Where would we be without Alain de Botton?

Posted by: Dr Kerry Moore

On Wednesday evening, after an afternoon of lecture preparation to teach my Year 2 Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies class Doing Media Research, I settled down to watch Newsnight on BBC 2. Alain de Botton, ‘philosopher, author and entrepreneur’ was on. He had some provocative, cutting edge and insightful ideas to share with the public based on his new book about how NOBODY EVER teaches anyone about the news (and they should). Absorbing the wisdom of de Botton like a hypodermic shot, it dawned on me that my work that day, the many hundreds, perhaps thousands of books about the news I believed to exist in Cardiff University library and the entire field of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies must have all been a dream. No one had really thought seriously about studying media before, and where would we be without Alain de Botton?

In a slick package, full to the brim with a whole bunch of reasons why people should teach people about the news, but apparently do not, de Botton set the scene for an extraordinary roundtable discussion with Alastair Campbell and Samira Ahmed, in which his book’s ‘thesis’ was further deliberated for the benefit of potential customers…. I mean the Newsnight audience.

Amongst de Botton’s arguments was the provocative notion that the news is powerful, ‘shaping how we view political and economic reality’; the cutting edge revelation that the news ‘sets an agenda, but that agenda is woefully limited’ and the insightful observation that those skills of critical reading and interpretation reserved for scholarship of the arts and literature might find a more important purpose applied to reading the media.

And at the end of a robust debate, all the Newsnight panel agreed on one thing: we need to teach people about The Media.

But, the problem with the thesis of this philosopher, author and entrepreneur (to coin an approximate acronym we might call this a PANT’s thesis) is that it’s not really his thesis. It was as if Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957), McCombs and Shaw’s The Agenda Setting Function of the Mass Media (1972), the entire works of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1964-2002), and all other seminal works inspired by such then and since had never happened.

Why such a blind spot? And why should such a complete lack of awareness/denial of the academic field of Journalism and Media, and Media education be showcased on a flagship BBC News Programme? Media Studies has been offered as a specialist subject at A-Level since 1988 and at GCSE since 1986. Every year in our own department alone, around 120 students graduate with BAs in Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, 250 with MAs and there are a continuous stream of PhDs – many of whom have worked in the media as journalists and editors and who now genuinely are producing cutting edge research furthering academic understanding of the news media industry, media content and media’s relationships with society and its other institutions. Since its inception, a central feature of Media Studies has been its critical and disruptive social force – always looking beyond the Academy to try to make sense of the manifold ways in which media plays a fundamental role in our political, economic and cultural lives. As Professor Natalie Fenton argues in Critiquing Power and Contesting Meaning (a blog that Alain de Botton might do well to read),

‘Media studies opens up the production and circulation of social meaning to critique; allows us to trace its history, theorize its power, calculate its destructiveness and then seek to express our own concerns in art, film, journalism and poetry’

And yet Media studies has always contended with the slight of ‘Mickey Mouse subject’, as Professor James Curran’s Keynote address to the subject association MeCCSA’s annual conference acutely summarised last year.

Of course, the kind of provocation and disapprobation I and other scholars in the field have been moved to may well be the very response intended by de Botton – the generation of interest in the fundamentally obvious, however it comes, may well serve the modus operandi of PANTs.

At least we can all agree that Media Literacy is an increasingly important skill in the digital world. But, in a time when critical scholarship is devalued for its lack of measurable ‘impact’, it is, I think, all the more important to highlight and respond to such a seemingly casual erasure of decades of research expertise, showcased by a programme like Newsnight.