The life and lost times of Arthur Crook

Time was when you could go from copy boy to editor. So what's the secret now to getting on in newspapers?
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The Independent Online

Crook was the son of a Times printer. He was a scholarship boy at his north London school, but family money problems meant he had to leave when he was 14. His father managed to get him a job as a messenger on The Times. Two years later he moved to the newspaper's library, where, surrounded by reference books and press cuttings and dealing daily with reporters' queries, he continued the education he had had to abandon. He moved to the TLS when he was 18 as a junior, and stayed there for 44 years.

Could a working-class boy or girl, their formal education over at 14, taken on as a messenger running errands around The Times building, today progress to the editor's chair of Rupert Murdoch's most cerebral UK publication, or indeed any other senior journalism position? I doubt it.

Sir Peter Stothard and Ferdinand Mount, the first the current editor of the TLS, the second his predecessor, are men of "good" backgrounds and Oxbridge educations, with the social ease and connections that accompany such an upbringing.

The editor of the TLS will mix with a literary, academic and media elite. His world will incorporate modern corporate publishing with its marketing and PR executives and literary celebrities such as Amis, Self and Rushdie.

This is the metropolitan media elite of which he is a member - the thinking person's celebrity world. Culture and celebrity were not so intertwined in Arthur's day, yet the paradox is that this supposedly more meritocratic age has probably restricted access to the media. The expression "media classes" has entered the language and while it is hard to define, its members and those who observe them closely know what it is.

Journalism used to be learnt through apprenticeship. School-leavers, perhaps not as young as Arthur Crook but often no more than 16, were taken on by local papers, sent to college for a day a week to learn the vital skills and knowledge, and attached to an experienced journalist who would "show them the ropes". After a couple of years, they would take professional exams. Then they progressed, some as far as national newspapers, graduate-free apart from the quality broadsheets, which tended to have a mix of graduates who wrote leaders, and reporters who had come up the hard way. But then, and we are talking no more than 30 or 40 years ago, only about 5 per cent of school-leavers went to university.

Now the Government aspiration is 10 times that figure, so most journalists are graduates because most of the brighter people (and journalism takes intelligence) go to university. There are university and college journalism courses, and most media employers insist on such pre-entry training.

There is plenty of provision, not all of it good. The big attraction for the publishers - now mostly huge conglomerates - is that they transfer basic training costs to the taxpayer, the student, or his or her parents. There are huge savings for often greedy publishers. The good journalism courses are massively over-subscribed; the applicants have high academic qualifications, and one way of sifting the wheat from the wheat is to look for what we call "evidence of commitment". Are they serious? Work experience is an indicator.

They've seen journalism in action and still want to do it. Work experience - at the higher level sometimes described as internship, or free labour - is massively over-subscribed. Schoolchildren have to do it. "Evidence of commitment" people have to do it. Undergraduate and postgraduate students have to do it in order to get jobs. Newspapers are inundated with applications.

The children of the media elite find it easy to get work experience. Mum or dad will have a word with someone. National media are crowded out with sons and daughters of those who run national media doing working experience, because they too want to join the media elite. It becomes dynastic. Or is it another form of class? I recognise many names on application forms.

Does all this provide an open and diverse journalism? If it takes contacts, work experience, and money for the elite postgraduate courses to ease your way into the more attractive areas of the media, then those who have access to all three are advantaged. Which is why so many areas of society are under-represented in the media. But then if Arthur Crook's father had not been a printer on The Times Arthur probably wouldn't have got that messenger's job.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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