Of course, the government is cutting Media Studies funding — it doesn't want you to know how the 'magic' tricks are done

... and the newspapers and their owners are equally fearful of being found out.

In Parliament this week, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson — a malevolent and yet mediocre mix of Frank Spencer and a hyena from the Lion Kingmade one of his increasingly common ‘vows’. He said:

“Our proposed reform to the [higher education] teaching grant for… 2021-22 will allocate funding to deliver value for money for students and the taxpayer… [increasing] support for strategic subjects such as Engineering and Medicine, while slashing the taxpayer subsidy for such subjects as Media Studies.”  

Williamson felt safe to take a swing for media studies because he knows that the very media that is studied will line up behind him in lampooning the discipline. For decades, Media Studies has been used as the standard-bearer of a class of subjects universally derided by the press as “Micky Mouse degrees”.

The implication is that learning about the techniques and structures of the media, which frames the way we see the world, is somehow useless.

More broadly, the attacks on Media Studies are part of the decades-long project, which began with the Thatcher government and was stepped up in the Blair years, of considering university education purely as a force multiplier for employability. The notion that learning is, in and of itself, a positive thing and that a better-educated population improves society and culture beyond the bottom line plays no part in the Department for Education’s worldview.

The curriculum and frameworks for GCSE and A-Level Media Studies courses were overhauled in 2017 as part of a so-called ‘toughening’ of standards across the board. But the treatment of Media Studies in the press, the general contempt shown for the subject at degree level by journalists and politicians, and the erroneous belief that studying the subject does not produce ‘employable’ skills have left it on life support.

I wrote about the Blair government’s war on Media Studies in the early days of this newsletter (remember July 2020? Shitty days!):

It’s a lie that Media Studies is not useful, either intellectually or practically, nor that studying journalism as a subject at university won’t get you a job. Graduates from those courses end up in print — despite its decline — online media, broadcasting, public relations, marketing, advertising, market research, local and national government, and many other sectors. Courses that focus on analytical approaches to texts and video, as well as giving students the skill of writing to length, deadline, and topic are powerfully useful. 

Since that first edition on this topic, I’ve been seriously considering applying to do a PhD in the area at Goldsmiths, home of one of the most pioneering and forward-thinking Media departments in the UK. In doing further reading about the history of the ‘hatred’ for Media Studies, I came across an interesting historical tidbit that politicians and hacks having a pop tend to ignore:

In a paper published in the excellently named Kommunikationswissenschaft International journal, P.Golding explores the history of the subject in the UK. It arguably began at Cambridge University under the auspices of an academic the more tweedy columnists love to name drop:

In the period between the two world wars the huge expansion of popular entertainment, notably the popular press and cinema, in the UK, fostered considerable debate and enquiry in UK intellectual life, and as elsewhere in Europe, and prompted an appetite for something other than the empirically, and often narrowly focused study of ‘mass communication’ as it had developed in the USA. This was patchy in the UK; the major exceptions were the studies of popular literature (Leavis 1932) and advertising (Thompson 1943) developed in the group gathered around F. R. Leavis, doyen of the Cambridge University English Faculty.

Subjects allied to these concerns were little, if at all, taught in UK universities, and there was no tradition, as in the USA for example, of vocational training at university level for such occupations as journalism. The aspirational professionalization of journalism had led to some tentative attempts to create university courses. One such, developed by the Institute of Journalism towards the end of the nineteenth century with London University, included examination in literature and history, as well as the first book of Euclid, basic arithmetic, and some proficiency in Latin, French or German, alongside the more familiar skills of precis writing, shorthand, newspaper law and so on (cf. Bainbridge 1984, pp. 55–57). It came to nothing.

The split between the US and UK over the study of the media remains. In America, the subject is called Communications. I’ve encountered a good number of people who majored in Communications and the title receives fewer sneers than if someone says they have a degree in Media Studies. It’s partially about branding. As Professor James Curran of Goldsmiths said in his 2013 speech, Mickey Mouse Squeaks Back:

Media 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’.

The name of the journal in which Golding’s paper appeared is also worth returning to — Kommunikationswissenschaft International — because the German word there translates as “Communication Science”. Perhaps if it were rebranded as such in the UK, Gavin Williamson and his STEM-obsessed flunkeys would suddenly find themselves more favourably disposed to Media Studies.

It’s unlikely because the over-promoted fireplace salesman’s real objection to Media Studies is not a lack of academic rigour but a politician’s fear that a populace that better understood the means of media manipulation would be less susceptible to them.

The editor of The Independent when it published the stinging editorial quoted in Professor Curran’s speech was… Andrew Marr. A fuller quote from that piece reads: “Media Studies is a trivial, minor field of research, spuriously created for jargon-spinner 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.”

Curran recounts that “shortly after [the editorial’s] publication, Andrew Marr was asked at a meeting with Goldsmiths students… 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 [he] tried to recall a title. Nothing, he said eventually, came to mind.”

In 1996, Marr found himself the subject of an instant Media Studies case study when he interviewed Noam Chomsky for The Big Idea. Marr framed himself as the defender of the press and Chomsky as an enemy of it — it did not go at all well for him.

Asked by Marr, “How can you know that I’m self-censoring?”, Chomsky replied in a quietly withering way:

“I’m not saying you’re self-censoring; I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

Earlier in the interview, Chomsky discusses Orwell’s ‘Literary Censorship in England’ — an essay that was intended as the introduction to Animal Farm and which columnists, so obsessed with quoting Orwell, rarely touch upon. In that piece Orwell writes:

The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.

Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news—things which on their own merits would get the big headlines—being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.

So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics.

Animal Farm was first published in 1945. Literary Censorship in England was not seen in print until it was found again in 1972 and published by the Times Literary Supplement in 1973, 23 years after Orwell’s death.

Orwell’s perspective on the British media and the things it will and won’t discuss is from the waning days of the Second World War, after 5 years of the toughest direct and indirect censorship ever seen. But if I had obscured the author and pretended those words were written in 2021, I think you’d likely have recognised the picture just as well. That system of voluntary censorship remains and the abnegation of Media Studies is part of it.

The media — newspapers, TV and online outfits alike — do not want Media Studies to thrive in the same way that the meat industry would be dead against schools talking too much about abattoirs. You’re meant to gobble down the product without thinking too much about how and why it’s made.

The way the media talks about itself is about as reliable as the public information film from The Simpsons in which Troy McClure assures his viewers: “Don’t kid yourself… a cow would eat you and everyone you care about.”

The media and its owners — a very small group of very rich people — have to argue against Media Studies because if it were popular far more people would be asking a lot more questions about how stories are framed, sold, and consumed.

“Now, let’s take a look at the killing floor… Don’t let the name fool you, it’s more of a steel grating that allows material to sluice through so it can be collected and exported…”