Veteran BBC Radio presenter John Humphrys has spent decades exposing the weaknesses inherent in the rhetorical pronouncements made by the UK’s political “elite”. All the evasions, grinding shifts in gear, and downright falsehoods that appear when executive power presents its secretive decisions as a public debate – something Tony Blair was fond of doing – were grist to Humphrys’ mill.
At one point, during the Iraq war, his clinical interrogation of government ministers seemed to represent the rational and humane attitudes that exemplified the beliefs of all those who marched against that disastrous venture.
But in recent years, as the adversarial mode of interviewing has fallen out of favour, Humphrys’ continued adherence to a provocative style has produced some unfortunate gaffes. Perhaps one of the most notable was a comment he made in 2017, when he asked Mark Rowley, a senior police officer, whether Thomas Mair (who murdered the MP Jo Cox) should really be described as 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 which lay behind the attack.
On August 13, Humphrys’ tendency to go “off piste” ignited another controversy. On this occasion, the subject was the delivery of university degrees, and his 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 period of training, students of the media might require rather less time to complete their degrees.
How long, then, might students of media actually need? According to Humphrys, “about five minutes” – arguably suggesting that the whole discipline is utterly worthless. While not perhaps his most outrageous intervention, it seemed to me the kind of facile utterance that his profession is meant to challenge.
His whole attitude is a throwback to an earlier period, when casting doubt on the value of media studies was a simple way of defending the supposed integrity of traditional subjects.
My point, however, is not to plead that we “leave the kids alone”, nor to reproduce the usual point about the high employability of media students, but to ask why some commentators continue to denigrate the subject. Is this because, from its inception in the 1970s and 1980s, it mounted a serious critique of power, which included those elements of the media industry that remained a closed shop to many potential entrants?
A ‘watchdog’ for democracy?
To understand just how outdated and contentious Humphrys’ remark has become, we could think for a moment about the roles that “the media” (in their various forms) play in maintaining that exalted commodity known as democracy.
When, for instance, a prime minister can be brought into office by a tiny fraction of the population, or when a government can decide to rescue an economy by using austerity to reduce a much more substantial proportion of the electorate to abject poverty, then the existence of an independent public “watchdog” is essential.
I’m not referring here just to the BBC, but to all media forms and outlets 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 to take place, then the critical distance provided by academic research (produced over many 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, voting allegiance, party political communication, the news industry, representations of gender and identity, advertising, PR, new media, public discourse, popular music, protest movements, social media exchange and a host of other topics.
Academic research into the media has produced a coherent body of knowledge and practical skills that are of use to journalists, activists, academics, politicians – and people in general. Ultimately, all forms of public activity are bound to be studied and assessed, and it would be unrealistic to expect that the media should be protected from scrutiny.
Why the contempt?
The question must be: what does an experienced practitioner such as Humphrys find objectionable about this kind of enquiry, 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 does not really want to understand the topic, because this would undermine his belief in the absolute separation of authentic, hard-won experience (his own, presumably) and what he sees as a privileged mode of existence devoted to the study of trivia.
If the latter is really the case then, judging by Humphrys’ recent form, some elements of the Today programme would also fall into the category of the frivolous and inconsequential, making them eminently suitable for critical analysis. In the meantime, students of Media and Communication should continue to pursue their studies in the knowledge that they are making an essential contribution to public debate.