Tripe finally consigned to history

Media and Power - Journalism
October 31, 2003

The historical epoch that opened with such a thrilling detonation in 1989 is beginning to assume an intelligible shape. Now that the delirious pentecostals of postmodernism have drunk so deeply of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Frederic Jameson and Gayatri Spivak, and instructed us all so absolutely in the dissolution of all things absolute, hard or real, two groups of voices may be heard making tougher sense of what globalisation and all that means.

The two choirs sing opposing songs. Each commands the two most recently emerged disciplinary fields. One - business studies - offers to supersede economics and swallow up accountancy. It teaches its best students the raucous energy and limitless exhilaration of sheer money: how to make it, how it travels, how fickle as well as how utterly without an ethics it is and how people love it.

The opposition is media and cultural studies. (Plural studies turn singular when they achieve the status of disciplines.) Its origins lie in old political dissent, and for most practitioners of media studies, capitalism, while acknowledged to be the only show in town, is a bitter necessity. The subject's best hope for the future - the images of life as it ought to be that provide the moral horizon of all the human sciences - is placed in the suppression of capitalist cruelty and the exaltation of a nobler system of exchange.

James Curran has long been one of those who have brought authority, high seriousness and a keen sense of the civic duties of the scholar-intellectual to the sometimes-jackanapes practice of media studies.

Missing a parliamentary seat by a whisker, he was editor of the Labour Party's excellent journal of ideas New Socialist before becoming a full-time academic and a leading figure in the canonisation of media studies largely effected by the founding of the subject's most important journal, Media, Culture and Society , and by Curran's own co-authorship with Jean Seaton of one of its sacred texts, Power without Responsibility .

So power and media, and the imbricating of each with political democracy, are Curran's decidedly personal, as well as intellectual, themes. His framework for each mighty topic, as befits an intelligence of such plain purpose and a work of admirably plain prose, is historical. Theory with a big T - which is now Over, as Terry Eagleton assures us - has led to terrible tripe being written in media studies, never more so than among the many books written by people who know no history, who don't care that they don't and who won't learn.

This substantial new book draws in part on previously published essays, especially in its review of media history. But no one should suppose, as Curran modestly suggests, that this is a mere piece of bookmaking. He needs the histories he has written as the foundation of his new and compelling thoughts on the media and democracy, television reform, the social significance of the BBC and, more largely, his signal contribution to the babel of conflicting theories about globalisation.

His comments on this much-discussed and protean phenomenon exemplify his virtues. He justly complains that globalisation theory turns out either to be ideological apologetics masquerading as systems-management, antique cold war politics (East vs West, command vs free economies), or delirious visions of worldwide consumer emancipation coming alike but at varying speeds to Liberia, Kurdistan and Peru.

Curran has read absolutely everything, so his classification of his assorted theorists cannot be faulted: liberal histories omit want and misery, arrogance and indifference; populist histories overlook the egalitarian deficit; technological historians are so pleased to have mastered electronic circuitry that they overlook politics and elide culture. There is no doubting Curran's own allegiances, and quite right too. He belongs to the radical tradition, and his deepest principles are those of social equality, justice, representation, freedom of expression, virtuous bloody-mindedness and solid citizenship.

These are the high old names of democratic socialism, but Curran applies them to his careful, courteous critique not as merely coming from just another categorical method, but as embodying those best values implicit in ordinary present lives, and only in terms of which a better future may be imagined that will prove immune to the hideous malformations of theoretical totalitarianism. The most impending of these after the end of Stalinism and the temporary disappearance of fascism is consumer totalitarianism as run by an international elite of the new stinking rich. Curran has excellent things to say, with Habermas' help, about the tyranny of this corporate capitalism, in particular about the candidly partisan and revoltingly populist barons of media in our time.

He is himself from time to time hampered by his own intellectual formation.

There is after Richard Rorty no longer any room for the dead old distinction between "idealist" (used here simply as a swearword) and "materialist". More important, it is just false to say that arguments about the redemptive property of culture can no longer be grounded on agreement about value judgements. For one thing, Curran confidently makes such judgements himself. For another, our own civil society and our civilisation - the idea is V. S. Naipaul's and the civilisation stretches from Java to Trinidad - rests on twin and beautiful judgements as to value: the first, that each of us should do as we would be done by; the second, that the point of life is the pursuit of happiness.

I do not believe, however, that, as Curran makes clear in his splendid last two, new chapters, he would disagree with such a contention. His rousing defence of public-service broadcasting (which, as it should, includes Channel 4), suggesting that spectrum sales of airwave space should go towards a new public channel, "Free TV", makes explicit appeal to all that such broadcasting can do to create a "symbolic community", to scrutinise governments and corporations on behalf of citizens, to review old values and project new ones. If Chris Smith were still minister for culture, he might have chosen Curran as leading member of a royal commission to restore such duties to the people's media.

One would expect Ian Hargreaves' book similarly to dignify and authorise the study of media both in and out of universities. He is professor of journalism at Cardiff, the best such school in the country, he directed news at the BBC, was deputy editor at The Financial Times , and edited The Independent and New Statesman . He has done his state some service, and one would naturally turn to such a book as this one eagerly - the author so well equipped, the topic so timely, the discipline so in need.

Hargreaves, I fear, lets us down with a bump. He turns first to a little squib from Pluto Press and then to Kelvin Mackenzie and Private Eye in order to tell us and, one presumes, his students, that journalists are as amoral, mendacious and insolent as a love of muckraking and gossip-mongering is bound to make them.

If he had turned instead to Max Weber, he would have found him to say: "It is almost never acknowledged that the responsibility of the journalist is far greater, and that the sense of responsibility of every honourable journalist is, on the average, not a bit lower than that of the scholar, but rather, as the war has shown, higher."

Hargreaves' ruminations are, perhaps, worked-up lectures. But the editor needed an editor. The book is disfigured with overlooked repetitions, sloppy indexing, inexcusable banality and folksiness ("even the oldest... hands occasionally lose their grip and forget that... television journalism is all about teamwork", "quality is about people"), downright cliché ("what makes them tick?"), and political gibberish ("what we have arrived at is something close to the end of governance as it was once defined" - he doesn't say by whom).

It is impossible to detect a structure to the book. It rambles around truisms about power without ever addressing the crucial question of what such power is ("journalism is defined, to some extent, by the institutions within which it is created"; well, wow!); it drops in on Onora O'Neill's Reith lectures on trust without suggesting how one comes to trust this journalist rather than that; it wheels out that inexhaustible old chestnut, Lord Copper, without ever analysing the complexity of the relation between personality (Northcliffe, Berlusconi), institution ( Daily Mail , Forza Italia ) and history (1923, 2003).

Naturally, being Hargreaves, he says some intelligent things and tells some agreeable anecdotes. But nothing like enough of either to justify Oxford University Press publishing so handsome-looking a little book. Hargreaves has been much struck by the coming of the internet, but once again he excuses himself from the ardours and labours of hard, academic thought, and gives us no way of distinguishing Matt Drudge from the National Enquirer , or either from the effortfully dim Bob Woodward. He is, in alliance with Manuel Castells, insouciantly optimistic about the freedoms and creative regeneration made possible by new broadband, but needs to read Curran to discover just what masses of British people stick to public channel television and want journalism to tell them what on earth is going on.

It will be, as he will surely see, a standing reproach to a man of Hargreaves' real distinction, achievement and principle that he allowed himself to dictate this book after dinner and, one guesses, at compressed, disjointed intervals. All modern epochs urgently need journalism, none more so than ours. As Weber saw first, journalists are our prime orderers of the news of the world. They contrive a narrative by putting the right words and the right pictures in the right order, and then by arranging the pages of the stories or the pictures on the screen in a coherent hierarchy. After the politicians themselves, it is hard to think of a more important job, and I heartily wish that Hargreaves had done much better by it.

Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies, University of Sheffield.

Media and Power

Author - James Curran
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 308
Price - £50.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 415 07739 7 and 07740 0

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