First, ask the right question

An MA in investigative journalism makes Chris Blackhurst choke on his spicy cauliflower sandwich
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The Independent Online
It could have come straight from a David Lodge novel: a group of trendy academics and hard-nosed hacks meeting in a modern university set in an ancient seat of learning to discuss investigative journalism.

As one of those invited to speak at the "symposium" organised by the Department of Communication Studies at Anglia Polytechnic University in Cambridge last week, I found it a curious experience. There we were: myself; Michael Gillard of the Observer and Private Eye; Peter Hounam, once of the Sunday Times and Mirror and holder of the 1997 Scoop of the Year Award; Ray Fitzwalter, former head of current affairs at Granada TV and veteran producer of numerous World in Action exposes, now an independent documentary-maker; Gavin MacFadyen, another World In Action stalwart and also now independent. And there there were the dons, from Cambridge, Sheffield and Nottingham, who teach what is by far the trendiest subject in British universities: media studies.

Demand for places on their courses has soared. This year, more sixth- formers will apply for places on television, drama and communications- related courses than for maths, physics or chemistry combined. The country that gave the world engineering triumphs and inventions galore is turning into a nation of media-obsessed junkies, dissecting other people's prose and camera angles, worrying about newspaper ownership and infringements of press freedom. And for what?

Over an excellent buffet lunch, a don from Nottingham told me how his university is offering an MA degree in investigative journalism. I found it hard not to choke on my spicy cauliflour sandwich.

Journalism can be a murky business. The idea of students analysing methods of obtaining criminal records, ex-directory phone numbers and car registration details is mind-boggling. Are students to spend hours discussing the dilemma any decent investigative journalist has had to face - and upon which a snap decision often has to be made - about the truthfulness of information. Has is been stolen? Does the source want money? Is the price too high?

Sitting alongside Peter Hounam, who ran the Sunday Times team that told the world about Israel's atomic secrets, courtesy of a brave, though some might say foolhardy, scientist called Mordecai Vanunu, the air of unreality was total. How much use is an MA in investigative journalism if Mossad, the Israeli secret service, is intent on kidnapping your source? Vanunu was captured and is going mad in solitary confinement in an Israeli jail. Perhaps if Mr Hounam and his team had possessed degrees in investigative journalism, Vanunu would still be a free man.

A few years ago, I received a phone call. A voice said I did not know him but that he had some stunning information about a scandal at a national cancer charity. We met in a coffee bar off Cambridge Circus. He was nervous and shifty, like many of the people I have to deal with. He said he used to work for the charity and produced a sheaf of papers, original records of payments by the charity. One of its managers had built a swimming pool at his home, paying for it out of the charity's donations - there were the invoices to prove it. He said he had more but the documents were at his home. I gave him pounds 50 (all I had) to cover his time, to get a taxi to his house in north London and to bring the files to the newspaper's offices.

Some hours later he rang me, saying he was in a call box outside my office. He said he was too scared to come into the building but that if I went to meet him he would hand the whole lot over to me. I went outside. There was no call box. He was not there. I rang the phone number he had given me. It did not exist. Later I heard he pulled the same stunt on another paper. Perhaps, with an MA, I would have realised that the invoices were fakes from the start.

The fact that the don from Nottingham gaily told me he did not read Sunday newspapers, preferring to concentrate on television, only fuelled my cynicism. I know it can be - and often is - argued that Sunday newspapers are not what they were, that the great days of the Sunday Times under Sir Denis Hamilton and Harold Evans have long since gone but, surely, things are not so bad. Sunday newspapers continue to break major news stories. To teach investigative journalism and to not read them is absurd.

But then the reasoning behind the explosion in media studies is absurd. The closest I have known anyone come to showing the reality of working in the press is Drop the Dead Donkey. Once you realise that, you know that to try to make a legitimate academic subject out of the media is impossible.

Once, on another Sunday newspaper, we were in crisis. There was no obvious front-page picture. (Note to academics: because it is important to the presentation of the paper on the news-stand, as much time can be consumed discussing the photograph on the front page as on the political stories of the day.) For weeks we had carried a picture of the Princess of Wales or some other royal on the front page. But Diana was behind closed doors that Saturday, and Prince Charles does not sell newspapers. The editor's office fell silent, until a senior executive piped up: "I know what we need. We need a really good pile-up on the M4." If he was joking, he did not smile.

Journalism is a cut-throat business whose unsavoury practicalities do not lend themselves to academic study. By swapping experiences, doctors may help to save lives; but reporters do not exchange notes in order to help a rival on another newspaper write a better story.

In Cambridge donnish heads shook in horror at tales of newspaper and TV archives being thrown into skips to create more office space. In their world, libraries are frequently their only source of information; in ours, they come second to interviews and hard documents.

Every week, we receive job applications from people with media studies qualifications. Every week, we turn them down. Unfortunately, this paper, like most others, is not flush with vacancies. (Note to academics: teach your students about "recruitment freezes".) The other reason is that, in newspapers, nothing beats a byline. Certainly not a Master of Arts in investigative reporting.