Old-school values for news

Our future fourth estate needs core skills taught in sciences and humanities, not media studies, argues Tim Luckhurst.

February 7, 2008

I am delighted that the University of Westminster is to drop the term "media studies". Sally Feldman ("Taking the Mickey out", 24 January) is right. It is a debased catch-all, ridiculed in newsrooms everywhere. Nothing that Westminster's School of Media Arts and Design has done to inject academic rigour - and it has done a lot - can obliterate that contempt.

Media studies has attracted talented students and produced able graduates. I have worked with a few, and their scepticism occasionally revealed flaws in established practices and encouraged colleagues to think. But more often they were ridiculed for caricaturing newsroom wisdom as a "strategic ritual".

So, as new media proliferate, I urge Feldman to abandon her fence-top perch and stop defending the teaching of media studies in schools as well, at least to pupils who aspire to work in the news industry. Media, dance and film studies are less useful to reporters than history, languages and science, and this is not altered because the University of Cambridge disparages them.

Cambridge's ambition is to encourage more applicants from state schools. Mine is to nurture a new generation of exciting, dependable reporters. As the deluge of information expands, the need for accurate news and analysis grows with it. The notion of the "fourth estate" as the guardian of democracy may be pure myth, but modern Britain needs journalists who aspire to its ideals.

The challenges facing this generation are as daunting as, and more complicated than, those that inspired James Cameron, Martha Gellhorn and George Orwell. To write about them with accuracy and insight requires an updated version of the education that enabled my hero, Ritchie Calder of the Daily Herald, to influence government policy during the Second World War.

Calder, who ended his career as professor of international relations at the University of Edinburgh, learnt the rudiments of reporting in the hard schools of Dundee and Glasgow. His apprenticeship proved its worth when the suffering in London's East End during the Blitz compelled him to write The Lesson of London (1941). This eloquent book warned ministers that while poor Londoners would endure hardship, they would not tolerate bureaucracy that made it worse. But Calder did not make an impact through style alone. The Lesson of London is reporting at its best, packed with accurate contemporaneous quotes and rooted in context.

Experienced editors know such writing is the fruit of hard slog. Gathering the ingredients requires excellent note-taking. Communicating it requires political and administrative understanding, some history and, in Calder's case, a little science as well.

Today such reporting is threatened. As David Leigh, assistant editor of The Guardian, explained in his Anthony Sampson lecture at City University in November, the idea that reporting can be authoritative is derided as top-down elitism or dismissed as irrelevant because people with no journalistic skills can publish themselves online.

Of course they can, and the internet is glorious. But it brings the risk that precious principles will be squandered. It took us a long time after the advent of mass literacy to learn that some reports are more valuable than others. Credibility demands accurate sourcing and hard evidence. Such skills are common in traditional humanities, social sciences and sciences. They may be enhanced by love of language. They profit from study of government and economics and demand reliable shorthand and grounding in the curriculum recommended by the National Council for the Training of Journalists. To pretend otherwise is to betray the future.

Sally Feldman jokes about "public-school chums doing PPE at Oxford". I have met excellent PPE graduates and Cambridge historians working in newsrooms. I have encountered superb engineering graduates from the University of Nottingham and chemists from the University of Strathclyde, too. Only a few attended public schools.

Championing media studies as an alternative to harder, traditional qualifications risks increasing the middle-class domination of journalism. Students facing top-up fees deserve to know it. Those at state schools need to know it more than most.

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