Unfair, misplaced vitriol

Media studies is belittled despite graduates' success, says Sally Feldman

September 17, 2009

Why are so many Irish men devoted to Desperate Housewives? What's bugging Sweden's female bloggers? How far can citizen journalism be trusted? How does television influence political scandals? And how does the media influence audiences in Australia, China, Iran, Japan or Zimbabwe?

These were some of the questions addressed earlier this month at the University of Westminster's second "Transforming Audiences" conference, which, attended by delegates from all over the world, demonstrated just how vital it is to understand how people respond to the media and what it tells us about different communities and cultures.

Or so you would think. But this is a view accepted by neither the University of Cambridge nor the London School of Economics, both of which fail to recognise A-level media studies as a serious academic subject. And, according to the right-leaning think-tank Policy Exchange, their prejudice is shared by more than 30 other leading universities that also downgrade the subject - not to mention the Conservative Party, which has declared its plans to adjust school league tables in order to devalue achievements in so-called "soft subjects".

This baiting of media studies is a seasonal sport. Which is why, yet again this year on the eve of the publication of the A-level results, I was invited to defend the subject on air. This time, it was on the BBC Radio 4 programme The Media Show, where Anna Fazackerley, the head of education, arts and culture at Policy Exchange, explained that the top private schools avoid offering media studies because they want to propel their pupils to the best universities - the very ones that turn up their noses at the subject. All that this proves, of course, is that the schools are aping the prejudices of the universities. It says nothing at all about the value of the subject.

That was left to the third guest that day, London Evening Standard executive editor and columnist Anne McElvoy. Media studies, she opined, is not a proper subject - it's just a weak, in-between kind of thing that students of real subjects such as English literature can do in their spare time. A "real" academic subject, apparently, is one that cultivates rigour and analysis, supported by the kind of theoretical inquiry deplorably absent from media studies.

This seemed an arbitrary judgment on a subject that has stimulated such a plethora of critical texts, journals, fresh approaches and methodologies over the 50 years since the publication of the work that ignited this new discipline: Richard Hoggart's magnificent The Uses of Literacy.

I was bound to bristle at such ignorant dismissal of media scholarship, especially as my own university came top in the country for communications and media in the recent research assessment exercise - way ahead of the traditional "research-led" universities. But even that wasn't as hard to take as McElvoy's next assertion, which was that media studies does not lead to employment since students don't acquire proper training. Her evidence? "Just ask any editor or broadcaster."

Rather harder evidence, coming from the Government's own analysis of graduate destinations via the Higher Education Statistics Agency, shows that at the last count, more than 70 per cent of media graduates enter employment, compared with 56 per cent of graduates in English and 53 per cent in history. And the majority of these jobs are at the graduate level, too.

One of the reasons surely is that the new subjects are better than the traditional ones at preparing students for the world of work. Rather than following the standard pattern of lectures, seminars and tutorials, our courses instil practical skills, requiring students to work in groups, to give and take briefs, to produce programmes as well as analyse content and reflect on its impact.

But this won't appease the more determined detractors, such as, for example, the ones I encountered recently. I found myself at a party hosted by a Tory candidate (I know, don't ask) to celebrate the publication by his irresistibly affable friend Jeremy Black, professor of history at the University of Exeter, of the ominous-sounding Ideas for the Universities: The Case for Independence.

Someone made a speech denouncing the Government's stranglehold on higher education and recommending instead that the middle classes should support the "good" universities through endowments. Heartfelt cheers and guffaws greeted his declaration that he had no time at all for "vocational" courses, pronounced as if he was spitting out nasty shards from a sub-standard cigar.

So media studies attracts opprobrium for not getting students jobs and for being too vocational; for not being sufficiently theoretical or for being too much that way. And while I may deplore the arrogance, indeed the wilful ignorance, that prompts such views, I still fail to understand why there is quite so much vitriol poured on the study of the world's most pervasive and influential cultural phenomenon. Indeed, as Jenni Murray pointed out last month in The Observer, it's never been more needed.

"Young people are bombarded with messages from the media and it seems to me crucial that we teach them to analyse critically what they read, see and hear. We whinge endlessly at the 'over-sexualisation of young girls' or 'the laddishness' of the magazines consumed by boys and young men. How are they supposed to look at these images critically and make their own intelligent choices about how to behave if we give them the idea that it's good to understand Shakespeare or Dickens, but not to worry about Nuts, Cosmopolitan or Top Gear?"

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