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In defence of media studies

Gavin Williamson in the House of Commons - Credit: Parliament Live

Much maligned and under attack from ministers – but more important than ever. Media studies doesn’t deserve the ‘Mickey Mouse’ tag, argues Martin McQuillan.

In last week’s New European Ian Dunt gave us 15 bold steps to fix Britain. Top of his list was making media studies mandatory in schools. He suggested that equipping school children to approach the media, and especially social media, with critical tools would help the next generation make less of a hash of the world than their elders. It’s a good idea. And it was good timing. Now is the moment to speak up for media studies.

Also last week, while introducing his skills white paper in the Commons, the education secretary Gavin Williamson announced proposed changes in what remains of the university teaching grant, saying with glee that the government would be, “slashing the taxpayer subsidy for such subjects as media studies”. The teaching grant in universities is a top-up from the government for expensive-to-teach subjects whose costs are not fully covered by tuition fees, like medicine and dentistry.

Williamson proposes to half the meagre allowance for media studies from £243 to £121 per student per year – hardly a massive saving for the taxpayer and one seemingly motivated by culture war zeal rather than care for educational capacity in our universities. Media studies, after all, has long been a target for rather knee jerk criticism from many on the right. As Ian Dunt put it: “Every year or so, a right wing columnist does a piece mocking it as a soft subject for intellectual deadbeats.”

That said, at least one member of the present government – and a former right wing columnist to boot – was not always on board with the war on media studies. Speaking in 2006 of reported public scepticism about the number of young people going to university, this sage wrote: “For more than ten years it has been a standby for newspaper polemicists to attack media studies, or golf course management, or surf studies, or equine management: in fact, I have a feeling I may once have written something on those lines… Why O why, say the commentators in the Daily Mail, are our kids racking up these huge debts, and using all these taxpayers’ millions, when what many of them should be doing is acquiring SKILLS?”

Rather than entertain this skewed thinking, the speaker concluded, “it is high time that we Conservatives mounted a thoroughgoing defence of higher education, its students and teachers, and the benefits it can bring”. The author was Boris Johnson in a speech given during his ill-fated spell as shadow universities minister.

Incidentally, there is only one surf science and technology foundation course taught in the UK, at Cornwall College of Further Education. The veterinary care of horses is a much sought after qualification in rural communities, while the University of Birmingham is the only university in the country offering a BSc in golf course management and you need an A and two Bs at A-Level to get on it. All of those courses are precisely about acquiring skills.

Questioning what newspaper columnists and politicians say on any topic is page one of media studies. When we have been feed an industrial-quantity diet of lies and disinformation, the subject is needed more than ever.

Media studies is not a Mickey Mouse subject, but it might encourage you to ask questions about how “Mickey Mouse” came to be a synonym for something discreditable and lightweight, while the Disney Corporation, after acquiring 20th Century Fox from Rupert Murdoch, now accounts for nearly 40% of the US film market.

It is a remarkable thing when pundits in the media dismiss critical scrutiny of the very thing that pays their wages. It a curious form of self-loathing in which the same pundits do not feel themselves worthy of academic study.

It’s a bit like when journalists who have been trained to write for newspapers attack creative writing courses, insisting that no one can be trained how to write. It’s a deflection technique that has over the years been solidified into received wisdom.

Media studies asks questions about such dogma. ‘Always question representation’ would be a good motto for the discipline which encourages us not to take at face value anything being presented to us in the press, on television, and in the timelines of social media.

The clue is in the name. It was Plato who first raised the problem of media and how the representation of a thing in some medium or form is not necessarily a true version of the thing itself.

Understanding the processes by which mediation works, what representations mean, and whose interests they serve is the basis of media studies. It gives us skills with which to appraise the information given to us and to look beyond the received wisdom of education ministers and Telegraph columnists. The medium is the message as Marshall McLuhan famously wrote.

The need for training in media studies is more urgent than ever at a time when social media is being used to threaten the very fabric of democracy. As demonstrated by the attack on the Washington Capitol, inspired by shared online fantasies, there is a pressing need for critical scrutiny of new and emerging forms of media.

The next generation who have grown up in front of a screen have a completely different relationship – and an immersive one at that – to media than their parents. It would be irresponsible not to ask serious questions about how rapid transformations in media is effecting the lives of our citizens.

The coronavirus pandemic aside, it is hard to think of a more important topic for academic study right now. Not that the spread of Covid-19 around the world can be easily distinguished from its representation in different forms of media.

Would Donald Trump have been successful in disseminating falsehoods about the disease without Twitter and Facebook or the backing of news channels, which only exist because the Reagan government rescinded laws requiring balance and fairness for those who hold broadcast licenses in the US?

Closer to home, we could ask why, in contrast to reporting from Italy last March, there have been so little televised reporting of the reality of working in an NHS Covid ward? The government has now commissioned an advertising campaign using the distressed faces of frontline workers and patients in a belated realisation that the media management of what is really going on in our hospitals has in fact been a hinderance in the fight against the disease.

Vladimir Putin understands the power of the media and the effects of representation very well. We could say that it is at best wilful ignorance and at worst an act of national sabotage for a UK education secretary to take delight in defunding the study of the global media.

As for those who ask, what sort of a job can you get with a media studies degree? According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the median salary of “medium skilled” media studies graduates is £19,000, compared to £18,000 for similarly skilled biological science graduates. Medium skilled computer science graduates earn only a smidge more at £20,000.

Fatima, the notorious stock image of a ballet dancer used in a government campaign on ‘cyber’ recruitment, might wonder, when she has had enough of pirouetting, whether her next job should really be in media studies. At least she would be able to ask questions about her representation and the messages it disingenuously sends out into the world.

Martin McQuillan is director of the Institute for Creative Enterprise at Edge Hill University

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