Former Woman's Hour editor Sally Feldman tells Kam Patel why she is leaving journalism to become dean of the school of media at The London College of Printing.
Sally Feldman laughs as she recalls her days in print journalism which began as a copy writer and culminated in the early 1980s as editor of Woman's World and the teenage magazines Love Affair, New Love and Loving, the trio tinkling off her tongue like some oft repeated rhyme. Now, after more than ten years with the BBC, most notably as editor of Radio 4's Woman's Hour, Feldman is embarking on a career in academia. In the new year she will join the London Institute as dean of the school of media at the London College of Printing and Distributive Trades. But Feldman will not be taking a dive into unknown depths. At the BBC she chaired a committee reviewing the corporation's links with higher education, whose responsibilities included developing student placement schemes and getting BBC staff involved in planning media courses.
But Feldman is also acutely aware of the controversies that have surrounded media courses - which have proved hugely popular in recent years. A study by Brunel University researchers Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson shows growth from 100 entries in 1986 to more than 1,500 in 1995. This explosion in demand, coupled with drip-drip accusations from some that the courses lack rigour have resulted in some awkward, and highly publicised, questions. Last December the then education minister James Paice queried whether the courses were turning out students employers did not want.
For Feldman the explosion in the field is a "real market response" with many students attracted to courses by the perceived glamour of a career in the media. This demand has encouraged a lot of universities to set up media courses, of variable quality. "I think the explosion in demand has simply meant that we have a very uneven offering, that there are some courses which are more focused than others. I do not know about all of them, but the impression I get is that there are certainly some cowboy operators."
Feldman believes it is up to her and colleagues in the field to offer students some kind of "navigational path" through what is on offer in media studies. She has already started talking to media academics in several institutions to gauge interest in establishing best practice - perhaps even some kind of "code of practice" - to give the field greater definition. "I would welcome more debate and welcome in our critics to see which of their concerns are valid. I do not think it can be anything but positive to do that." She adds: "I feel very strongly that it is criminal to mislead students at a crucial juncture in their career into thinking that what they are getting is access to jobs in the media. What goes on in some of the more questionable institutions is that they offer a practical course and sometimes this is overstated - they are either over-theoretical or theoretical when they claim not to be so. And I think this is very wrong. Yes, I think some of the allegations are absolutely right."
Having said that, Feldman suspects at least some of the criticism is born out of straightforward academic snobbery. A hundred years ago, she says, institutions were criticised for introducing English literature, and 30 years ago for taking on board sociology. "We shouldn't be just studying the classics. We should be responding to the forces that are most critical in today's society and it seems to me right and proper that media is one of them." It should, she says, be possible to establish media as a rigorous discipline just like any other arts degree and good courses have already achieved this. But there is a lot of reticence about the field - "probably among old journalists writing articles saying "how dare they call media studies an academic subject when we had to do history", she says in a mocking, superior tone. "I just think they have a wrong-headed view about how it must be so much easier to study Coronation Street than to read Charles Dickens - such criticisms do not actually tackle the rigour of these courses when they are taught properly."
For Feldman, a good indicator of the value of the field is the wide use made of its research. All the companies she has dealt with use research from media academics. The firms may not be deconstructing The Archers using the theories of Jacques Derrida but they are looking very closely at how audiences operate, how they respond to various kinds of media and what the future holds for the media industry. She believes there are many ways in which the concerns of the industry and those of what will be her students can converge, citing the recent widely publicised study of children and television by researchers at the LCP as an "excellent example" of such convergence. Commissioned by the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the study "absolutely matched the concerns of people who are interested in children and media in our culture", she says.
At the LCP she wants to encourage greater integration between the various disciplines in her school (which offers photography, journalism, film and video, and media studies), as well as links between her department and other LCP schools like graphic design, printing and the management school. "I think the journalist of the future will be a renaissance-style journalist, moving from one medium to another. Our students should have a rigorous grounding in their first discipline but they should not leave us without an awareness of all of them." Outside the LCP, Feldman envisages collaborations with the other London Institute colleges, particularly the London College of Fashion. She believes this interdisciplinary approach is necessary, partly because it is what is being increasingly demanded by the job market, and partly because the technology is encouraging such flexibility. In any case, the variety has the potential to make the field more interesting. opening up new dimensions in its study.
On the issue of to what extent multimedia should be embraced by media studies courses, Feldman has no fixed views. She says however: "I still think the first principle has to be ideas and the communication of ideas. You can get terribly bound up with producing, for example, beautiful graphics or using any number of computer systems to get stories or verify facts."
At the BBC, which she joined in 1983, Feldman experienced first hand the controversial reforms of director-general John Birt. The "Birtian" regime at the corporation was attacked by many, not least by veteran BBC journalists such as Mark Tully and John Tusa. Tully resigned from the BBC in 1994, following up with a scathing attack on Birt's "revolution", claiming that it was undermining the quality of programmes. "I quit the BBC at the weekend after 30 years in its service - in the certain knowledge that I can now sleep at nights," said Tully at the time. He complained of damage caused by "abrasive, sometimes threatening management," the dismissal of many respected broadcasters and members of staff, and the "derisory sniping at the old BBC ethos" under Birt's management.
So does Feldman think, as many have claimed, that there has been a "dumbing down" at the BBC? She laughs. "I do not think so. One of the things that is happening though - and it is almost an obsession - is consideration of the BBC's role in the future. There are many legitimate questions Birt is asking and trying to be visionary about, like digital technology, the impact of growing competition and future trendsI and I think we are ahead of the game and that is thanks to him." But the pain of the changes have been "very great". Efficiency savings are being made for investment in the future technologies and strategies and this has meant programmes are having to be made at lower cost. It is a squeeze that has gone on for a long time and many jobs have been lost. There is "anxiety" because there has been a state of permanent change for so long: "There seems to be no end in sight and this is because future developments remain so uncertain - nobody knows for instance how important the internet is going to be in five years, what the digital channels are all going to be about."
So were Mark Tully's criticism of Birt's "revolution" unfair? "I could not possibly say he was unfair. There is no mistaking his enormous discomfort and unhappiness about some of the things that were happening. But what I know best of course is Radio 4 and I see no signs of any 'dumbing down' there. I feel very loyal to it."