In support of 'courses that lead to no job at all'

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Who studies the media? I don't just mean, who reads it, who watches it. We all do that. But who are they, those people who really study it?

The people I'm thinking of know all about the media's importance in our lives. And, more to the point, its importance in theirs. That's why they're prepared to employ dozens of other people at inflated salaries to monitor its every manifestation. And then to appoint yet more people at even higher rates to placate it, to feed it, to manipulate it.

In fact, so besotted are these people by the mass media, that they're prepared to plan large parts of their lives entirely around it. To speak at times when they will be heard by it, and to stay silent when they want. To shape what they say and how they say it to fit in with its formats, its rhythms and its schedules.

They love it and they loathe it. They know (or think they know) that it can make them or break them. So, in turns, they will threaten it and flatter it, belittle its influence and pump up its importance to fantastic proportions.

Deep in their hearts many of them would like to control it. To shackle it and censor it. But in public they say only that they would go to the stake to defend its freedoms.

They want to be of it and in it. To both speak through it and be spoken about on it. And the one thing they fear most is to be ignored by it, because that would mean death.

So who are they then, this strange breed who study our mass media so avidly? Our politicians of course.

Which makes it all the stranger that our own particular politician - further education minister James Paice - should pick upon the subject of media studies to rubbish, when asked for examples of what he had dubbed as "in vogue courses that lead to no job at all".

True he was speaking - at the Association of College's recently held first conference - on the links between college courses and the needs of employers. But then these days most colleges have as many courses that are not directly related to employment as those that are. And if you're going to go after non-vocational subjects, why not go the whole hog and pick on one of the traditional targets - my own subject for instance, English literature? But no. The Government only wants to tell us what to teach (not what not to teach) in the literature field - normally something that's old, safe and easy to serialise on BBC1 before the nine o'clock watershed.

So then, why media studies? I can't pretend to know the definitive answer to this - that must be between Mr Paice and his analyst - but I can have a good guess. Firstly, the subject is new, or relatively so at least. And new fields of study always attract hostility and opposition. In this case, ironically, it often comes from the very subject matter under scrutiny. The world moves on, but, for the leader writers of the Daily Mail and their clones on the Express, it's forever 1954.

Secondly, the subject is a contentious one. Its findings have ramifications for society, the political system, the way we live our lives. And Tories have always thought that anything that smacks of the sociological is basically subversive. Give them the supposedly hard facts of the hard sciences any day.

That's why they find it so convenient to ignore what every beginner media student knows about a "media-saturated world". About how we are bombarded with its messages from the time we wake in the morning till the moment we lay our image-weary heads on our pillows at night. About the ubiquity of television and the significance of the 30 or so hours every week we all spend watching it.

Of course, they really know all that, however hard they pretend that they don't. And they know, too, how the future will be the same only more so, with its super-highways of information and so many TV stations we won't know what to do with them all. Even John Major has heard of the Internet.

And they know - or would do if they thought about it for a moment - how these messages that envelope us from cradle to grave not only reflect and depict us but directly contribute to the sorts of people we are in the first place. And what could be more important to study (literature included) than that?

We know (that's where we came in) how closely Mr Paice and all his colleagues are prepared to study the thing themselves. So what's so wrong, with letting the rest of us have a go, too?

Stephen Jones lectures at a London FE college

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