Media: Hacks, hacademics and time for debate

Journalism matters too much for practitioners and professors not to argue the way forward
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Most journalists have always found journalism the most interesting subject in the world, and spent their spare time discussing stories, fellow journalists, editors and who's next for the chop. But the debate, or gossip, was always navel contemplating rather than high ground. That is changing. Debate there now is.

For this we must spread the praise or blame: on to John Lloyd, Lord Hutton, certain newspaper editors, surveys of trust in the media, readers' editors and some academics.

Some journalists feel uncomfortable about British journalism. One is Lloyd, the editor of the Financial Times' magazine and a former editor of the New Statesman. He has rattled the cage for years, but made real impact with the publication last year of What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics, his savage critique of press and broadcasting. He called for a "real debate on what media do to our politics and civil society".

Lloyd wants a new institute of journalism to act as a centre of debate on standards and the future role of media. It would bring together journalists, academics and policymakers. Yes, academics are in there, despite the fact that in a recent FT column Lloyd wrote about the "mutual contempt journalists and academics bear for each other".

There are journalists; there are academics and there are the so-called hacademics, journalists who have moved partially or wholly into the academy. I should declare my place in this spectrum: deputy editor The Guardian, editor The Sunday Correspondent, now heading Sheffield University's journalism department which, unlike many, has significant research activity, and, of course, writing this weekly column. I like to think, and certainly feel, that I embrace both disciplines with equal respect.

I certainly don't join in Lloyd's "mutual contempt" between journalists and academics, although I know it exists. When I edited the News Review at The Sunday Times, one of the columnists was Norman Stone, then professor of modern history at Oxford. He would tell of senior common room contempt for his journalism, not so much for its content as for the fact that he did it at all. Worst of all he had been known to be published in The Sun. In the academy, to be published by Murdoch was shocking. And they say journalists are biased.

More seriously, the contempt is based on the very different natures of the activities, and the introspection of the participants. From the journalist's end there is the reluctance of the interrogators to be interrogated. "I'm here to ask the questions," is the journalist's response when somebody tries to turn the tables. Then there is the journalists' view that the academics don't understand how journalism works.

And there is the mindless view of too many journalists that outsiders, particularly academics, should not poke their noses into journalism. Some journalists feel that all media research is anti-media, which is again rich coming from journalists, although it certainly used to have some truth.

Parts of the academic world say that journalists are defensive, self- important, philistine and live in an elite world of their own construction. That journalists do not stop to think about the effect of what they do, and resent those who subject them to critical analysis or seek to develop any theories around journalism.

Never have I been more comfortable about taking a middle/third way. While there are elements of truth in the above characterisation of the two sides, there is now a real and long-needed meeting place between them. Journalism contains some of the cleverest people around; the academy contains people who know about journalism, through experience or and unprejudiced desire to find out. Some editors make reflective speeches, often to academic audiences. Some journalists are happy to reflect critically on their own practices. And more academics are realising that engaging with their subject means engaging with journalists.

The development of the still young discipline of journalism studies, and the engagement in journalism research of some of those who moved from the media to journalism schools, means that the necessary debates are beginning to take place.

There may be some hyperbole in John Lloyd's view of the world, but it reflects, for example, the post-Hutton angst of the BBC. Journalism shouldn't cuddle up to the academy, any more than it should cuddle up to anybody (but too often does). But apartheid will do journalism no good.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield