‘A View From Below’ Essay Published In Commentland: A Decade of UK Comment and Opinion

Solomon Elliott says he is "delighted to have contributed to this brilliant collection of essays on the state of UK comment journalism."

Our founder Solomon Elliott has contributed to a new collection of essays named Commentland: A Decade of UK Comment and Opinion, 2009 – 2019.

Fellow contributors include Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Jane Brien, Stephanie Flanders, Stephen Fleming, Claire Fox, Ed Gillespie, Julia Hobsbawm, Rachel Johnson, Dylan Jones, Deborah Mattinson, Adrian Monck, Peter Morgan, Sanjay Nazerali, Matt Peacock, Vicky Pryce, Justine Roberts, Anthony Seldon, Geraldine Sharpe-Newton, Gisela Stuart, Stephanie Theobald and Yanis Varoufakis.

Solomon’s contribution, A View From Below, can be read below.

A View from Below

Solomon Elliott

Commentland: A Decade of UK Comment and Opinion, 2009 – 2019.

Solomon Elliott is Chief Executive of The Student View, a media literacy charity on a mission to create a newsroom in every school.

While working as an English teacher in South London, I was unsettled by the return of inflammatory rhetoric creeping back into public debate.

Newspapers were publishing stories suggesting the rise of multicultural Britain signalled its destruction and that half of our nation’s Muslim community would keep the identities of ISIS supporters hidden from the police. One commentator likened migrants to “cockroaches”. This was just a few years ago.

I was even more concerned about the impact this bigotry was having on my pupils. How could I explain to Artur, an unaccompanied minor from Albania, or Mahmoud, a Syrian refugee, that to some in our country, they were just immigrants “draining” the wealth of the public purse?

Everyone has the right to free speech, so I decided to create The Student View to give young people a chance to share their world through words.

Launched in September 2016, The Student View is an online publication written by students, for students. My team and I are on a mission to create a newsroom in every school and ensure all young people become critical media consumers and creators.

Before our official launch, I piloted the idea during my second year on the Teach First programme. Our first intervention group was a sparky bunch majority of eleven-to-twelve-year-old boys who were underperforming in English.

A common remark from my pupils was: “Nobody really cares what we think, so what’s the point?” Their apathy was no surprise.

A 2016 survey published by City University London reported that 94% of the British journalism industry is white. In contrast, 26% of England’s schoolchildren come from an ethnic minority background. Our press needs a vibranium-charged jolt to reconfigure its current make-up and reflect the population it serves.

The project was initially met with resistance from some in the group. One claimed he was “not good at writing” because he was in a “low-ability” set. I rustled up a few teacher tricks to get the boys on side. One scheme involved giving pupils on the programme a pass to skip the lunch queue, much to the anger of their peers…

Once they came into my classroom, the cheeky chappies slurped spag bol, frantically typing to have their say. The chance to write about their favourite footballer, rather than mimicking him in the playground, was an experience “way better than actual English lessons!”

As soon as they got the hang of it, they were hooked. One boy, who had scored the reading age of a seven-year-old at the start of the course, achieved the reading age of a twelve-year-old by the end.

I invited friends teaching in schools across London to encourage their pupils to share stories too. One girl from West London described the pain she felt on her way home from school when she was told: “Go back to Syria you don’t belong here.” Another student told of his experiences as a special needs learner, luring the audience in with the clever headline “Wahts it liek growing up wtih dislexia?”

Through publication, we empower our participants so they continue to speak out long after they finish the programme. Adam Abdullah, 15, has done just this. Reflecting on his time with us in 2017, he said The Student View allows pupils “to genuinely communicate your ideas”. Adam continues to write in his spare time and recently wrote a piece about the causes of knife crime which he addressed to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. This powerful piece was published by Vice UK in November 2018.

To combat digital disruption, we reconnect journalists with young people in their local areas. The disconnection of journalists from ordinary people in the digital age is a democratic disaster which enables mass distrust of the press to persist. According to research conducted by the Pew Research Centre in 2017, only 32% of British adults trust the news media. To date, we’ve assembled a community of 80 journalists who have signed up as volunteers from organisations including The Telegraph, The Guardian and the BBC. They act as mentors, offering verbal feedback to our contributors.

Pupils feel “privileged” and “inspired” to create content under the watchful eye of a leading journalist and our volunteers appreciate the chance to see life through the eyes of a child. When Georgie Frost, a BBC 5 Live presenter, met one of our writers growing up in foster care, she remarked that she had been reminded of “balance, of how we need to consider the impact of what we write on others” as well as “how important it is that those who are affected have a voice to tell us their perspective”.

Despite these touching moments, our work is challenging. The young people we meet far too often do not know how to use a search engine effectively, save a Word document or transfer a file onto a USB stick. Promoting media literacy starts with basic introductions to essential tasks like these. With such weak computer literacy skills, how can we expect young people from Britain’s poorest homes to survive in the age of misinformation?

The news habits of our writers are different to their parents, the majority who grew up in a pre – internet era. While the television is still “first port of call” for news among adults according to Ofcom, the majority of our writers consume news online via social media platforms such as Snapchat Discover’s news channels.

Growing up in a rapidly evolving news environment challenges us to give pupils the right tools to spot misinformation, understand their privacy rights and develop their storytelling skills. We describe comment, at its very best, as a tool to assist readers to make decisions about how best to lead their lives.

Navigating the noise of competing voices is harder now because social media has made everyone a commentator. Performative outrage has become an essential part of the identity of some commentators fighting for attention in this clickbait era. Ill-informed voices with an ability to play on our emotions using soundbites have risen often at the expense of “grey”, expert opinion.

It is not uncommon that those who cry wolf at being silenced by the “oppressive” force of political correctness often have the largest platforms to express such views.

Readers are confronted with a public discussion in which personality trumps facts. While this results in likes and shares on social media as well as shouting matches among pundits, our public discourse is worryingly shaped by a small cross-section of British society. Making democracy the loser.

In response to this struggle to be heard, young people particularly from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds have taken a DIY approach and built their own comment platforms. Gal – dem, an online and print magazine written exclusively by women and non-binary people of colour for all to read is one brilliant example.

Currently, potential talent is put off by the unappealing prospect of multiple unpaid internships necessary to be considered for paid roles. This unsurprisingly benefits those who can live for free with family and friends. The socially narrow recruitment pool is made up of informal professional networks which rely on nepotism and entrench social immobility further. Excellent work has been carried out by the Journalism Diversity Fund and Creative Access to attract talent from working class and BAME backgrounds.

The exclusionary practice of working for free to “get your foot in the door” must end to ensure entry to the journalism profession is fair. Otherwise, the media cannot credibly challenge the accusation that it is elitist.

Today, The Student View is scaling across the UK with the support of Google.org and the Financial Times. We hope that if the number of our volunteer journalists grow, we can reach more schools. Then, maybe by 2029, the nation’s leading comment pages will have bylines bearing the names of our writers.