Speak for yourself!

The non-immigrant working class in northern Europe have become figures of fun and objects of derision in the media.

An Open Society report says 'white working class' in northern Europe has been misrepresented in media [Getty Images]

In June, the Open Society Foundations published a report called “Europe’s White Working Class Communities“. Researchers visited urban communities in six northern European countries and sought the opinions of non-immigrant residents.

They also made some recommendations based on what they saw as best practice in the cities they worked in. I am going to try to avoid getting tangled up in what the authors mean by the “white working class”, whether the term is helpful, and so on. The fact is, that they listened to people who are often ignored and in that they performed a useful service for the rest of us.

The report discusses health, housing, employment, identity and so on: the kinds of things that reports like these tend to discuss. But it also looks at the media’s treatment of these communities, and of the white working class in general.

The report notes a rise in hostile or contemptuous treatment of this demographic in the major media. In Holland and Germany the anti-social behaviour of some working class people has become a significant theme in broadcasting while in Sweden the supposed problem of “white trash” is a staple of television debate. And the United Kingdom leads Europe in its disparagement of non-immigrants on low incomes as lazy, substance-abusing dullards. (It is striking, by the way, that negative portrayals along these lines are so pervasive and influential in a country with a large and influential public service broadcasting sector in the shape of the BBC.)

The people interviewed were in no doubt that the media didn’t speak for them. Participants in Manchester said that journalists are “all born with a silver spoon in their mouth” and, as the report puts it, “working-class people have little opportunity to correct damaging stereotypes of themselves.”  The report highlights the fact that this is a “function of an unequal society, where people are largely excluded from jobs in the media”.

The working class in media

Negative stereotypes influence policy-making “because decisions are made based on the idea that people’s circumstances are based on their own poor choices (of diet, or financial management, for example).” And it isn’t only a matter of negative portrayals. In some places paucity of coverage meant that “rumour and prejudice were far more important in reinforcing outsiders’ perception of the area.” Either the media spoke about these people, often in disparaging terms, or there was silence.

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The idea that greater diversity among journalists and programme makers will improve the quality of coverage obviously has merit. But someone from a working class background who reaches a position where they can start to shape media content is no longer going to be working class in the way they once were.

The term working class is maddeningly imprecise, since most people have to sell their labour, but someone who works on a zero-hours contract for minimum wage will have a different sense of how the world works from their twin who is a script editor at a broadcaster with a generous pension and a degree of job security.

And both of them will see things differently from their cousin who works as a senior executive with commissioning responsibilities. You are not likely to rise in a hierarchy without making certain adjustments. And this is particularly true as the wider society becomes ever more unequal. Our imaginary executive might want to do right by his friends and family but to survive and prosper, she will have to take much more notice of what her superiors want.

Public subsidies for media

There is a simpler, more direct, way to change how all of society, including the working class, features in the generally available descriptions and rules of thumb that constitute the public sphere. Money that is currently spent by executives with one eye on the ratings and one eye on the politicians could be controlled by the people who pay for public media, that is, the citizen body itself.

If only a fraction of the public subsidies currently given to the media were made available for democratic distribution then communities of interest, identity and location could build their own content-creating institutions and connect them to the main circuits of publicity.

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Current victims of caricature and misrepresentation would be well-placed to take advantage of this opportunity to speak for themselves. As the Open Society report notes, long-established working class communities have strong social networks that are often overlooked by those outside. Far from favouring the already favoured, a degree of direct engagement in media commissioning would probably tend to favour those with both the motive and the means to push back against negative stereotypes.

The fact that the media feature at all marks the Open Societies report out from many publications that seek to inform policy-making and public debate. At around the same time as “Europe’s White Working Class Communities” came out, a UK think tank, the IPPR, published “The Condition of Britain“.

Although the IPPR itself says that “our overarching goal for society should be greater equality of social relations” and that “achieving this vision of equality requires us to challenge concentrations of power”, at no point does their set of recommendations mention the major media as candidates for reform. In among some sensible proposals it offers us innovations such as Neighbourhood Justice Panels, which sound like the sort of place where you’d bump into quiet batpeople.

“The Condition of Britain” has been warmly praised by the Labour Party in Britain. One leading figure, Tristram Hunt, has gone so far as to say that the report is “a sophisticated modern social democratic response to the age of austerity”. At least some of its proposals are likely to end up in Labour’s offerings in the election next year. (The word “offering” is a bit of a giveaway)

But without changes to the structure of the media, policy debate will remain in the hands of the major parties, a handful of think tanks, the owners and operators of the private media and senior executives at public service broadcasters. Those who enjoy privileged positions in a steeply unequal society will control what we talk about when we talk about “greater equality of social relations”. An institution whose largest single funder is the JP Morgan Chase Foundation will have inordinate power to define the meaning of social democracy. It will be left to an organisation funded by a successful speculator to offer a partial corrective.

It is hardly surprising that those who want to succeed tend to stay silent about existing concentrations of power and the steps we could take to break them up. How else can they hope to gain support and funding from those who currently benefit from inequalities of knowledge and material means?

The intellectuals and opinion-formers in such conditions increasingly make up a form of “guard labour” – fluent and smartly turned out security guards whose job is to keep the rest of us a safe distance from the sites of decision. It is time to change that. How we do that, white working class and all, I’ll leave you to think about.

Daniel Hind is the author of The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His third book, The Magic Kingdom, will be published in September.