Last month’s social mobility report found that journalism is now one of the most “socially exclusive” professions around — accessible only to those who can afford to work for free for months on end. Young broadcast journalist Ben (name changed), now 30, has met Tony Blair and David Cameron, interviewed celebrities and covered the Manchester riots in August 2011 — but he has paid a huge price. Here, he tells Graduate Fog how he was left bankrupt after spending six years desperately seeking full-time work — and why for most young people starting a career in the media in 2012 just doesn’t add up…

What was it like being declared bankrupt at such a young age?
“Horrible. I had to go to the local county court to file my forms and pay a £500 fee. The judge was not actually there — I spoke to him through a speakerphone and in five minutes I was declared bankrupt. I don’t recommend bankruptcy for everyone but in my position it seemed to be my only way out. At one point I was in £26,000 of debt and I had debt collection agencies hounding me – every day I was bombarded by letters and phonecalls. It was scary.”

What was the worst thing about it?
“Definitely the stigma. A lot of my family think I took the easy way out but for me it was the right decision. There have been other consequences too — all of a sudden, getting a credit card, personal loan, renting a flat or changing energy provider became massive obstacles. I recently got rejected for buying a computer at PC World because I was deemed not creditworthy enough. My bankruptcy won’t fall off my file until November 2013 at the earliest and even then I will find it difficult to open a current account, or even find a mortgage with a decent interest rate.”

“The BBC say they believe in opportunity for all, but they want you to be available at the drop of a hat, on the off-chance they might need you for a shift. Who can afford to live like that?” Ben, 30, aspiring broadcast journalist

That sounds horrible. How things get so bad?
“I got myself into a mess trying to get myself experience in radio — and on top of the sum I’d invested in my studies, it was all too much. Despite working as a glass collector, call centre operative and a higher education administrator, I sank into more and more debt, living beyond my means and trying to carve out a career for myself in this highly competitive industry. Much of the work I was doing was either unpaid or very low paid. I couldn’t make ends meet, so I ended up applying for more loans and credit cards. Temporarily, the problem would be solved — but never for long. It costs money to live, and if you’re earning a pittance you can’t cover your bills.”

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How much had you spent on your studies?
“My undergraduate degree was in Psychology and coming from a working class background I took out the full whack of student loans in addition to working a part-time job to make ends meet. During that course, I loved working at my student radio station, so afterwards I took the huge financial gamble of studying for a journalism qualification. I took out an £11,000 career development loan — a bank loan for postgraduate students — to study at a Midlands-based university. I got down to the final two for a scholarship but just missed out — to a much wealthier candidate, ironically.”

“This report finds that journalism has shifted to a greater degree of social exclusivity than any other profession… Journalism, with some honourable exceptions, does not seem to take the issue of fair access seriously. Where it has focused on the issue, it has prioritised race and gender but not socio­-economic diversity. That needs to change.” Alan Milburn’s social mobility report, May 2012

Did you think you’d walk into paid work straight after that?
“Yes – I was quite confident because some of my other colleauges on my course had walked straight into permanent jobs. I had done three unpaid placements on my course which added up to around 6 weeks worth of experience, basically learning all about how to work in a professional newsroom, going out gathering and editing audio, and producing pieces for broadcast. We also produced weekly news shows and I worked in a variety of roles (reporter, producer, editor), so I had plenty of practical experience even before I graduated. I naively assumed that would be enough. But I quickly discovered that I would need much more experience before employers would even consider me for a permanent, full-time job. In the meantime, I started temping and did the odd poorly paid shift in a news room and some traffic and travel reporting, usually at £7 an hour. I earned around £800 a month — but with my monthly repayments for all my loans averaging £670 it wasn’t anywhere near enough to survive on. We relied a lot on my wife’s student loan for her PhD at the start of her studies. (She is American and the loans they take out are totally different to the student loans that are available in the UK).”

“What seems to distinguish journalism from other professions is that interns are substitutes for what in other sectors would be regarded as functions carried out by mainstream paid employees. The practice in much of the media industry is more akin to treating interns as free labour. The problem with that is self-evident. It is possible only for those who can afford to work for free. It means that others — perhaps with equal or better claims on a career in journalism — are excluded from consideration.” Alan Milburn’s social mobility report, May 2012

Were you paid for all your freelance journalism work?
“No. I did a lot unpaid and low-paid work and what they call ‘trial’ shifts. This is supposed to be an opportunity for them to try you out for a free shift to see if they like you, with a view to offering you paid work in future — but often I got the sense that they used these trial shifts as a way to cut costs and never had any intention of offering me any paid work. All the while I did this I was losing money, spending money on travel. Then there was the cost of getting to job interviews, which employers never reimburse you for. I thought it would be cheaper if I had a car, so plunged myself further into debt by taking driving lessons. I then had the monthly maintenance of a car in addition to all my debt to contend with. I also spent three weeks in a cold campervan in Chorley for a radio station. They promised I’d be paid but it took me six months and threatening legal action before they coughed up the princely sum of £450.”

Did you try and complain?
“I fought hard for any money I’d been promised — I was shocked by how many employers tried to duck out of paying me after I’d done the work — but there was nothing I could do about the situation in general without burning bridges. All aspiring journalists know that if you kick up a fuss, word will spread and you’ll be labelled a troublemaker. So mostly everyone just accepts it as a rubbish situation. They believe it’s all part of the test — to see whether you want it badly enough.”

“It’s easy to convince yourself that your big break is just around the corner.” Ben, 30, aspiring broadcast journalist

Why didn’t you give up?
“Because I kept getting great feedback for my work, so I know I’m good enough — there are just a lot of obstacles in the way. It’s easy to convince yourself that your big break is just around the corner. I was over the moon when the BBC offered me a month’s contract paying me around £1,600 after tax. At the end of that, the editor said I’d done a fantastic job but they didn’t have the budget to pay me for any longer. Some months later, the BBC rang again to ask me to work unpaid for a week — and then I was offered two paid shifts at another BBC station, and some casual shifts at a third station. However, it was impossible to fit this around my paid job. The BBC say they believe in opportunity for all, but they want you to be available at the drop of a hat, on the off-chance they might need you. Who can afford to live like that? I can’t — I have bills to pay.”

What are you doing now?
“I haven’t given up on journalism — but I’m slowly falling out of love with the industry. I still do the occasional paid shift at a radio station but I am losing hope that this will ever lead to full-time work as both the BBC and commercial radio make cuts. I find it harder to care about an industry that’s so ready to take advantage of its young staff — and feels so little sympathy for us. Last month, I managed to get to my first ever job interview for a full-time position at the BBC (paying £24,000) — and guess what? They told me I needed more experience! They wanted at least six months of full-time experience — bits of freelance work weren’t enough. So I am still at my dead-end public sector job earning £18,000, which saps my brain on a daily basis. We’re supposed to live in a society where there is social mobility — but when unpaid experience is so vital, it’s almost impossible to improve your career prospects, particularly if you have financial or family commitments. The system is stacked against those of us who can’t afford to work for free for months on end.”

“Everyone just accepts it as a rubbish situation. They believe it’s all part of the test — to see whether you want it badly enough.” Ben, 30, aspiring broadcast journalist

What is your advice to anybody considering a career in journalism?
“Get as much experience as you can while you’re still studying — it’s ten times harder to make ends meet once you finish your degree. Do everything you can to build your network of contacts and have something set up for as soon as you graduate. And be realistic. It’s not true that if you want it enough, you’ll get there in the end. However good you are, there are no guarantees. I have dozens of friends who started off with high hopes and are seriously talented — but they’ve jacked it in to do more stable professions like teaching or law. The biggest obstacle is that every year there are more ‘bright young things’ flooding the market, willing to work for months on end unpaid. So why should anybody pay me? There are only so many times you can stand to hear an editor say, ‘I’m afraid we can’t pay you — but we can offer you a month’s unpaid experience…'”

Is journalism open to all – or are wealthier applicants unfairly advantaged? Are you trying to break into media – and have you faced similar obstacles? What should be done to make journalism – and media – more inclusive of candidates from all backgrounds?

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