Learned rent-a-quotes

Need an `expert'? Jonathan Sale provides a Who's Who of media dons
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The Independent Online
"Brigitte and I go back a long way," claims Andy Martin of the Faculty of Modern & Medieval Languages, Cambridge. Look up Bardot in the Guide to Expertise, a sort of Who Knows What of the university, and you find Dr Brown. But exactly how close is he to Brigitte Bardot?

"I've fantasised about her for 25 years. I know most of the mythology," he says. Unlike the slammer-down of phones who used to supervise me many years ago, he is reporter-friendly, to the point of listing his work number in Cambridge's media guide. Other universities are the same: Dial D for Don.

"I think they've all got them now," explains Peter Cole, a former Fleet Street editor who is now Professor of Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire. "It's good for the press, because there is a tremendous demand for "experts", and it provides a source for instant quotations. And it is good for the universities, because they get mentioned; they are all so market-orientated."

Most entries in the dons' directories do not count as media stars; they are not players in what Professor Cole terms "the premier division superleague, who basically have given up universities for `ranting' ".

Often they rate more than one entry. The Cambridge guide refers queries on both "Submarines and ships" and "Snoring" to the splendidly named Professor John Ffowes Williams. Dr Martin is also down under "Surfing", a subject on which he has written a book, and "Napoleon", on whom he is currently writing another. ("On `Napoleon the Novelist'," he assures me.)

John Adams, Reader in Geography at University College London, is in the UCL guide, which is larger than most Yellow Pages. "I get asked to talk about two-and-a-half things." These are (1) transport planning, and (2) risk; the half is the Channel tunnel, which features in both categories.

A maverick environmentalist who opposes car seatbelts and cycle helmets on the grounds that they encourage dangerous behaviour, Dr Adams appears on national and local radio. His media career began when he wrote a satirical piece proposing that London's third airport should be situated in Hyde Park.

"The light touch is what journalists are after 75 per cent of the time," according to James Baxter, a social psychologist who is to be found in a slim volume entitled Who's Who at Strathclyde. Since he is listed under "Driver Behaviour", it is the motoring press that beats a path to his telephone. He receives fewer calls about his other listing, "Child witnesses", his more serious area of research.

The Open University's contact guide lists its Professor of Sociology as an expert on the Bishop of Durham, which must at one time have brought him a regular supply of media inquiries. Jonathan Dancy, a Keele philosopher, specifies "Tolerance" as a pet subject, which must mean that he doesn't receive many calls from the Sun's features desk. Oddly enough, that tabloid once rang up Exeter University, which produces a strikingly illustrated guide entitled Who Can Speak on What?, to ask for the translation of "Cor, what a scorcher!" into Russian.

Although traditional academics may feel that publicising their work is beneath them, their younger colleagues happily go on media training courses. There are now far more experts on tap than in the days when Peter Cole began his career as a features writer on a London evening newspaper. With only three hours in which to write an instant feature, he always included a helpful quotation from a Harley Street psychiatrist - the same psychiatrist, whatever the subject - for which the loquacious shrink received a fiver.