Veteran BBC Radio presenter John Humphrys has spent decades exposing the flaws inherent in the rhetorical pronouncements made by Britain’s political ‘elite’. All the evasions, crushing shifts and outright lies that appear when the executive branch presents its secret decisions as public debate – something Tony Blair loved to do – served as grist for Humphrys’ mill.
At one point during the Iraq War, his clinical interrogation of government ministers seemed to represent the rational, humane attitudes that exemplified the beliefs of all who marched against this disastrous enterprise.
But in recent years, as the adversarial mode of interview has fallen out of favor, Humphrys’ continued adherence to a provocative style has produced some unfortunate gaffes. One of the most notable was perhaps a comment he made in 2017, when he asked Mark Rowley, a senior police officer, if Thomas Mair (who murdered MP Jo Cox) should really be called a “terrorist” since he was “mentally ill”. This argument (known as the use of “mutually exclusive” categories) seemed to suggest that Humphrys was downplaying the political motives behind the attack.
August 13, Humphrys tendency to go “off-road” sparked another controversy. On this occasion, the subject was the awarding of university degrees, and its guest was the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Angela Rayner. Discussing the prospect of two-year undergraduate courses, Humphrys questioned the value of a media studies qualification. While, he thought, the medical profession might well need a three-year training period, media students might need a little less time to complete their studies.
How much time, then, might media students really need? According to Humphrys, “about five minutes” – no doubt suggesting that all discipline is utterly worthless. While it might not be his most outrageous intervention, it struck me as the kind of easy statement that his profession is supposed to challenge.
His whole attitude harkens back to an earlier era, when questioning the value of media studies was a simple way to defend the supposed integrity of traditional subjects.
My purpose, however, is not to argue that we “leave the kids alone”, nor to replicate the usual point about the high employability of media students, but to wonder why some commentators continue to denigrate the subject. Is it because, from its inception in the 1970s and 1980s, it launched a serious critique of power, which included those elements of the media industry that remained closed to many potential entrants?
A “watchdog” for democracy?
To understand how outdated and controversial Humphrys’ remark has become, we might consider for a moment the role that “the media” (in their various guises) play in maintaining the exalted commodity of democracy.
When, for example, a prime minister may be nominated by a tiny fraction of the population, or when a government may decide to save an economy by using austerity to reduce a much larger proportion of the electorate to abject poverty , then the existence of an independent public watchdog is essential.
I’m not talking here just about the BBC, but all forms of media and all media that have the potential to contribute to a healthy public culture.
If the media in general can provide the space and opportunity for informed debate, then the critical distance provided by academic research (produced over several decades and devoted to the relationship between our notions of democracy and media activity ) helps distinguish between reliable information and the endless fantasies generated by state and corporate power.
Media and communication courses encompass studies of propaganda, electoral allegiance, political party communication, the news industry, representations of gender and identity, advertising, public relations , new media, public discourse, popular music, protest movements, social media exchanges and a host of other topics.
Academic media research has produced a cohesive body of knowledge and practical skills that are useful to journalists, activists, academics, politicians – and people in general. Ultimately, all forms of public activity must be studied and evaluated, and it would be unrealistic to expect the media to be shielded from scrutiny.
Why the contempt?
The question must be: what does an experienced practitioner such as Humphrys find objectionable about this type of survey, and the fact that it has been made available to students across the UK? If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that he doesn’t really want to understand the subject, because that would undermine his belief in the absolute separation between genuine, hard-won experience (his own, presumably) and what he considers to be a privileged mode of existence devoted to the study of trivialities.
If so, judging by Humphrys’ recent form, some elements of the Today program would also fall into the category of frivolous and inconsequential, making them eminently suitable for critical analysis. In the meantime, Media and Communication students should pursue their studies knowing that they are making an essential contribution to public debate.