For all that it is a boon to personkind, marketing makes mistakes, and media studies is among them. The theory was straightforward: on the one hand, you have an army of young people eager to pursue careers in journalism; on the other, you have a host of joke universities desperate to market themselves. The result is a myriad of courses tailored to meet the needs of aspiring hacks and hackettes.
The snag is that the whole enterprise is based on a fallacy – the belief that journalism, like the learned professions of, say, medicine and law, can be learnt through academic study and then practised in the field. But it isn’t like that. Journalism is not a profession, it’s a trade or, at best a craft. To succeed, you need a modicum of talent, a great deal of luck, and a willingness to learn by example. To persuade young people that three or more years spent studying the media in a fun institution like the University of Tooting Bec will lead to a career is a cruel deception.
That, at any rate, is what I thought until last week when an incident at Bristol City College changed my mind. The Government’s former head of communications, Alastair Campbell, was at the college to talk to a group of media studies students. I don’t know what he said, but to judge from his recent pronouncements it was probably a discourse on how the media had entered into a precipitate decline since the days when he wrote pornography for Forum magazine and then moved on to become a Labour Party propagandist for the Daily Mirror.
But what he said was less important than the events that preceded his talk. Lying in wait for him as his car arrived were a group of half-a-dozen media studies students who leapt out and pelted him and his car with baskets of eggs. According to some reports, Campbell was hit, but others say that the missiles missed their target. However, they struck home metaphorically since he was quick to vent his anger in the Western Daily Press. The editor of that newspaper, Terry Manners, shared Campbell’s outrage. “I’m very angry, it’s out of order,” he said. “You don’t go into journalism if you behave like that.”
That comment suggests that in the West Country they do things differently and that the Western Daily Press is a model of civilised behaviour and scrupulously fair reporting. In what used to be Fleet Street, however, the rules are different. And it seems to me that the six students who threw eggs at Campbell have it in them to make first-class tabloid journalists.
It was Richard Littlejohn, The Sun’s star columnist, who said that the role of the journalist in today’s society is to sit in the back row and throw bottles. The Bristol Six were getting in some early practice. They were also acting in a fine British tradition. It has long been the custom in this country to hurl rotten fruit and other items of household garbage at public figures. Today, the practice is seldom carried out literally, but who can deny that the tabloid press sees it as a solemn duty to pour ordure over whomever it pleases.
If I were a tutor at Bristol City College, I would take the enterprising six to one side and explain that they had great potential. But before entering journalism, they should ask themselves whether they had all the qualities needed to make the grade.
I would explain that these include prurience, insensitivity, Pecksniffian hypocrisy, and the brutal coarseness of a drunken scaffolder. The ability to write and express oneself clearly is an advantage, but not essential. More important is a grasp that truth, like time, bends and is capable of a multitude of interpretations, and that morals, scruples and principles are a form of cuttlefish.
One must also understand that a distinction between fact and opinion is an illusion. It is also an advantage to affect, when expedient, a streak of sentimentality: for example, all nurses are “angels” and the Army are always “our boys”.
Some of the techniques of the craft, as I mentioned above, are best learned on the job. These include doorstepping, ie hanging around in the company of one’s fellow practitioners ready at a moment’s notice to bawl impertinent questions at the occupant of whatever building is the focus of your activities. Entrapment is another tool of the trade: this is good fun as it may give you the opportunity to dress up as, say, the Sheikh of Araby, and lure your target into indiscretions. Attention to detail is important: for example, should distinctive markings on David Beckham’s privy member become newsworthy you will need to know more.
A certain measure of physical courage is an advantage: you may for example, find yourself having to deal with the likes of Max Clifford without holding your nose.
In short, a glittering career awaits those with the gift to grasp the essential spirit of envy, spite, meanness, and sadism that runs through the readership of our tabloid press. There could be no better starting point than hurling rotten eggs at the man who, perhaps better than all others, understood that the media is for manipulating, bullying, and distorting. My bet is that the Bristol Six will graduate summa cum laude.