War exposes futility of media degrees;Another Voice;Opinion

7th May 1999 at 01:00
EVENTS in Kosovo must be a media studies teacher's dream. Here is a daily example of the craft so many would wish to call a profession. Headlines, datelines and bylines can be read and rewritten, each camera angle scrutinised, the political and military spin, unspun.

As the warhead plunges into the Belgrade television centre, we can analyse the other impact - news desk pressure, picture facilities and presentation. There's even something to be done on what the best (and worst) dressed reporter wears. How not to be taken for a combatant, but still look good on the Nine O'Clock News.

Pity about the television station. But as Tony Blair tells us, this is a moral cause. The television station and staff - including, presumably, the make-up assistant who was killed - were part of the Serbian war machine.

That's all right then. Ask the information officers. Even the generals. They're all there to take the fearless questions. Here then, is the running symposium for this term's media study students. This is its justification. Or is it?

Why do students want to do media studies? Easy way to become a star? If you can't get in a band or score goals, it's a great way to become a someone by your mid-20s. And what's wrong with being a budding Polly Toynbee or Jeremy Paxman?

Nothing at all. But don't kid the wannabe Simon Jenkins that media studies is the right discipline to take the broadsheets, tabloids and studios by storm. Most newspaper, magazine and broadcast journalists, didn't do media studies. Toynbee didn't. Nor did Paxman. Nor did Max Hastings. Nor did 99 per cent of the rest of the really good journalists I know. The subject has existed long enough for one of the candidates for the BBC director-general's job to have a media studies degree. But he is a rarity at that level.

Editors I know are not impressed by curriculum vitae with MS on them. One tells me that MS graduates he has seen know all about the business, but cannot write consistently good copy under pressure. Others (and not all ancient) long for the days of indentured training.

Cub reporters had to learn shorthand (cassette tapes were not admissible evidence when the paper was sued for libel) and typing. Magistrates courts in the morning, flower shows in the afternoon, council meetings in the evening.

Most of all, there was the experience of trying to get it right because when young reporters stepped out of the office they were likely to meet the people they had been writing about.

None of this means that the best writers and reporters get it right all the time, of course. After all that is why sub-editors are the saviours of many an ambition. The celebrated education writer, Bruce Kemble, seeing his heavily subbed Daily Express feature, was heard to mutter: "Great piece, whoever wrote it!" Kemble's then editor, Derek Marks, thought highly of his education correspondent. I want big minds, he said.

The Kembles and Toynbees had one thing in common - big, inquisitive minds. In most cases, those minds had been stretched and trained in demanding academic disciplines: earth sciences, modern languages, classics, history.

Editors today are no different. They run newspapers, magazines, radio and television programmes that are as stretching and demanding as any academic course. Modern communications mean that poor journalism is exposed. Correspondents, trapped in the media centre during the Gulf War applauded film of an American cruise missile hitting a factory. No one asked how many had been killed. The Robert Fisks did not applaud, however. They were excluded from the media circus. The Jenkinses and John Pilgers still don't applaud. We need more of them. But reading, watching and listening, there are still too many, especially younger journalists, caught up in the occasion.

They know all about the media, they know little about asking the right questions especially in front of colleagues who do not. For Kosovo read BSE, Common Agriculture Policy, devolution, classroom funding, genetic engineering anything that touches our daily lives.

Derek Marks was right. Journalism needs big minds. It needs (we need) chemists, engineers and above all, historians to take up the craft. It is not always a noble job. That's fine. As long as it sticks to the principle of "why is this bastard lying to me" it'll serve us well.

But let us not pretend that media studies is the basic training ground. In school, the subject is good and worthwhile. At its best, media studies is a good post-graduate diploma. See what they're doing at City University.

Ask Andrew Harding, the BBC Moscow correspondent (a historian and City postgraduate). But do not continue to kid ourselves that media studies at degree level is up to much. We need big minds - even if some of them perish in the next TV station to be hit in the name of a moral and just cause.

Christopher Lee's history of Britain, This Sceptred Isle, is published by Penguin and now running daily on BBC Radio 4.

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