Message for the media

January 9, 1998

"Research for the purpose of the RAE is to be understood as original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding." Definition for 1996 research assessment exercise.

Question: Can a broadcast television programme ever, under this definition, be considered research? The answer ("Yes, provided that those making the judgement have the confidence in their own discipline to assert its worth and respond robustly to its critics") is more than just academic. For one question the Higher Education Funding Council is asking about the next round of assessment is whether its current definition of research should be retained.

It is a vital issue for those in media and communication studies, to be debated today at the annual meeting of the Standing Conference in Communications, Cultural and Media Studies. The health of a discipline in which Britain has a worldwide reputation will turn on the outcome of the debate.

The failure to address this issue in 1996 meant that no media or communications department that included a significant number of practitioners in its submission gained anything above a 4 rating. But that was hardly a surprise given that the panel contained no practitioners and the criteria they applied to practical work left little scope for the panel to make more flexible judgements, even if they had been minded so to do.

It is not difficult to understand why this came about. Media, cultural and communication studies has come under sustained attack over the last couple of years. Sideswipes from in and outside the academy are now common. The latest can be found in the current issue of the British Journalism Review, one of the few places where academics and media professionals have been able to engage in constructive dialogue.

In a dismal whinge about the demise of industrial correspondents, Ron Stevens (a former member of that band), voices the following neanderthal sentiments: "The media studies brigade would consider all of these men to have been woefully ill-equipped for their work I They could spell, they could write grammatically I all very elementary, perhaps, but not entirely contemptible when so many products of the media studies industry - not to mention some of their mentors - can evidently do none of these things."

Such bone-headed criticisms would be unimportant were it not for the fact that they are implicitly sustained by the media studies brigade itself. Some media theorists seek to shore up their professional standing by distancing themselves from colleagues who teach media production.

Should the conservative mood continue, the discipline will be doing itself a grave disservice. For the logical response to the existing narrow definition of "research" is for universities to ensure that either they engage only practitioners who are working in experimental fields (whose work might just come within the current definition of research), and thus cut themselves off from mainstream practitioners, or to engage mainstream practitioners, on part-time or temporary contracts, thus avoiding having to put them through the research assessment exercise.

The consequence of that will be a marked decline in the quality of practitioners prepared to engage with the academy and an undermining of the significance of practice in the eyes of the students, the university and society at large.

That is a sure recipe for the attacks on the discipline to continue. For while senior practitioners, including former editors of national newspapers, radio and television programmes, are prepared to cross the boundary from industry to academia, that process will cease if they perceive that their potential standing will be low.

Let me declare an interest. I am an unapologetic practitioner (although I do teach a theory course and have even been known to write books) but when it comes to being assessed on the quality of my output I want to be judged on what I do best, and for what I am paid to teach - television journalism. But under the current criteria that is impossible.

At Goldsmiths we believe that combining the study of the media with practical media work is right. The discipline must have the confidence to insist that "research" for its practitioners is defined, as it is for creative academics in fields such as music and the visual arts, by reference to where work has been exhibited, transmitted or published and by looking at critical reviews. What it should not be doing, as it did in 1996, is to try to force creative work into inappropriate research straitjackets.

The prejudice against media, communications and cultural studies is similar to that which existed 30 years ago against sociology. It would be an enormous pity if such prejudices were to be stoked up by those inside media studies. Media theorists need the support of their practical colleagues for they are the discipline's best link with the industry they purport to study - downgrade them and there exists the very real risk of media, cultural and communication studies being confined to academic backwaters.

Ivor Gaber is professor of broadcast journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.