Hooligans, hacks and highbrows: addressing the disconnect between Britain’s media and universities

The UK's media and universities have for too long fostered a destructive antagonism. But in a context in which both institutions are facing vast structural changes, establishing a more productive co-operation is urgently needed to prevent these vital democratic bodies becoming mere instruments of capital. 

Jamie Mackay
14 May 2012

The enormous structural changes facing both Britain’s mainstream media and its universities are placing considerable strain on a third tradition: the age-old antagonism between the two sets of institutions.Tabloid journalism has historically had a pivotal role in generating the burlesque image of the academy as a safe haven for those unwilling, unfit or too ungrateful to work in society.

‘Totally Tom', the comedy duo behind the viral
satire on life at Bristol University, ‘High Renaissance Man’

But in the wake of the spectacle of last year’s student protests, this caricature is seeing a significant shift: the flimsy and foppish is increasingly subservient to a more hysterical vision of the bandana-clad black bloc activist, gyrating - fire-extinguisher in hand - to the ominous rhythms of hard dubstep. Alexander Boot’s recent Daily Mail attack on the LSE demonstrates a particularly paranoid manifestation of the political anxiety behind the stereotype, making the hyperbolic conflation between its MA in ‘contemporary urbanism’ and a nightmarishly totalitarian political project apparently being brewed in its course-work…

Boot’s asininity is undeniable, but his argument is alarmingly representative. His is just a new face among many in the British media’s multifarious tradition of anti-intellectualism; a tradition that the universities have too often ignored with a shrug or, worse, actively invited. The clumsy rhetoric of a small group of Goldsmiths academics in praise of what the media caricatured as the Millbank violence only provided the tabloids with another golden nugget in their attack against a culture of ‘student scroungers’. On the other side of the political spectrum, certain dinosaurs of the reactionary academy have exacerbated matters through a highbrow sneer at the very mention of ‘the media’, while their younger acolytes engage in a more epicurean form of vandalism – ‘Uni toffs' pub trash ritual’ reports The Sun.

The result of this pick and mix polemic is a strange contradiction. The stereotypical don sees student radicalism as evidence of the need for a return to the ‘good old days’ of the elite ivory tower with its ‘sensible chaps’. Meanwhile, the radical leftist views the universities as inhibited precisely by this ‘old’ image: nepotistic, stuck up and self-serving. The glaring discrepancy between these two extremes is indicative of an ideological vacuum, the contours of which are making space for the continuing corporate infiltration of the university. The consequences of this influence are far removed from the visions of either party and, moreover, mark the single greatest threat to the diversity and innovation of UK higher education. While it is true that a certain section of academia – most blatantly A. C Grayling’s ‘New College of the Humanities’ - really are working to build an insular, elitist club, many viewpoints on the radical left are similarly intolerant; too often resembling what Stewart Lee laments as Margaret Thatcher’s narrow-minded snubbing of a student of Ancient Norse - “what a luxury!”.

The intention of these anti-elitist voices is a well-meaning egalitarianism steeped in a belief in universal emancipation. But it is frequently predicated on a misunderstanding of its very conditions - falling into a dangerous trap in which equality becomes analogous to eradicating difference as opposed to the heart of its defence. Campaigning for such ends as anti-elitism without fully recognising this dynamic runs the risk of perpetuating the same losses that we are currently seeing in the aftermath of the Browne Report with its commitment to monetising higher education.

Studying Ancient Norse is not just a ‘prestigious’ form of entertainment – or even an ‘end in itself’ - but an important means of keeping a tradition and its related insights within public consciousness. We all understand that to lose a species, if it becomes extinct, is a loss that affects us all. It narrows the ecology we all share. Who knows what future possibilities could benefit for a wider range of DNA? Similarly, a university needs as far as possible to be universal, to contain more possibilities within it, as we never know what learning we need beforehand. Rather than attacking scholarly education as the decadent luxury of a public school elite, the more important task is to promote the democratic function of these areas while widening the pool of access. The question we should be asking is: how do we establish an environment to maintain the study of minority disciplines without it turning into an elitist, closed-community – and how can the media help to facilitate this process?

One of the major hurdles to overcome is a deeply engrained sectarianism regarding language. Boot’s article is quick to jump onto the “pretentious” use of theory jargon, referencing Talleyrand – “The purpose of the tongue is to conceal our thoughts”. The radically ahistorical appropriation of this quote not only mutates its relevance but is strangely at odds with Boot’s own seemingly learned references to the Frankfurt school. ‘Critical theory’ is a jargon heavy area no doubt, but the appropriate use of this discipline’s highly specialised terminology remains important. This is particularly true in the case of ideology. And the media – as a prime conduit - certainly have an ethical obligation to understanding its operations and stimulate a vocabulary of awareness. There is obscurantism and self-interested jargonism that closes fields of knowledge but there is also a need to develop language to expand our understanding. Engaging with the language of Gramsci, Althusser, even the obtuse Lacan, can be an empowering act when they are engaging as scholars with unconceptualised realities.

The contribution of journalism could be enhanced greatly by embracing the language of these scholars: expanding the arena of communication and vitalising a more reflexive media. 

Yet Boot’s arrogance raises a further and more important point - that while encouraging reductive and exclusionary stereotypes regarding the humanities, by and large the media has a far more tolerant attitude towards academic economists. While it is easy to pin the blame on a lofty intellectual, this bias is an equally significant factor in blurring further the boundary between ‘jargon’ and the appropriate use of technical vocabulary. This is the vital premise of OurKingdom’s ‘Uneconomics’ debate, which through an interplay of anthropology, sociology and philosophy attempts to reconceptualise the field as a means of widening the definition of and possible solutions to our ‘crisis’.

For this divison between theoretical ‘jargon’, and the ‘necessary’ discourse of economics is entirely arbitrary. The very idea that words like ‘hegemony’ constitute jargon while ‘quantitative easing’ goes unchecked is itself a prime example of ideology in action. More than anything, this demonstrates the subtle mechanism by which neoliberal supremacy continues to make itself felt: filling the linguistic space of old institutional divisions with its own impervious argot. The result is that in popular discourse civic values are pushed aside by the anarchic lexis of finance. Fighting this phenomenon demands a careful assertion of terminology and a great deal of patience. Rather than dismissing ‘jargon’ on the basis of its unfamiliarity, the media needs to take the time to properly regulate language without undermining the frequently valuable – and potentially liberating - complexity created by specialised vocabulary.

Making progress on this point requires a parallel break away from outdated essentialist definitions of what a university is. Rather than playing the role of predator, ready to attack the extreme stereotypes of hooligans and highbrows in order to procure a cheap story, the media should understand itself as an active agent in reformulating, alongside academics, a new model of public intellectualism. There have been several recent attempts at doing so from alternative media. Nigel Warburton’s Philosophy Bites podcast is one of the most widely shared on the internet and the free streaming of TED talks has been similarly groundbreaking in enabling the dissemination of complex technological research to a lay audience. Beyond ‘Uneconomics’, sites like openDemocracy are vital for providing an avenue for intellectuals such as Tom Nairn to communicate with a wider public audience - challenging the BBC’s monopoly in publicising academics. 

The next step is to ensure that this is two way process. ‘Non-academic’ publications remain insignificant in cajoling resources from the increasingly impoverished research councils, and the impenetrable bureaucracy impeding independent scholars from publishing in journals is frankly archaic. Reversing this attitude could be a potentially positive outcome of the much lamented impact assessment. Rather than conceding these changes as the ransoming of ‘pure’ knowledge to the interest of big business, the still contested definitions of what makes ‘public relevance’ could be the beginning of the democratisation of scholarship that could provide a real challenge to this ideology. Similarly, with developments in open sourcing freeing-up journal articles, the ability for academics to provide multiple versions of the same idea - for expert and popular access - is a liberating opportunity, and one which could stimulate innovation and clarity in both the research community and in public education.

Achieving these goals requires us all to listen more closely to new voices, to recognise the heterogeneity of ‘the media’ and ‘the university’ and not to rely on reductive stereotypes. We should now focus on: one, how to resist the ‘instrumentalising’ of the media and universities by external forces; two, how to work closer together as part of a larger culture of critical thinking and intellectual empowerment; three, how to get this out to a greater proportion of the population. Factionalism and the aggressive marking out of territory are helping no one. In this climate of obsessive ‘financialisation’, pride must be jettisoned and new alliances born if intellectualism is to obtain public relevance in and outside of the academy. 

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