In recent years, it’s become increasingly apparent that the British press has a tendency to give entrepreneurs a hard time.
Take just one entrepreneur as an example from the headlines over recent weeks: Stephen Bartlett. The entrepreneur joined the BBC’s Dragons’ Den as its youngest-ever investor. The brand Bartlett founded, Social Chain, has just been sold for a multi-million-pound sum.
Despite his impressive track record of success, Bartlett was met with a barrage of criticism. Especially from the British press when he was first announced as a Dragon. The press focus on his age, his lack of experience in investing, and his supposed arrogance rather than on his achievements and potential as an investor.
Is self-promotion bad for entrepreneurs?
According to The Guardian, Bartlett was criticised for his use of social media to promote his business. One journalist calls him a “self-promoting Instagram star”. The article also questions whether Bartlett’s success was due to his business acumen or simply his ability to create a personal brand through social media.
Other articles have described Bartlett as a “precocious entrepreneur who styles himself as a business guru but beneath the clichés lies a thinly veiled craving for celebrity.”
Similarly, The Independent has been critical of Bartlett’s business. It suggests it is not as innovative or disruptive as it claims to be. The article argued that Bartlett’s success is mainly due to his ability to generate buzz and hype through social media. This is instead of any genuine innovation or game-changing technology.
A final example from The Times is a headline: why Steven Bartlett is not the tycoon he claimed. Instead of his entrepreneurship, the article called it a media career. As well as sharing “misdirection and half-truths”.
This kind of negativity is all too common in the UK press regarding entrepreneurs. It is something that needs to change.
How media sees entrepreneurship across the pond
The difference is striking when we compare the UK press’s treatment of entrepreneurs to that of their American counterparts. In the US, entrepreneurs are celebrated and often given a hero-like status. They’re seen as trailblazers and innovators who are changing the world.
According to Forbes, American entrepreneurs are often celebrated for their ambition, risk-taking, and willingness to disrupt established industries. This positive portrayal can create a more supportive environment for entrepreneurship in the US. It may also contribute to the greater number of successful startups in the country.
In the UK, however, entrepreneurs are often portrayed as reckless, arrogant, and greedy.
This difference in attitude can be seen in how the media covers successful entrepreneurs in both countries. In the US, entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are celebrated for their vision and ambition, even if they are not always perfect.
In the UK, however, successful entrepreneurs are often subjected to harsh scrutiny, with their every move dissected and their motives questioned.
Why entrepreneurship is a scapegoat in UK media
1. A class act in journalism
One reason for this negative attitude towards entrepreneurship in the UK may be the country’s history of class-based societal structures. Typically, the UK’s elite comprises of those who inherit their wealth and status. This is instead of those who create wealth through entrepreneurship.
As a result, some may see the idea of a self-made entrepreneur as a threat to the established order and can come with hostility.
It is true that there is a class problem within the British press. A Diversity in Journalism survey by the NCTJ has found that 80% of journalists come from upper-class or professional backgrounds. Furthermore, journalists are twice as likely to come from privileged backgrounds – instead of journalism becoming more diverse, the metrics show a decline in social class diversity.
Class privilege has also been highlighted as a problem by the government for the stagnation of social mobility in the UK. As well as media portrayal, this is yet another challenge for entrepreneurs to overcome.
2. Entrepreneurship as entertainment fodder
TV programmes like Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice have the potential to promote entrepreneurship positively; however, the priority is on entertainment. In a business survey, it is hardly surprising that 75% of business people say that The Apprentice is not an accurate portrayal of the business world. Instead of promoting enterprise, they are “vehicles for creating celebrity business figures rather than educating the public on how to successfully develop their own enterprise.”
One of the main issues with these programmes is that they can create unrealistic expectations of what it takes to succeed in business. In addition, the competitive nature of the shows can lead contestants to adopt a cutthroat, win-at-all-costs mentality, which can be counterproductive to the collaborative and supportive culture that many successful businesses strive to foster.
Moreover, the focus on dramatic moments and conflict can create an inaccurate impression of the day-to-day realities of entrepreneurship. The programmes can be highly scripted and edited, creating a distorted representation of what actually happens. Furthermore, contestants are often coached to create drama and tension, and the footage is carefully edited to create a narrative that fits the producers’ vision for the show. This can result in a skewed representation of the enterprise or business world.
While entrepreneurs are aware of the limitations of these shows, many people looking to enter the world of enterprise may find these negative media approaches a barrier to entry
3. Short-term success is the media focus
Both in journalism and TV media, there tends to be a focus on short-term gains and superficial measures of success, such as the amount of investment secured or the number of sales made. Unfortunately, this can be detrimental to the long-term success of a business. As a result, they may focus on chasing investment or sales at the expense of building a sustainable business model.
There are very few positive examples of UK media focusing on building sustainable and successful businesses rather than chasing short-term gains or trying to fit into a preconceived notion of what a successful entrepreneur looks like.
Again, the Social Chain sale for £7.7 million is a reason to celebrate entrepreneurship. Since 2014, the business has grown, worked with leading global brands and employed over 100 members of staff. This is something many entrepreneurs would aspire to achieve.
Instead, the media portrayal is of a brand valuation of £600 million. Furthermore, we should not celebrate this rags-to-riches story due to the ‘smoke and mirrors’ around Bartlett’s net worth, and that the valuation could have been misleading.
However, with this argument, the UK media seems to be asking entrepreneurs not to celebrate their achievements, dream big about the future of their business and have projections of their value and worth. Is it the media expectation for all companies to be fully transparent on all financials – which could easily jeopardise the business in the hands of competitors?
4. Perception of entrepreneurs
The media can also contribute to the stereotypes of entrepreneurs, often finding stories that follow the entrepreneurial norm while using shock tactics for ‘surprising entrepreneurs’, which instead of showing the diversity of entrepreneurship, makes a case that certain entrepreneurs are ‘outside the norm’.
A YouGov poll found that just 9% of people identify themselves as entrepreneurial, and 41% believe it’s easy to be an entrepreneur if you’re white. Regarding entrepreneur characteristics, 20% believe entrepreneurs are self-interested, 13% describe them as egocentric, with 15% calling entrepreneurs ruthless. All of these negative characteristics are undoubtedly finding themselves in UK media, further reinforcing this negative media image that entrepreneurs face.
5. The government/media wrangle
In seven years, the UK government has had seven business ministers creating uncertainty and a lack of policy for enterprises. While COVID has shown the adaptability of entrepreneurs, there has been a lack of top-down support. This is in terms of predictable policy, international collaboration opportunities and development support for early-stage enterprises.
The fractured ties and the media projection of the UK economy make it harder for entrepreneurs to shine. Unsurprisingly, journalists will want to highlight those struggling with government policies. Furthermore, it is good to highlight the challenges that entrepreneurs face. However, it seems that the two options for entrepreneurs in the media are to be hard-done-by or, if the entrepreneur is thriving, to question their success and hunt for reasons why it shouldn’t be celebrated.
Making entrepreneurship positive in UK media
The negative attitude to enterprise needs to change if the UK is to remain competitive in the global economy. Entrepreneurship is crucial for economic growth and job creation, and entrepreneurs should be supported and celebrated for their contributions.
If the UK media offered a more positive view on entrepreneurship, it can help to encourage more people to start their own businesses, which can, in turn, boost innovation and growth and make lasting impacts on the wider community.
Secondly, it can help foster a more positive and supportive culture around entrepreneurship. This could make it easier for entrepreneurs to access funding, resources, and support.
Finally, it can help to challenge negative stereotypes and preconceptions about entrepreneurship. Instead, promoting a more diverse and inclusive vision of what it means to be an entrepreneur.
However, by giving entrepreneurs a hard time, the UK press risks discouraging future generations of entrepreneurs. It may also hamper the country’s economic potential.
Changing media perceptions
Changing the UK media’s negative view of entrepreneurs to a positive one will require a shift in the way they portray entrepreneurs. This could involve highlighting entrepreneurs’ positive contributions to the economy, society, and the wider world. It also requires showcasing the hard work, determination, and creativity required to build successful businesses.
By focusing on the positive aspects of entrepreneurship, the media can help to create a more supportive environment for entrepreneurs. It could inspire the next generation of business leaders.
However, as is all too common is that it may take something drastic to change deeply ingrained negative attitudes. For example, Social Media Kindness Day and the ‘be kind’ approach after the sad death of Caroline Flack are slowly transforming the press approach to intrusion and negative assumptions. We can hope that a supportive rather than critical focus in the media may change the tides across all industries.
A drastic shift in perspective may involve a concerted effort by business leaders, policymakers, and other stakeholders. This would be to challenge negative stereotypes and promote a more positive and inclusive vision of entrepreneurship. It could also involve greater collaboration between the media and the business community. With this, we could showcase the positive contributions that entrepreneurs are making to the economy and society.
Ultimately, changing media perceptions of entrepreneurship will require a sustained effort over time. However, the potential benefits for the UK economy and society are significant.
In conclusion, the UK press’ current negative attitude towards entrepreneurs is unfair. But it is also damaging to the country’s economic prospects. We may need transformative governmental policies to an effective media relations strategy to move into a more positive entrepreneurial environment.
But, if we look at the States and how they celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit that has made their economy so successful, we can learn a lot. As a result, Steven Bartlett and other young entrepreneurs like him could be celebrated, not criticised, for their ambition, vision, and contribution to the UK’s economic growth.