There's good news and bad news for media studies. David Walker reports.
Media studies has always been able to play an ace against critics. Whatever they might say about its intellectual quality and relevance, students flocked to courses.
Until now. The signs are applications for enrolment next year are "well down", and that is over and above any fall in applications due to tuition fees. Officially (I am quoting Peter Golding, professor at Loughborough and chair of the discipline's standing conference) the fall is "important but not dramatic".
Some media studies people privately welcome signs of shrinkage as a way of separating the sheep from the goats. As Philip Schlesinger at Stirling University puts it: "Excellent courses will continue to attract students because their reputation gets around."
Does that make it a propitious time for the London School of Economics, bastion of rigorous social science, to choose to appoint its first professor of media and communication? Daniel in the lions' den is Roger Silverstone, 52, a former BBC television producer and LSE PhD, who is professor of media studies at the University of Sussex. His brief is to start building up the LSE's graduate work with a view to launching an undergraduate programme early next century.
It would be patronising media studies to say the LSE's decision represents a breakthrough into British academe's highest reaches. The discipline has a long pedigree, at least as far back as the early 1960s with the work of Stuart Hall at the University of Birmingham, Jim Halloran at Leicester and Jay Blumler at Leeds. The founding generation often had a solid background in conventional social science. Besides, says Schlesinger,"we have no need to legitimise ourselves, we have outstanding scholars in Britain who are well recognised outside the country". Yet he adds that media studies "is a subject which has enjoyed growth on the periphery of academe".
So, perhaps, to be given a new home by the LSE will do its reputation no harm, provided Silverstone can survive the trial by media he is certain to undergo. "But we've been here before," says Silverstone. "The press resents any attempt to interrogate that which we all take for granted. It happened to sociology in the 1960s. Just as sociology eventually settled down so media studies will be accepted."
The problem with media studies is not just that journalists resent critical discussion of their work. "We also have a major problem of quality," acknowledges one professorial veteran. But what practitioners resent is the idea that problems of uneven quality - of research or undergraduate course work - are in any way special to this discipline. Why,they ask, is so little credit given for good work?
Golding thinks media studies should be conceived as a humanities discipline that is not vocational. "Very few people either go into journalism or expect to. Most graduates are eminently employable ... we have a better record than many social science and humanities specialisms. Graduates go into a range of diverse occupations."
So why the animosity between journalists and media studies academics? Perhaps journalists are often ashamed of what they do and so resent external appraisal. Media sections in newspapers blossom but most material is written by journalists who want to monopolise the criticism, despite borrowing heavily from academic work.
Silverstone starts at the LSE in May. Before then he wants to complete a book arguing that the media should be studied from outside. "I am not a great public controversialist but am happy to take on the arguments," he says.