Mickey Mouse Squeaks Back: Defending Media Studies

James Curran
Goldsmiths, University of London

Keynote address to the MeCCSA conference in Derry 2013.
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Introduction

5 James C - q1Media studies have been subject to periodic attack by quality newspapers, across the political spectrum, for over fifteen years.  According to the Conservative Sunday Times, a degree in media studies is ‘little more than a state-funded, three-year equivalent of pub chat’ that is symptomatic of ‘a dumbed down educational world’.  The centrist Independent declared that ‘students learn nothing of value’ on media studies courses, adding that ‘this paper regards a degree  in media studies as a disqualification for a career in journalism’. The left-leaning Guardian, though not fulminating directly against media studies in an editorial, has published a number of lengthy, feature-based denunciations. One declared a media studies undergraduate degree to be ‘puffed-up nonsense masquerading as academic discipline’ that is ‘an instant turn-off to employers’.  Another argued that the rise of media studies has been founded on a corrupt compact between ‘cash-hungry universities’ and gullible young people who think that studying journalism at university will ‘help them meet Posh Spice’. It was headlined ‘Media Studies?  Do Yourself a Favour – Forget it’.

These jeremiads have been amplified by attacks in the popular press, and by the warnings of leading individual journalists. Media studies are ‘tiddly wink degrees’, snorted the distinguished science journalist, Sir Patrick Moore. ‘The idea of three years at university doing journalism is utterly barmy’, proclaimed the Radio 4 Today programme presenter, John Humphreys.  ‘There’s nothing you can learn in three years studying the media at university’, according to former Sun editor, Kelvin McKenzie, ‘that you can’t learn in just one month on a local paper’.

Leading members of the intelligentsia have also expressed disdain for media studies. According to the biographer Brenda Maddox, it ‘reek[s] not only of trendiness ……… but of political correctness’. Its greatest defect, she adds, is that it has no sense of history so that its students are, in the words of Yeats, ‘unremembering hearts and heads’. Likewise, the military historian, Anthony Beevor, declared that ‘media studies is seen as a bad joke as far as employers are concerned’.  ‘“Soft” subjects’, like these, he adds, ‘make me rather angry because it is a betrayal of the students. They think that they are getting a real qualification and in fact they have been conned’.

5 James C - q2A number of conservative educationalists have also expressed dismay at the rise of media studies as an academic subject. For them, it symbolises the dumbing down of higher education, the empty pretentiousness of new universities teaching mickey mouse degrees to low grade students. However, reservations are not confined to ‘more means worse’ opponents of university expansion. David Blunkett, when he was a Labour Education Minister, publicly regretted  that too many youngsters were taking ‘narrow’ courses like media studies with an eye to future employment instead of studying broader, more intellectually rewarding courses such as history. His ministerial  colleague, Chris Smith,  was openly sceptical about the intellectual rigour of media studies degrees, while the Arts minister, Mark Fisher, lamented that media students were being trained for  jobs that did not exist. This ministerial consensus led the Labour government, in 1997, to consider ways of limiting the number of students doing media and communication courses.

While nothing came of this, a new offensive was launched some ten years later.  In 2008, Cambridge University warned that students taking ‘less effective’ A-levels like media studies, without at least two ‘traditional’ subjects, would find it difficult to secure a place.  In 2011, the elite Russell Group of universities publicly declared that they favour ‘hard ‘A’ level subjects over ‘soft’ ones like media studies. There is now a move to extend this distinction across the university system. Introducing a report of the Conservative Fair Access to University Group in 2012, Conservative MP Rob Wilson called for ‘the abolition of the current UCAS point system which rates high grades in maths and English just the same as those ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses such as media studies’.

Here, then, is a worthless subject, denounced by distinguished journalists, derided by public intellectuals, denigrated by politicians on both left and right, and now attacked by Britain’s equivalent of Ivy League universities. This campaign is beginning to have an impact. While applications for university entrance starting in 2012-13, at the January deadline, were down overall by 7.4 per cent, those for the broad subject area of Mass Communication and Documentation plummeted by 14.6 per cent.

Ignorance

5 James C - q3In the face of this withering attack, perhaps it is time for people teaching these Mickey Mouse degrees to squeak back. I say this because criticism of media studies degrees is often based on ignorance of what they entail. Take Brenda Maddox’s complaint that media studies has no sense of history, and is fixed on ‘the here-and-now’. This is not true: media history is part of the core curriculum of most media studies courses. Thus, in my department, undergraduates take a media history course in their first term. In it, they are introduced to important arguments some of which were not around in Brenda Maddox’s undergraduate days: for example, that the first world war took place not in 1914-18 but in 1754-63 when France and Britain battled for global supremacy from India to Canada, providing a context in which Protestant bigotry and a growing sense of imperial destiny helped to glue Britain together as a relatively new, conglomerate nation.

At this point, I need to be circumspect since Brenda Maddox is a good friend of my sister, and writes admirable books. My point is merely that Brenda Maddox is talking nonsense when she says media studies are ahistorical.

Other critics also display limited knowledge of what they are criticising. Take Andrew Marr, who was Editor of the Independent when it ran an editorial attack on media studies.  Shortly after its publication, Andrew Marr was asked at a meeting with Goldsmiths students – at which I was present – to give two examples of bad academic media studies books published in the last five years that exemplified his low opinion of the field. There was a long pause as Andrew Marr tried to recall a title.  Nothing, he said eventually, came to mind.

But if Andrew Marr’s eloquence temporarily deserted him, it was not lacking in his paper’s editorial which is worth quoting more fully. ‘Media studies’, it proclaimed loftily ‘is a trivial, minor field of research, spuriously created for jargon-spinners and academic make-weights. Students learn nothing of value because the subject doesn’t know its own purpose, is unimportant, and because most people teaching it don’t know what they are talking about’.

Whether Andrew Marr is entitled to speak from a Himalayan height of superiority is something that I had intended to explore further by taking a closer look at his book,  My Trade: A Short History of Journalism. This scrutiny was going to be both lengthy and impolite. But I will ditch this part of my speech because Andrew Marr had a stroke this Tuesday. He is a nice man, and I wish him a very speedy recovery.

Intellectual Scope

At the heart of most attacks on media studies is the assumption that a field which examines ephemeral content must be inherently lightweight. How can a university degree, it is argued, that takes seriously Sex and City be considered remotely serious.

What this attack fails to grasp is that the media are the starting point, not the sum, of media studies.  Analysis of the media provides a means of investigating the politics, economy, culture, social relations and imaginative life of society. To convey the intellectual scope of the field, let me cite the four core modules offered by Cardiff University’s BA in Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.  They are not Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gavin and Stacey, Homeland and Harry Potter, but (1) ‘Media and Democracy’, (2) ‘Popular Culture’, (3) ‘Media, Power and Society’ and 4) ‘Doing Media Research’. Apart from the last admirable module, this is a typical of the media studies core repertoire.  In addition, media degree courses offer a range of options. Thus, the Sussex University media degree offers what seems to me a fascinating choice that includes ‘Media, Memory and History’, ‘Media, Publics and Protest’, ‘Media and Music’ and ‘Viewing Women’.

Most of these courses, including the last one, examine the media as a way of illuminating particular aspects of society. This requires students to assimilate different areas of knowledge, and to make sense of different disciplines with distinctive technical terms and referents. Far from being a soft option, this is enormously demanding.

I studied history at Cambridge.  The subject has a long tradition, and it was taught brilliantly. But its intellectual content was at that time narrow, concentrating heavily on politics, public administration and international relations, largely limited to Europe and America. It was this narrowness that prompted me – and other pioneers of UK media studies who took the same unreformed Cambridge history course (among them Dennis McQuail, John Tulloch, and Annabelle Sreberny) – to seek to develop new degrees more challenging and intellectually rich than the ones we had taken.

Media studies courses in Britain now cover a broad spectrum. They vary significantly in terms of the mix of disciplines they are oriented towards. They also differ in terms of whether they offer media-based training or not.  But I have not come across a single media studies degree – either as a teacher or as an external examiner – that corresponds to the two standard caricatures that appear in newspapers: as a narrow immersion in vocational training or as vacuous ‘pub chat’ that, as one Guardian article puts it, is obsessed with ‘the relationship Madonna enjoys with her own belly button’. In brief, the attack on media studies is founded on ignorant misrepresentation.

Global Success

5 James C - q4While the rise of media studies in Britain has been derided as incurably naff at home, it has been globally influential. This is the second point I want to make. To do this, I need to go back in time, though in a necessarily condensed form.

The United States enjoyed ‘first mover’ advantage in developing media studies.  It devoted enormous resources to its academic development, including the creation of massive PhD programmes that trained not only American media academics but numerous future media lecturers in countries like Japan, Germany, and South Korea.

The American paradigm of media studies as ‘communication’ became globally dominant. This took the form of a heavy concentration on media effects on audiences, usually set within a taken-for-granted, uncritical view of society. This tradition was grounded in the social sciences, and was technically proficient. It was also dynamic, expanding into areas like health communication and business communication. But while it attracted some very talented researchers, it was in essence administrative research set within narrow intellectual horizons.

Alongside Communication Departments, there developed usually separate Journalism Departments.  Following the influential Hutchins Report, journalism education in the United States became closely associated with a professionalising project. This resulted in a steady flow of lightly researched books by journalism professors – nearly all ageing ex-journalists – whose recurring theme was that journalism was currently no longer as good as  it had been in their day.

The study of popular culture fell between the cracks of journalism and effects-oriented communication studies. In so far as popular culture was covered in mid-western universities, the great citadels of communications and journalism teaching and research, it tended to be through a sociology of culture tradition strongly influenced in the post-war period by a now discredited mass society thesis.

When media studies in Britain was developed as an undergraduate degree course in Britain, firstly in 1975, it was deliberately constructed in opposition to this prevailing US definition of the field. The British version owed more to the humanities than to the social sciences. In contrast to the technical, administrative cast of US communications research, it drew heavily on critical social theory. But perhaps the most important difference was that it gave extensive attention to the analysis of popular culture, borrowing extensively from literary studies. In passing, media studies was also integrated, initially, with journalism training – an innovation that has only partly stuck.

In effect, Britain reinvented communications in a new form, and gave it a new label, media studies. While this rival version has not displaced ‘Communication’ as the dominant model around the world, it became dominant in Britain and made major inroads in a number of places from Norway to China, and indeed some parts of the US. This influence was mediated through expats, notably in Australia; through Commonwealth connections (as I know from personal experience as an external examiner in Malaysia, West Indies and Malta) and, above all, through the publication of British media research which came to be widely translated.

This general account is complicated by the issue of endogeneity. Some of the currents that shaped British media studies – notably feminism, postcolonial criticism, Marxism, postmodernism and increased cosmopolitanism – were present in other countries, and shaped the field as it developed elsewhere. But British universities played a leading role in the spread of a critical, humanities-based definition of media and cultural studies at a time when the field was in transition. This is borne out by the way in which doctoral students have sought out British media departments from around the world. Thus, the media department at Goldsmiths currently has 64 PhD students, most of whom are from overseas. Similarly, Westminster has 60, Cardiff 50, and Leeds and LSE 35 a piece, while other media departments have substantial numbers.

British media studies became a global pace setter during the period it was regularly dismissed at home. Indeed, the rise of British media studies helped to reshape the field internationally.

Jobless Myth

If one standard theme of press reporting and public criticism is that media studies is intellectually worthless, another is that  a media degree is scorned by employers and, in the words of Chris Woodhead, formerly head of Ofsted, is ‘a one-way ticket to the dole queue’. This has been repeated so often that it is tempting to assume that it must be true.  In fact it is not, though the true picture is complicated.

The latest figures, supplied by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), relate to graduates in 2010. A higher proportion of media studies graduates are in employment (67%) than graduates as a whole (62%). However, a higher than average proportion of media studies are also not in employment.

The main reason for this seeming contradiction is that students of media studies, like some other subjects, are less inclined to do further training or studying than the typical graduate. Statisticians at HESA have addressed this problem by generating an ‘employment indicator’ for each subject based on calculating the combined number of those who have jobs or are studying  as a percentage of total graduates (with some minor exclusions). In terms of this employment indicator, there was a negligible difference between media studies graduates and graduates as a whole, in the period, 2002-6. Media studies graduates were hit more by the recession, though only by a small margin. Thus, in 2010, 87% of media studies students were working or studying, compared with 90% of total graduates.

In short, the charge that a media studies degree has no value in the job market is a fiction. While fewer of our graduates are going into print, more are finding jobs in online communication, broadcasting, public relations, marketing, advertising, market research, NGO administration, local government, and other sectors of employment.

This is for a reason. My experience of marking first year undergraduate work is that it is generally awful, making it a profoundly depressing experience. But when I mark a third year option, I am impressed usually by the increase of quality and, in particular, by one thing. In the interim, my students have acquired the ability to write clearly, economically and with persuasive force. This is especially true of those students on our core course who have done extensive journalism. I find myself responding with envy, wishing that I could write as fluently as most of them.

The ability to write well is actually quite rare. It is a gift bestowed by journalism training, and is an asset for a wide range of jobs.

Conclusion

The attack on media studies is centred on two charges: media studies degrees are intellectually lightweight, and are poison in the jobs market. Neither charge is true.

Why, then, have criticisms of media studies persisted for so long? One part of the answer is that they are fed by a subterranean current of fear. This is registered in the anger, sometimes bordering on rage, of some articles attacking media studies. More is being expressed in some articles than is being said.

Journalists are a beleaguered group. Between 2001 and 2010, the ‘mainstream journalism corps’ in Britain is estimated to have shrunk by between 27 per cent and 33 per cent. The press industry is becoming increasingly casualised; freelance payments are falling; and permanent staff are under increasing pressure to produce more. On top of this, journalists have been subject to mounting public obloquy, culminating in the Leveson Inquiry.

The mushrooming of media courses can seem, in this context, threatening. New media courses are training young people to take journalists’ jobs. They employ academics, who fuel public criticism of the press, with the potential in the view of some to shackle press freedom. Attacking media studies, in these circumstances is not just the equivalent of kicking the cat, a displacement of anger. It can be a way of attacking something that symbolises the ills besetting journalists.

This partly explains, I suggest, the longevity and virulence of the press crusade against media studies. Another reason is that we have not been very active in our own defence.  In my case, I have kept silent, apart from answering the phone to enquiring journalists, resulting in the occasional one line quote defending our field.  My reluctance to get engaged has been partly constitutional: I find it easier to criticise than to salute, to attack my colleagues than to acclaim them. I also thought that discussion of education is best left to people in Education Departments.

But I have come to the conclusion that the campaign against media studies is based on prejudice and ignorance, and needs answering. Rather belatedly, I feel that our side of story should be told. I hope you will join me in telling it.

Posted by Einar Thorsen