The Orwell Prize, DJ Taylor and the intern debate

22 May 2011

10:23 AM

22 May 2011

10:23 AM

On Tuesday, I presented the Orwell Prize for journalism to brave Jenni Russell, who used
the occasion to go public on her battle against cancer. She had not been well enough to apply for the award herself, but her son had selected her best articles and she was a worthy winner.

Here’s the official tribute to her work: “Jenni Russell was the stand-out journalist in an outstanding field. Her empathy for the world beyond Westminster gives her writing an extra
dimension often lacking in political insiders. There is an overriding humanity to her work, whether she is covering the death-throes of the last Labour government or the birth-pangs of the


This really was an extraordinary shortlist and I recommend readers to go on to the Orwell Prize website and click on the links to the articles by Philip Collins, Amelia Gentleman, Catherine Mayer,
Gideon Rachman, Rachel Shabi and Declan Walsh.

I used the platform granted to me as a judge to attack the culture of free labour in
 suggesting it was impossible to break into “Fleet Street” today without parental backing and free accommodation in London. I already think it’s possible to see
the effects of this on the quality of journalism. Me and my fellow judge, Michela Wrong struggled to find anyone under 40 to put on the longlist. I am convinced this decline will continue if we
insist on taking our new recruits from such a restricted talent pool.

There is an interesting alternative view from DJ Taylor in the Independent on Sunday today, where he suggests that the old craft model of
recruitment where young journalists had to do their time in local newspapers was just as restricting in its way. “The modern editor may not have much money to throw around, but at least he
can recruit who he likes,” says Mr Taylor. I’m not sure what Orwell would have thought of this, but he is right that journalism has always been a fiercely competitive profession.

DJ Taylor and myself are the living proof that Oxbridge public schoolboys have been entering journalism for some time. We even shared an English teacher, the inspirational Christopher Rowe, who
taught David at Norwich School and me at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital in Bristol. It’s a small world. Too small.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Good blog.

  • orgnaic cheeseboard

    “Me and my fellow judge, Michela Wrong struggled to find anyone under 40 to put on the longlist.”

    If so, perhaps you, as an editor, and your chums in Fleet Street could start to offer opportunities to younger journos, whatever their background?

  • wrinkled weasel

    “It’s a small world. Too small.”

    I agree. Why not give up your column for a week to some averagely educated 16 year olds from a comprehensive in Streatham, and then see why meritocracies are, on the whole, a good thing.

  • Matthew Blott

    This is sad news, from the tone of the article it doesn’t sound too promising for Jenni Russell. I don’t read her too much but have from time to time and have enjoyed her work, my thoughts are with her and her family.

    @ Patricia Shaw

    I’m not sure what that’s got to do with Martin Bright.

  • Ian Walker

    The problem with internships isn’t their existence, it’s the growing social divide between those on the inside of organisations, and those on the outside.

    This is where the Big Society could really make a difference. By encouraging people from both the top and bottom of society to work together on local issues, you increase the networking opportunities for their offspring, and subsequently improve social mobility.

    This already happens through those few organisations that through a quirk of fate manage to cross social boundaries. At my rugby club, it is very common for someone with a child interested in an area of work to approach someone else at the club who works in that area – no matter what the respective backgrounds.

    Of course, the socialists would see this as elitist, but anyone is welcome to join the club (the more the merrier!) and it just takes a little bit of effort to be sociable and pleasant.

    As a depressing anecdote yesterday, I was in a shop yesterday lunchtime, when the work experience lad turned up for his first day – 3 hours late in torn sweatpants and trainers.

    I don’t know the specifics of course, but it’s not hard to imagine that if you’ve never seen someone in your house get up and go to work, you wouldn’t know anything about what’s expected of the real world outside of the crazy land of Benefitia.

    The interns issue is just a symptom of reduced social mixing, declining community cohesion and ingrained benefit dependency. Your efforts would be better spend on fixing those things.

  • Patricia Shaw

    martin, will you diassociate yourself from Melanie Phillips latest blog which suggests all Palestinians are terrorists?

  • John Faulkner

    “Me and my fellow judge, Michela Wrong struggled to find…”
    “DJ Taylor and myself are the living proof…”

    Martin, did Christopher Rowe teach that standard of English?