So media studies is in the firing line again. This time, the renewal of hostilities was prompted by the appointment of Les Ebdon as head of the Office for Fair Access. He has incurred the wrath of critics not merely for his trenchant views on widening access, but also for his championing of non- traditional subjects such as media studies.
This has put him at odds with the MPs who make up the Conservative Fair Access to University Group, who dismiss media studies as one of the “soft” subjects - an assertion that has only been tepidly opposed by David Willetts, the universities and science minister. Willetts may have recently acknowledged that these “are often really valuable vocational courses”, but that faint support hasn’t stopped him from removing the teaching grant that has until now made them viable.
But by far the most vituperative attacks on media studies have come from the media itself. On Ebdon’s appointment, for example, the Daily Mail called him a “champion of Mickey Mouse degrees” - foremost among which was, of course, media studies.
“I have always found it curious that those in the media do not take themselves seriously enough to think of the media itself as an object of academic study,” commented Martin McQuillan, dean of arts and social sciences at Kingston University, in these pages (“Weapon of Mass Education”, 1 March). “I can only put it down to some form of transferential self-loathing.”
And that self-loathing has never been more palpable. Journalists have long been aware that they are among the least trusted professions - down there with estate agents, car salesmen and bookies. But now the Leveson inquiry into press standards has confirmed this public perception - and it has also heightened the paranoia of the industry by raising questions about the need for tighter regulation.
Meanwhile, so glaring are the atrocities of phone hacking, police bribery and celebrity hounding that their exposure is in danger of obscuring the real purpose and value of the fourth estate. No one has better represented its crucial role than The Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin. Her murder in Syria, along with that of French photographer Remi Ochlik and the wounding of other reporters, was shocking evidence of the courage of those who have risked and lost their lives to uncover and tell the most horrific stories. But even while their heroism is being celebrated, there is a growing fear that Colvin’s style of reporting, or the meticulous research that led to The Daily Telegraph’s exposure of the MPs’ expenses scandal, may now be under threat. With newspapers in decline and revenues plummeting, the pressure is on for short cuts, faster turnover and racier content.
So it’s all the more puzzling that the media, especially the press, appears so hostile to media studies. After all, the very concerns that are plaguing the industry are those that equally concern academics. Press freedom versus regulation, global ownership, digital technology, 24-hour news, media ethics - all are the focus of our courses and our research.
Yet the cyclical sniping at us continues - and is having an effect. Although the University of Westminster was the first university to offer a degree in media studies, we eventually became so sick of the derisive comments and negative associations that we removed the name. Now we offer degrees in journalism, public relations, radio or television instead - though I doubt whether these enjoy any greater respect from the industry.
Its continuing prejudice is highlighted in Annalena McAfee’s otherwise excellent roman-à-clef The Spoiler (2011). This delicious satire features a clash of cultures between two kinds of journalism.
The novel’s heroine, Honor Tait, is a seasoned war correspondent in her eighties who, once beautiful and indomitable, would fearlessly storm into war zones when not hobnobbing with celebrities and world leaders. Marie Colvin herself would have identified with Honor’s mantra that “the reporter’s duty is to champion the weak and to shine a searchlight in the darkest corners of human experience”.
But for Tamara Sim, on the other end of the scale and much closer to the garish activities being revealed by Leveson, these sentiments are just pompous and dull. Having eked out a freelance career writing for company newsletters, she now produces celebrity snippets for a broadsheet’s Saturday supplement.
Much of the hilarity of the novel stems from the interview Tamara is commissioned to do with Honor, whose collected war reports have just been published. We see Tamara ploughing through descriptions of the Spanish Civil War, the liberation of Buchenwald and the Vietnam War, searching for juicy revelations about sex with the stars.
For, as you’ve probably guessed by now, Tamara has a degree in media studies from Brighton Poly (sic). While Honor braved the crossfire to file her reports, Tamara merely studies them as set texts on her course. The two women are on opposite poles of the spectrum of journalism, one a sophisticated intellectual, the other superficial and scandal-driven. It’s not difficult to spot the bias. “I always thought that was a contradiction in terms,” comments Honor. “Media. Studies…”
Of course, those who do teach and research media-related subjects may produce the odd Tamara Sim. But that’s not typical. The best courses aim to instil in all media students a passion for high standards and truth telling, whether they go on to work on The Sun on Sunday or Panorama, Hello! or The Guardian.
And what’s Mickey Mouse about that?