Content that fires creative tensions

February 23, 2007

In the first part of a new series on working relationships between researchers, Huw Richards talks to the authors of a seminal media studies text about their teamwork.

Power without Responsibility by James Curran and Jean Seaton is a staple text in communications and media studies, but the forthcoming seventh edition will contain at least one new chapter. It came out of a recent discussion in the cafe at the British Library as Curran and Seaton talked about the working relationship that has underpinned six earlier editions dating back to 1981. Many of the book's additional chapters arose out of similar discussions.

Curran, professor of communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, was reminiscing about the genesis of three chapters in an earlier edition.

He said: "Jean was convinced we needed something on new media. I wasn't so certain, but she persuaded me. I ended up writing three new chapters amounting to 70 pages, and I'm delighted I did - it was an important new part of the book and it has laid the basis for other work. The next step in the field should be the development of a global public service network."

Seaton, whose chair is at Westminster University and who has worked on the official history of the BBC, seized on this thought, queried the use of the word "global" and talked about the role different parts of the BBC African Service play in the societies they serve.

Curran suggested: "So why not do a chapter in the next edition on public service broadcasting and the international public?" Seaton replied: "I'm up for it."

It was, she explains, typical of the way the book was conceived and has evolved, through dialogue and debate between the two. Their connection goes back to the 1970s when they met at a British Sociological Association seminar on the media.

It is a far from exclusive relationship. Each has collaborated with other academics while their association led directly to a still more momentous partnership - Curran introduced Seaton to his closest friend, the late historian and biographer Ben Pimlott, who became her husband. "I can still remember Ben standing on the doorstep, and what we had for dinner that evening - and so could he," Seaton says. It was Pimlott, then working on British politics in the 1930s, who supplied the title of the book, taking it from Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin's assault on the press barons of the time.

While the book has become an academic standard and a steady earner - Curran notes that "it has paid for some very nice holidays" and remarks on the recent rise in royalties from photocopying - it was never intended simply as a text for students. Each was politically involved and motivated. Seaton recalls: "It was not just simply a matter of getting the history and the theory right, but of getting a better policy and a better system as a result. We were young and thought we could change the world."

But even in academic terms it was an ambitious project - "the first general history of the British media", as Curran points out. There was a broad division of labour, reflected in the bylines for each chapter, with Curran writing on the press and Seaton on broadcasting, while the theoretical and policy chapters were joint productions.

Curran recalls: "We fed each other. Jean was full of useful insights on the press, and I contributed something to the broadcasting chapters." Each is appreciative of the talents the other brings to the partnership, among them contrasting academic backgrounds, with Curran a Cambridge University history graduate and Seaton a Leicester University sociologist. Seaton says: "James is an excellent arguer and always knows how he wants to organise those arguments," while Curran speaks of Seaton's "ability to write cameos, to spot the revealing quotation and capture people in a few sentences".

There was also a shared vision: pluralism, a belief in public-service broadcasting and a view, not fashionable on the intellectual Left at the time, that, as Curran puts it, "while the state is a bear that needs watching and can be oppressive, it can also be a force for emancipation".

They agreed that there was a ready-made audience incorporating, in Seaton's words, "sensible people on the Left and in the Labour Party, and some less sensible, as well as students and academics such as ourselves", and that it was best reached by a book that wore its research lightly. There were, however, vigorous disagreements on specifics, expressed at one point via a distinct novelty in the annals of academic co-operation - a dissenting footnote. Curran recalls: "Fontana, the publishers, had wanted us to do without footnotes. Jean felt very strongly that this was wrong and negotiated us an allowance of ten per chapter plus a bibliography. It is inconceivable nowadays that two young academics would be allowed to devote five years to a single book aimed at a general readership that had only ten footnotes per chapter."

Seaton's chapter on the sociology of the mass media included a vigorous critique on what she terms "cultural Marxism", the fashionable wisdom of the day. She recalls: "I had been to the Left of James, who was always in the Labour Party, while I was associated with New Left Review. I felt that in that chapter I was writing my way out of balderdash and the NLR's corrosive public-school 'you can't join my club' mentality." Curran was less convinced. Seaton wrote a footnote stating that "James Curran does not share any of Jean Seaton's reservations about the writers discussed in this chapter". She tells him now: "I was right - and you've never said so."

Looking 25 years on at the text in question, Curran says: "That was your interpretation of my views, and I would have written something more nuanced," but he acknowledges that Seaton was both courageous and independent-minded.

It is a revealing exchange, epitomising a working relationship characterised by mutual affection and respect, but also creative tension.

Seaton says: "James knows me very well, and I know him. If you work together, you do end up knowing and understanding each other. I adore him to bits, even though he drives me mad. Collaborations are like that." And she adds: "Those tensions occur because we are arguing and writing about things that we both care about very much."

She believes that she "learnt to write" while producing the first edition, while Curran felt that it was a great help to him as a Times columnist, not least in supplying arguments, and as founder editor of the Labour Party magazine New Socialist .

Curran happily credits Seaton with ensuring that each of the past five editions, published by Routledge, has had a new, specially commissioned front cover cartoon by Martin Rowson.

Edition seven will feature another new cover, the new chapter and more of the same tensions, all underpinned by a shared vision that continues to believe in public-service media, to bemoan the decline of ITV - as Seaton points out, an avoidable journalistic and commercial failure - and to reject what Curran describes as "a nihilism on the Left that believes everything is dreadful and nothing is working".

Curran says: "We're both still reformists and believe that you can make things better."

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