A life spent roaming free across boundaries

March 17, 2006

Harriet Swain says media studies reading lists are forever playing catch-up with trends, but James Curran and Jean Seaton have cracked the canon

One book has proved a staple in the study of the media, and its appeal has stretched far beyond the UK

Why has Power without Responsibility been in print for a quarter of a century, run to six editions, and sold more than 80,000 copies in the UK? Why have its sales (excluding its first year) increased rather than decreased, with a UK reprint last year and another one this year? More mysterious, why has it gained a large international audience?

Part of the answer is that the book got a bounce at birth. It was published by a large paperback publisher, Fontana, as a general book about the media. Fontana's publicity machine helped to secure numerous broadcast interviews and book reviews. It was top of the Alternative Bestseller List for three weeks in 1981, when there were still a significant number of left-leaning independent bookshops.

The book also benefited from being the product of almost unconstrained academic freedom. Power without Responsibility took five years to research and write. It appeared in academic underclothes: Fontana imposed a limit of ten footnotes per chapter, though it permitted a large bibliography. The book had an unacademic title (suggested by the late Ben Pimlott, husband of one of the authors, and oldest friend of the other). And it was written with stories, jokes and an underlying narrative to reach a general, as well as an academic, audience. It is not the kind of book that young academics are now permitted to write, if they work in a soulless Azkaban patrolled by internal research assessment exercise enforcers.

In the event, the book had a public life outside academe. Its most unexpected plug came when Timothy Renton, a Conservative Home Office minister, extolled its virtues in a Commons debate. The book's attack on the inconsistencies of media policy was taken up by the Right in 1990 to justify the creation of a new ministry (now the Department for Culture, Media and Sport). The book also got endorsements from the Left, such as radical journalist Nick Cohen's declaration in New Statesman that it is "the best guide to the British media". The book gained a non-academic readership.

The second, more important reason the book did well was that it was carried forward by the growing momentum of a new subject - media studies. The first media studies degree in the UK was established by the Polytechnic of Central London in 1975, six years before the publication of Power without Responsibility . Media studies was then a tiny field in Britain in mostly low-status polytechnics. As the subject grew, and came to be offered by most British universities, so the book prospered. The book was "made" by the rise of a new academic subject.

The third reason the volume prospered was because it was different. Media research and teaching was pioneered in the US in the early 20th century in an intellectually stultifying form (despite the publication of a number of distinguished media-related books, many written by non-media specialists).

US universities tended to teach as separate subjects "journalism" (learning how to be a journalist, skills and ethics) and "communications" (concerned with human communication, organisational communication and the media). This resulted in a heavy orientation of US media research towards "communications effects". It reduced the study of the media to a dim but practical subset of sociology and social psychology concerned with discrete questions - do the media encourage violence, influence voting, foster passivity and affect shopping habits? - normally viewed within a taken-for-granted, unquestioning view of the world.

Power without Responsibility embodied a different approach to studying the media that took root in Britain. In common with a number of other pioneering British media books, it roamed freely across disciplinary boundaries. It was interested in popular culture, not just political journalism. It viewed the media only in passing as a source of "effects".

Instead, it was more interested in what the study of the media revealed about the dynamics of power, culture and social relations in British society.

The principal way in which the book differed from its peers was that it offered a lengthy, general history of the British media (back in 1981, the first of its kind) in the belief that understanding the past provides a good way of interpreting the present. The press and broadcasting, we argue, connect to British society differently because they have been organised differently and have developed partly divergent objectives, traditions and cultures. This helps to explain why Britain has the least trusted press but one of the most admired (though deteriorating) broadcasting systems in Europe.

This history was extended, in successive editions, to take account of new developments. The sixth and latest edition argues that an historic battle is being fought between the forces that shaped the early web - the values of academic science, American counterculture and European public service - and increasingly powerful commercial forces that are now remaking the virtual world.

The book's historical account contained an implicit thesis about the roles of markets and the state. It showed that the free market was not fixed and static. At different times, it functioned as a system of censorship and also as a positive mechanism of public accountability. Similarly, the state is portrayed as mutable and changing: in one context, repressively limiting press freedom, and in another supporting the structures and cultures that sustain independent, high-quality media that serves the needs of society.

This complex history provides a springboard for discussing how the media operate, and how they should be organised and regulated.

When the book first came out, it was out of step with the times. Its market criticism ran counter to a rising tide of romantic neoliberalism, and its champion-ship of the reformist state was viewed with benign scepticism in radical media studies. In the early 1990s, when the academic world was rocked by the tsunami of postmodernism, the book's interest in the world of politics seemed almost quaint. But this did not stop regular reprinting. By the later 1990s, intellectual currents again changed direction, this time to the book's advantage.

Power without Responsibility also benefited from global changes in media research. The hegemony of traditional US communications research - mediated through large American PhD programmes that trained an entire generation of media academics in Asia and Latin America - increasingly came under attack (not least in its own heartland universities, such as Stanford). British media and cultural studies represented an alternative way of studying and teaching the media. Its leading books were translated into foreign languages, and its top media departments attracted large numbers of overseas research students (some of whom translated British media books when they returned home).

Despite being a book about the British media, written originally for a British readership, Power without Responsibility gained growing overseas sales. It has been translated into Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Portuguese.

There is something about the book that strikes a chord, particularly in authoritarian countries or those with an authoritarian past. Perhaps some aspects of the history it offers - its account of the struggle of radical 19th-century journalists against state repression, the transformation of the BBC from government mouthpiece into an institution serving the public, the emergence of the idealistic and effective open source movement - have parallels in the struggle for media freedom elsewhere. The bestselling foreign edition so far has been the sixth edition published in Chinese by Tsinghua University Press. It is a sign of the times that the book's Chinese edition sold almost more copies last year than the English.

But the book's durability exacts a price. That price has been the labour of revising and updating the same book at regular intervals for a quarter of a century. We are being pressed again by our publisher, Routledge, to do yet another edition. We don't want to. We really don't. But, in the end, we will.

James Curran is professor of communications, Goldsmiths, University of London. Jean Seaton is professor of media history, Westminster University.

Their latest books are Culture Wars , by J. Curran, I. Gaber and J. Petley, Edinburgh University Press, and Carnage and the Media , J. Seaton, Penguin.

Books, page 26

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