Let’s talk about diversity at Oxbridge – from a PR perspective

The UK’s elite universities have a major problem, one that needs to be dealt with now rather than later. It’s a problem that probably won’t come as a major surprise to a lot of people which is a fact that is in itself disturbing and deeply upsetting. Everyone knows that Oxford and Cambridge are the best universities in the UK and that their student intake tends to consist of people from socially privileged backgrounds. A report published recently sparked controversy regarding Oxford and Cambridge University’s student admissions.“As part of a set of data released by the two universities that also revealed a stark regional and socio-economic divide in their intake, the figures showed that just 1.5% of all offers from the two universities to UK A-level students went to black British candidates.” This is completely unacceptable, it does not reflect the true diversity of the United Kingdom. The attitude of both of the Oxbridge universities in reaction to this also leaves a lot to be desired. From a PR perspective it does not seem like Oxford or Cambridge care enough about how this will negatively effect their public perception.

I always assumed that Oxford and Cambridge were universities reserved for those with superior intelligence (which is fine), and for those who come from a wealthy / upper middle class background (which is more problematic). It should not be like this, everyone who is intelligent enough should get the chance to go to Oxford or Cambridge. It is hard to blame students for feeling discouraged from applying to Oxbridge when media coverage of both universities seems to revolve around the lack of students from diverse backgrounds being able to attend these prestigious universities. I mean where is the incentive to apply when you feel that you might end up being marginalised? Thankfully for both Oxford and Cambridge some of their students have been taking their own action to combat this problem.  Student vloggers such as Mohammed Ibrahim (IbzMo), Courtney Daniella and Nissy Tee (who has now graduated) have been uploading videos to Youtube discussing the real issues that arise when attending these universities from a less “traditional” background.

I first stumbled across IbzMo’s channel in March of this year whilst I was finishing my undergraduate degree during a major procrastination session. I don’t know how I found his channel but I am very glad that I did. Mohammed has an enthusiasm for learning which is very infectious. His channel is fantastic, providing a real insight in to what it is like to be a student at the University of Cambridge from an ethnic minority background. From just taking a quick glance upon his twitter feed you can see the very real impact that his channel is having upon secondary school students throughout the UK. It is heartwarming to see how these school students are becoming empowered through Mohammed’s fine example. Representation is a key factor in encouraging students to see beyond the stereotypical view of the Oxbridge, at the end of the day Oxbridge should be for everyone not just privileged groups.

Courtney Daniella also does this on her Youtube channel with one of her most popular videos deals with encouraging young people from ethnic minority backgrounds to apply to Oxbridge universities. Sadly Courtney has been the victim of trolling in the past, receiving hateful comments that she only was able to attend Cambridge due to a diversity “quota” not due to her obviously high intelligence and individual talent. Despite these nasty comments Courtney continues to encourage diversity in higher education institutions and continues to act as a role model to those students who without her guidance and help may never have decided to apply to more prestigious universities. I am certainly very grateful to these student vloggers for highlighting these issues and for being brave enough to try and tackle these injustices. I just hope that Oxford and Cambridge will try and do more to support them in the future as they are carrying out vital PR work for both universities in terms of encouraging students from ethnic minority groups and lower income backgrounds to apply to these institutions, despite what the press and wider society might be saying about their chances in getting there.

Catherine Leonard is studying for a MSc in Communications and Public Relations with Political Lobbying at Ulster University. She can be found on Twitter @CLeonard1212

 

The Clare Balding & Saga magazine saga

If you have even the slightest bit of interest in sport, chances are that you are familiar with Clare Balding the sports presenter who works for both the BBC and Channel 4. Balding’s ubiquitous sports coverage was memorably lampooned by British comedian Tracey Ullman earlier this year in a sketch that seemed eerily accurate. 

 

Balding presents a wide range of events from the Olympic Games to Crufts (the world’s largest dog show) on Channel 4. She is one of these presenters who always seems to be on television. She appears to be someone who has a genuine love and passion for what she does. She comes across as unassuming and approachable on any broadcast that she makes. This is why I was absolutely mystified at an article that was published in The Guardian on Saturday, where a journalist claimed that Balding was a controlling diva who wanted the final say over an article that was to be published in Saga magazine. In the article “How BBC star Clare Balding nicked my byline” Ginny Dougary lamented the fact that Balding insisted that she have final say over what was included in the article. “Who is this insecure diva who does not know better about what should be an essential divide between journalism and public relations? It must be one of those Hollywood actors, you might think, represented by aggressively image-controlling agents. Well, it is disappointing to report that it is one of the nation’s darlings and a champion of other women, particularly right now in the battle for equal pay at the BBC. Yes, it’s all-round good egg Clare Balding.”

As all good PR students know, there is a divide between PR and journalism, or at least there should be. What interested me about this article is the fact that previously I would have thought nothing negative about Clare Balding, now I am not so sure. The seed of doubt has been planted. It seems crazy to me that what is essentially a fluff piece (my apologies to journalists but unless you are a sort of Lynn Barber type interviewer, that is how they come across, but if they help you stay afloat in your chosen career by all means carry on) merits such rigorous protection.

Apparently, one of the main problems that Balding had about the article was that it focused too much on her sexuality. “The next day, I receive an email from the editor, Katy Bravery, apologising but adding: “Clare and her agent have complained that there is way too much about her being gay in the interview, and I have to say I agree.”  Now here is the thing, it could be that Balding spoke at length about her sexuality to this journalist, however upon reading the article felt that it was not doing enough to promote what she really wanted to talk about, her new children’s book. Balding is very clear about her sexuality in her daily life but could it be that she just didn’t want it to be mentioned within this particular article? I don’t really understand why Dougary seems so fixated on Balding’s sexuality, could it be that Balding inadvertently said something that she wished to be kept “off the record” and realised that this might be included in the article. Maybe Balding herself thought that it was not information that the readers of Saga magazine would be interested in. Is Balding within her rights to retract some things that she has said over the course of the interview or not?

Here is the real issue though, the article goes on to mention that Balding has clearly added quotes to the interview, which the journalist was previously unaware of. Alarm bells should be going off by now, Balding’s job is to answer the questions she was asked, not to suddenly decide after a while that she now has something better to say.  A journalist should have the final say not the interviewee, a journalist’s job is to scrutinise power after all. Does an interview with a celebrity do that though? Are they a clear opportunity to scrutinise someone’s position or are they simply a PR exercise? There is far too much emphasis nowadays on what celebrities have to do and say.  Each article or pre-recorded chat show interview seems the same. If you want to gain a real insight into how a celebrity thinks or feels then you need to talk to them one on one. Average people such as you and me do not get this opportunity though, so instead we turn to our magazine articles and chat show interviews desperately wanting to relate to these celebrities. We want to believe that their interviews on Graham Norton et al are real, unrehearsed, spur of the moment events.

However, do journalists really believe that each interview that they have with a celebrity is not a carefully constructed PR exercise? Do we the readers really believe that? Think of Hollywood’s stars of the Golden Age, everything was controlled. There were no photos of actors falling out of nightclubs. These stars were “perfect” supposedly.  Has anyone ever seen a bad photo of Lauren Bacall or Grace Kelly in their heyday for example? Call me old-fashioned, but I fail to see how this could lead to accusations of “fake news”. The interview would have to be newsworthy in the first place, celebrity interviews are not the most important thing that someone will read over the course of a day.

I am going to end this long-winded post by saying that both Saga magazine and Clare Balding have come out strongly denying Dougary’s claims. However, the damage has been done for me. Now every year when I watch Crufts I will be thinking is Clare Balding actually nice or is she a controlling diva? It’s highly ironic that by trying to control this interview, Balding has damaged her brand for many people including myself. I am sorry if this comes across as a rant against objective journalism, it is not meant to be. Impartiality in journalism has never been more important, I just want all parties involved in celebrity interviews to acknowledge the unspoken truth, that these type of interviews are a type of PR exercise. Celebrity interviews are where public relations and journalism collide, like it or not. Maybe it’s time we started to have a look at how we view the journalistic merit of such interviews in the first place.

 

Catherine Leonard is studying for a MSc in Communications and Public Relations with Political Lobbying at Ulster University. She can be found on Twitter @CLeonard1212