the top 20 journalists almost certainly earn £250,000 or more per year, but the income of private sector journalists/authors like James O’Brien and Daniel Finkelstein isn’t usually disclosed.
Warning: That Isn’t Even the Worst of It!
Most of the above is known, to a degree. Reports such as Elitist Britain and the publication of BBC salaries affirm that “top journalists” have privileged backgrounds and huge incomes.
The area our database set out to study, which has not, to our knowledge, been systematically examined before, are private ties between journalists and other elite individuals/groups that call into question fundamental journalistic tenets like independence and impartiality.
Robert Peston, son of a Baronet, helpfully summarises:
“If only voters knew the close social, educational and familial connections between politicians, media and the City, there would be riots on the street.”
Do our top 20 findings suggest that voters should be concerned about an elite consensus overriding democratic principles?
70% (14/20) of the top 20 UK journalists have at least one primary establishment connection. We define a primary establishment connection as “a close family relationship or long-term friendship which, by definition, would render impartial reporting of the person in question (and their related interests) impossible”. Full definition here.
Many of our top 20 had multiple entries in this field. Laura Kuenssberg, for example, has High Court judge, Lord Robertson as a grandfather. Her other grandfather is Dr Ekkehard von Kuenssberg, founder and president of the Royal College of General Practitioners. Her father is businessman and director Nick Kuenssberg, OBE. Her mother is influential public sector chairman Sally Kuenssberg, CBE. Her sister is Joanna Kuenssberg, the High Commissioner of the UK to Mozambique.
Kuenssberg, we note, is the BBC’s Political Editor – arguably the most influential journalist in UK democracy. Whose interests do her background suggest she will promote, those of ruling elites or the public that pay the licence fee?
Our database demonstrates that it isn’t just the odd journalist, a Kuennsberg or Peston, who operate in this compromised position – it is the majority of them.
And there’s more:
60% (12/20) of the top 20 UK journalists have at least one secondary establishment connection. We define secondary establishment connection as “recent friendships or unusually close professional relationships – that, nonetheless, raise questions about the possibility of impartial reporting” (Full definition here). A case in point would be then-BBC Political Editor Andrew Marr launching a book at Downing Street, with his host the very PM (David Cameron) he was meant to be holding to account!
50% (10/20) of the top 20 UK journalists have BOTH primary and secondary establishment connections
Only 10% (2/20) of the top 20 UK journalists had no verifiable establishment connections (Andrew Rawnsley and Dan Wootton).
What are we to make of all this?
Structural studies of the media, such as Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model (explained and evidenced here) highlight the influence of media ownership on journalistic output. In essence, Chomsky and Herman show, journalism is confined to fierce debate and reporting within the spectrum of opinion allowed by elites.
Our findings, preliminary though they are, complement the propaganda model by highlighting that top journalists are themselves the elite. Leading journalists earn salaries in the hundreds of thousands, hail from establishment backgrounds and/or digest elite values at private schools and Oxbridge. They marry other members of the journalistic, business or financial elite and socialise with leading players in British politics, business and journalism.
Journalistic output is, in effect, constrained both from within (elite group consensus) and without (ownership values of the media).
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