On Saturday June 17, the Australian re-printed an extraordinary attack from 1995 on the journalism degree course offered by most Australian universities. Extraordinary, given the likelihood that many if not most of the journalists in this country have this degree.
The article was written by one of Australia’s most controversial cultural historians, Keith Windschuttle. The name Windschuttle is almost onomatopoeic, he is a shit-stirrer and a terror to left-wing academia. Windschuttle is doing well for himself. He was appointed to the ABC board. He is quite at home in the ideological realm of Ron Brunton and Janet Albrechtsen. Around the same time, the ABC elected staff member Quentin Dempster’s board role was also axed. Within weeks, the stacked board had quashed an ABC books pet project “Jonestown”, the journalist Chris Masters’ in depth account of the goings on and off of Alan Jones, Australia’s most powerful demagogue. Jones’s lawyers got wind of salacious details about Jones’s homosexuality appearing in the book. The newly Windschuttled board got scared and pulled the pin. The book will do well somewhere sucking in the oxygen of unbuyable publicity (Jones is powerful, but the market is more powerful still). Masters’ lawyers couldn’t have done a better job.
But back to Windschuttle’s article. The Australian thought the 1995 article was so important that they led it in by another article on the front page. That lead article entitled “Attack on uni media courses” immediately piqued my attention. For something should be disclaimed here, Woolly Days is doing a university media course. The front page article believes graduates from university media courses over the past 20 years have been taught anything but good journalism. Windschuttle sees the problem as the fact that the course is ‘swamped’ with cultural studies.
In the 1995 article he says that media studies is prestigious and as difficult to get into as law. Therefore there has been a high calibre of enrolments in the last ten years. Journalism typically takes up a third to half of the Communications degree. The rest is made up of elements of communication theory, PR and cultural studies. Windschuttle articulates the three ‘characteristics of journalism’ which are; reporting the truth, be ethical, and be committed to good writing. Then he says meanings should be clear and grammar precise. Actually that’s a fourth characteristic but Windschuttle sees it as a subset of the good writing.
The problem is that he sees that media theory in this country undermines those characteristics. This he feels, leads to ‘intellectual schizophrenia’ among students and staff alike. He sees the problem as British Cultural Studies. Windschuttle says that journalists are taught to use short, sharp active sentences but cultural studies encourages the passive voice and ‘long and turgid expressions’….possibly like this one! The problem is that Cultural Studies has adopted verbiage which is incomprehensible to outsiders. Therefore most users tend to see it as a hoop they must jump through in order to get a qualification.
He does have a point. Woolly Days is doing “Introduction to Cultural Studies” this term and the verbiage is there alright, presented as ‘your toolbox’. But the connotation is that the words are tools. They are something to help with. They shouldn’t be in contravention of the three characteristics even if they themselves discuss abstract matters. It behoves the writer to make themselves understood regardless of subject matter. That is basic communication. The cultural ‘tools’ are useful. The important point of the studies is to use the tools to discuss the society.
Windschuttle also attacks the university lecturer mentality that creates this paradigm. The theorists control the program and none of them have ever spent a day in a newsroom. As a response to the reprinted article, Quentin Dempster (who now describes himself as an ‘ABC board member in exile’) thought it was a debate worth having. He also challenged Windschuttle to provide more specific examples of journalism he thought was debased in this way.
Windschuttle concluded by arguing that practicioners should fight back and compete with the theorists head on. They should write their own textbooks and develop their own theories. Now that is a great debate, unfortunately undermined at the very end by him saying this is all biologist Richard Dawkins’ fault. He says it’s a “post-Dawkins university system”, apparently. He doesn’t explain what he memes.