Do we preach to converted only?

December 15, 2006

Are academics wasting their time by working on TV and radio shows that bring the fruits of research to the public, asks Maria Misra

In the past few weeks, I have been approached by television and radio programme-makers asking me to participate in projects as diverse as early 20th-century peace movements, the rise of scientific racism and the history of celebrity adoption (among missionaries).

The approaches generally take the same form: an initial phone call to establish if I'm interested, a much longer phone call involving an extensive debriefing on everything I know about subject x, then an e-mail exchange in which interviews stretching over many days and diverse locations are proposed.

The main expenditure of time is on research, which is generally very poorly remunerated. Although there are researchers on many of these projects, they're often temporary and the expectation is that the academics are working largely for love. This parsimoniousness is not the result of meanness or exploitative tendencies, but the natural consequence of the intense competition for the few commissions going and the resulting tightening of budgets almost to the point of non-existence. In fairness, I suspect that many producers imagine that academics have all sorts of arcane knowledge stored in their memory banks and that participation involves little work. Sadly, in my case at least, this is not true, which makes research a necessity.

Meanwhile, a "short" interview involves the lengthy travails of public transport and innumerable retakes because someone coughed three blocks away. All in all, one has to allow for a whole day, for which a sandwich seems small recompense. So at a time when the countervailing demands of teaching, administration and research become ever more burdensome, I have to think carefully before saying "yes" to such invitations.

But perhaps moaning about unpaid extra work for the public media is irrational. After all, much of what I do for students is above and beyond the call of duty and is, therefore, free. Surely it is in some ways more important to reach as wide an audience as possible at a time when public debate deals with issues of the day such as why precisely the Cold War ended, the rising tide of racism and the nature of political Islam - on all of which academics have something useful to say. And excellent radio programmes such as In Our Time and Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed attempt to promulgate the fruits of research into the popular sphere. Public dissemination is now seen as a desideratum in grant applications, and some research assessment exercise panels include it as one of their "esteem" indicators.

But do TV and radio appearances actually bring research-driven ideas to a wider audience? Almost all the approaches I receive come from Radio 4 and BBC Four. Radio 4 has a large audience, but it is mainly educated and middle class. BBC Four's viewers are few, and repeats of its output on BBC Two are generally confined to the post-midnight slots.

It may well be that the notion that academics have any impact at all on broader debates in the UK through broadcasting is simply a comforting delusion. But, oddly, things might be better abroad. A number of the recent documentaries to which I have contributed have been co-funded by European programme-makers and, though there is little response from British viewers, there is a hefty e-mail haul from France, Germany and Belgium. So, while British taxpayers may ignore us, they are at least subsidising the enlightenment of European audiences.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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