No 'me' in 'media', no 'I' in 'news team'

The wannabe 'pree-sen-nas' blinded by celebrity culture are closed to ideas and opportunities, argues Tara Brabazon

March 5, 2008




Among the great surprises in moving from Australian to British universities are the career goals expressed by students. Being accustomed to the aspirations of prospective journalists, policy gurus, earnest educators, film-makers, photographers, librarians and musicians - along with the occasional desire to captain the Australian cricket team - it seems to me there is one label/career that too often spills from the lips of our British first-years.

Asked what they want to "be" or "do" when they leave our campuses, the majority reply using a term that I did not - at first - understand. After their media degree, they dream of becoming a "pree-sen-na". Translating Essex English into Australian English is always a challenge. One linguistic form flattens all sounds by removing the letter 'T'. Australian English clips and cuts consonants with such force that they shatter glass.

After decoding the phraseology, I realised my students want to be presenters. But I needed further clarification on the function of this role. What did this job description actually involve? Piecing together my students' definitions, a presenter needs (in no particular order for men or women) big hair, breast implants, to be gay, the ability to read an autocue, to use a lot of eyeliner, to smile with artificially whitened teeth, cry, wear designer clothing and reveal a great deal about their "personality", including failed relationships, challenges with addiction and - most importantly - struggles with weight loss. If the "pree-sen-na" had an exercise DVD to promote while struggling with sexual "iss-ews", the feedback loop was complete: pree-sen-na heaven.

This career description is a problem for those of us who teach in universities because no knowledge - or even skill beyond reading an autocue - is required to fulfil this career. A personality and luck are enough for success or, more precisely, fame.

Documenting the micro-traumas of streaking mascara, over-tight trousers and crimes against shoe shopping can fill a talk show with the excitements of the banal. If Richard and Judy could not talk about their children or Fern Britton about her weight loss, then how would airtime be occupied? The self is sufficient. Identity is enough.

A whole suite (sweet?) of "celebrities" have an ear-piece fused to a studio manager's mouth and brain. This wiring is important because someone needs to read more than a press release. Managers, researchers or assistants can surreptitiously suggest questions when the dialogue about children, cosmetic surgery and dieting staggers into stupidity.

Pree-sen-nas also have other conversational options; for example, parroting innocuous linking statements such as "This is the moment of truth", "let's see what the judges say", "see you after the break", and "for full terms and conditions, please go to www-dot-bee-bee-see-dot-cow-dot-you-kay-forwardslash-phonevotingripoff". That blank stare into the autocue, injecting emotion and... and... and... and... pauses to moments of pseudo-tension have put the light into light entertainment, but also assembled barriers for creating professional aspirations in the media.

Pree-sen-nas are deceiving our students. The great lie of celebrity culture is that, behind the frocks, hair and chat, there is a huge community of hard workers in media industries. The future for media, humanities and social science scholars is not constructing an operatic life based on the solitude and loneliness of queuing at Tesco on a Saturday morning. Part of their job will be reporting - not living - these micro-stories. They must operate under the stress of a deadline and summon a deep understanding of how to scan a huge amount of news material, pick an important thread, write copy, verify the copy and deliver it to a diverse range of media platforms.

I realised the scale of this expertise when visiting ITN recently. I saw post-Fordist news in action. ITN is responsible for the news broadcasts for ITV, Channel Four and Setanta Sports, but it is its broadband and mobile suite - labelled ITN On - that is most fascinating, creating made-for-mobile news and weather. The room is filled with young men and women in an open-plan office. It is busy, punctuated with multiple screens, telephones and chatter. Adjacent to the news room is an alcove containing a camera, autocue and chair. Mark Wood, the CEO of ITN, explained that journalists monitor the feed and footage supplied to all the ITN offices and services, select footage or follow an idea, write copy, feed it to the autocue and record it themselves. This multi-skilled and multi-skilling team is creatively - and quickly - assembling unique mobile content packages in their own studio. The journalists then release their production to broadband and mobile customers as a video news bulletin. While some current affairs is covered, entertainment and sports news proliferates. The focus for all the ITN operations is to match content with platform and audience. For their mobile business, reporters must have a metaphoric hot desk adjacent to Amy Winehouse's rehab and Britney Spear's custody battle and/or hairdresser.

This ability to take a project from visual feed to idea, and from copy to broadcast, is outside the aspirations of university students' pree-sen-na kul-cha. Our responsibility as educators is to intervene and transform their expectations. Instead of being part of celebrity culture, they must gain the skills and knowledge to report on it. Tabloidisation has damaged a generation of media students so that they embrace celebrity not ideas, and personality not argument. We need to (even temporarily) displace the "me" from "media"

Julie Burchill, from the crucible of The Face, described the characteristic of "modern experience" as "you don't really exist until you see your name in print". She captures a Thatcherite meritocracy that closed mines but opened Body Shops and reduced dissent while increasing consumerism. We are now following the trajectory of Burchill's maxim. Currently, our students do not even recognise that they may need to develop ability in writing to become "famous". Instead they are satisfied "being themselves". For Burchill, being famous was about creating an identity through print. In our digitised, compressed and accelerated age, fame only requires being seen on television.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media at the University of Brighton.

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