The Glasgow University Media
In 1974, through involvement in
a social science research project, a small group of 'academics', Jean Hart,
Alison McNaughton, Paul Walton, Brian Winston, John Eldrige and Greg Philo
got together to produce the book Bad News. Their analysis penetrated the
surface appearance of neutrality and balance of the news media and found
the partial and restricted reality.
They did not present a crude
notion of bias. Their central question was simple enough: 'Does television
news as presently constituted help explain, and clarify events in the real
world or does it mystify and obscure them.' The BBC were hostile to their
research even before it began obliquely threatening them with the
possibility of copyright action, complaining to the Principal of the university
and pressurising the Social Science Research Council to limit the freedom
of researchers. With ITN there was 'no hostility and equally almost no
co-operation.' When the book emerged the group was described by Lord Annan--who
had conducted the government's own inquiry into broadcasting--as "a shadowy
guerrilla force on the fringe of broadcasting."
They had called themselves the
Glasgow University Media Group simply to collectively represent their work.
Follow up books More Bad News and then Really Bad News completed a trilogy.
According to Greg Philo the group didn't really exist--it was just a collection
of academics who were still writing--he encouraged a slightly more organised
structure so that they could carry on working together. This was a significant
move enabling them to involve more people--the Glasgow Media Group became
anyone who wrote with them to produce the books. That included journalists
working on the production side of news media together with their own content
and audience studies. At the same time they also set up the Glasgow University
Media Unit which could apply for research grants. War And Peace News (Open
University Press 1985) with its focus on the twin subjects of the Falklands
conflict and Nuclear Defence highlighted the wholesale abandonment of impartiality
in the news media. With their work on subjects such as the miner's strike
the group gained something of a reputation for not shying away from a whole
range of politically difficult social and political issues. Getting The
Message (News Truth and Power) Routledge 1993 saw the group investigate
media treatments of areas such as food panics, health scares, public understanding
of health issues, AIDS in the media, mental health and Ireland. John Eldrige's
work moves towards a critical position of the Chomsky/Herman model on how
the media functions.
The new works are: Message Received--a
collection of work from '93--'98 with various writers with subjects such
as race, migration and media; disaster and crises reporting and violence,
mental illness and suicide. Cultural Compliance (Dead Ends of Media/ Cultural
Studies and Social Science) by Philo and David Miller (of the Stirling
Media Research Institute) is a shorter critique which turns its attention
to sociology as taught in universities.
Both works set out serious indictments
of the political failure of media and cultural studies as they are presently
taught in Britain's universities. The 'cultural compliance' that they speak
of is not specific to sociology but has a relevance to the effects of the
absorption of the inadequate political assumptions of post modern writers,
such as Baudrillard, into artistic interpretation and production. Here
too, if we view contemporary art as a form of media and social science,
we see the same symptomatic loss of the ability to engage critically with
the society in which it exists and a similar drift into irrelevance.
'Within the post-modem vision,
there can be no agreed reality or 'facts' because meanings are not fixed
but are re-negotiated in the constant interplay of the reader and the text.
This focus on the text and the negotiation of meaning has reduced the ability
to study the real and often brutal relations of power which form our culture
(and the perspective actually legitimises the absence of such studies).
If texts have no inherent meaning and 'it all depends on how they are interpreted
and used', then it is not possible to argue that some elements of our culture
are oppressive and damaging.'
Greg Philo, from the Introduction
of Message Received.
The following interview with Greg
Philo was recorded last autumn in his office in the Sociology department
of Glasgow University. The questions were by William Clark and Ian Brotherhood.
Greg Philo: We've got a new
book coming out at the end of this year  called Message Received
which is a critique of contemporary cultural studies; the media, in this
country and abroad. We've basically said it's lost its critical edge, that
it's ceased to have the ability to comment critically on the society which
exists. That it's become, really, a celebration of the popular, without
any critical edge in terms of the negative elements of the society that's
developed. That the market for a long time in the '80s was seen--by many
people--as potentially positive in that they focused on elements of consumption
and saw the market as a liberating force in some way. I think a number
of people went down that road. Marxism Today did, but then at the first
hint of capitalist crisis they neatly did an about turn and, ha ha! marched
in the other direction. Opportunists to the last.
Variant: Yeah well...They
brought out that recent edition?
GP: It's ghastly. It's depressing
watching people who've moved so far in the direction away from what was
the original critique of the market.
V: Well they've brought it
out and it's all 'Tony Blair's got it wrong'. Marxism Today has Stuart
Hall, but from what I gather Hall taking over in Birmingham was seen as
a big push for media studies. The introduction of Marxist critiques, semiotics,
but that was some time ago.
GP: I would think Stuart
has done some very interesting things. I think in his early work for the
New Left he wrote some very important material and I think we did use some
of his work when we first started doing Bad News. He wrote an excellent
article called The World at One With Itself, which was, I think quite inspirational
at the time. Having said that I think a lot of what the Birmingham Centre
went on to do was to move between one or other branches of increasingly
obscure academic theories. And it moved away from--I would say--empirical
work which could be used to mount a sustained critique of the society as
it developed in the '80s. I actually think that it moved into obfuscatory
and non-critical work, and I think some of the problems that now beset
cultural studies come from that. The emphasis on the encoding/decoding
model--which they used--was basically wrong. It was full of flaws. I think
it led them into a concern with audiences, and audiences having the ability
to make up their own meanings and make up their own worlds. And once you
start to go down that road you lose sight of the power structures which
exist in society which actually position people. Power structures which
relate to what I would see as key issues like ownership and control. They
stopped talking about who owns the society or who owns the world; and instead
focused on small elements of how people construct and develop their own
systems of language and meaning.
V: There seems to be a division
of people who are just interested in a theoretical approach--arriving at
some sort of theoretical model, and there's work which I would say is quite
polemic. I'm sure that's a big insult for people seeking to be objective.
But your work seems to have more of a scientific spirit about it.
GP: I've nothing against
theory at all, I've nothing against science--what I'm talking about is abstract
theory: theory that proceeds in the absence of any practical empirical
critique of the society which we're in. The post-modern turn in social
science left people moving away from what I would say is any serious critique--which
was empirically evidentially based--of the society which they exist in.
Cultural Compliance (Dead Ends of Media/ Cultural Studies and Social Science)
is very much a critique of what you might call the 'discursive turn' in
social science: The move towards the obsession with meanings and meaning
construction; without looking at the social practice which position the
possibility of action. It moves towards meaning to the detriment of any
analysis really, of the conditions under which meaning can become possible.
...Its really quite a long critique,
it takes on most of the contemporary theories and theorists in cultural
studies. What we did was to say that first of all there have been a series
of major changes in the last 20 years: The rise of the market, the free
market and deregulation; the release of market forces in the society as
a way of disciplining trade unions, as a way of lowering wages, as a way
of changing the balance of power in society was pushed through very effectively.
But it had a number of very powerful influences in the way in which people
related to each other in society, so the influence wasn't just in the workplace--in
the sense that there's a change in the shift of power at work, that trade
unions were broken, there was a series of strikes which were successfully
defeated by the government of the time.
All of those things happened but
at the least the market changed our culture as well. It increased the levels
of insecurity in our society, it increased the stress levels, it changed
the way in which people worked--we brought in part-time contract type labour.
That is going to have all sorts of implications for the way people address
each other, relate to each other, the sort of clothes people wear, the
way people relate to commodities, the way in which conformist dress-styles
are likely to increase. Children now all wear the same kind of clothes,
very tightly defined dress styles now occupy almost the whole of society.
It's not the kind of invention you saw in the '60s and '70s because people
are just very conformist. The nervousness and insecurity of society produces
those kind of changes.
So what we did was to go through
a whole series of material cultural changes that occurred in the last 20
years. And then we said why is it that contemporary cultural studies cannot
explain any of these, or is not addressing any of these things? That the
actual conduct of children in schools, the way in which they relate to
films, the way in which they identify with new kinds of role models--like
the characters from Pulp Fiction--all sorts of things that we've been doing
here--are not being typically done in most of cultural studies. They're
actually not looking at the power structure of society, and how that structure
is impinging upon tastes, style, what is possible and the everyday lives
of most people, the everyday problems that most people confront in their
lives. In this country it's that you can't get a job or if it's Africa
you can't get water. That everyday culture is not any longer part of most
social science studies.
So what has happened? Basically
in the '80s the bulk of academia stuck its head in the sand, and went up
a very easy road: Which was to go along with the post modern account. Which
is to say well we'll focus on small groups of people who in different ways
construct their own little worlds for themselves, and we'll see this as
a liberating force in society. And in fact they very rarely even looked
at what anybody was actually doing because they never got beyond discussing
the theoretical implications of that kind of position. If you look at the
quotes at the beginning: There's one which is actually a quote from Stuart
"The 'discursive turn' in the social
and cultural sciences is one of the most significant shifts of direction
in our knowledge of society which has occurred in recent years."
(Introduction to Open University
course book on 'Culture, Media and Identities.' 1997)
Now I have to say we think that's
wrong. We follow that with a quote from Raymond Tallis which is:
"When the emperor is restocking
his wardrobe, he usually shops in Paris."
Which is pretty much what we thought
was happening--that they simply moved into one after another of a series
of increasingly obscure and really pointless academic debates, which I
think went from Althusser, to Lacan to Baudrillard, just one after the
other of these theorists who were posing these questions at a theoretical
level and had no empirical base for what they were saying. If you read
Baudrillard's work I mean it is just rubbish. He makes statement after
statement about audiences, about beliefs, about what people think in society,
about how all the population is deceived by the simulacrum. If you read
his book on the Gulf War I mean it is simply rubbish. I mean we studied
in detail both the Falklands war and the Gulf war...
V: I've always felt so distrustful
of the adulation--this is similar in art theory--with all that kind of stuff.
I understood it to be pushed by a lot of film theory people, Colin McCabe
from Strathclyde University--it was just so dull...
GP: But it works in a certain
way, because it has no empirical base. But the value of that is that you
can make outlandish statements which have a sort of...
V: Entertainment value?
GP: A kind of entertainment
value, ha, yes! And a kind of happy ring to them. And then people can use
them with their students and they're catchy. It's like 'The Medium is The
Message' or 'The Global Village'. These are wrong--this is actually not
how it works. But the process of actually going through different cultures
and finding out what does actually happen in culture and how people did
really relate to the Falklands war or really did relate to the Gulf war
is very, very complicated. It takes a long time, you've got to interview
hundreds of people. It's really bloody hard work. And you can avoid all
that by saying 'all of the population is taken in by the simulacrum'.
The first question a real social
scientist would ask is: 'do you mean all of the population except you'.
How did you escape? Are you the only one who did?' As soon as you start
to question the premises of these people their statements all collapse.
Reality is constructed in language, the classic post-modernist philosophical
position: And then you say now that last thing you just said--is that true,
or is that just for you, did you just construct that? So what you're actually
saying is all reality is constructed in language except what I just said
which really, really is true. You see--you go round and round with these
V: Also a lot of this stuff
is so based on 'text'.
V: Most people must be able
to see through that.
GP: It's great for students
you see--actually students hate it--but it has a kind of cachet in teaching
because it's easy to do, it can be applied across borders--because you're
not actually relating it to anything very special, other than the most
general statements about 'this is what the Gulf war was like and this is
what happened'. But you're not actually relating it to the different conditions
in different countries; there's no point in which Baudrillard for example
discusses whether the French press was different from the English or from
the Scottish press, or whether American television is the same as British
television. Nothing like that--he's quite happy to make statements about
how everybody relates to the media without the slightest bit of work on
the issues that--actually the media are quite different and audiences are
quite different and there are many different audiences within a single
national audience. So none of those kinds of issues are discussed. And
in a way that's its strength. You can have an all purpose theory which
is applied to everybody everywhere and you simply say oh well there's no
difference now between reality and its image.
This seems to us to be ridiculous.
If Baudrillard dressed up as Napoleon Bonaparte a picture of him would
not show the real Bonaparte, ha ha! An image is not the same as what it
represents, and that you can't collapse one into the other. And that in
order to say that, to even raise those kinds of things you have to have
in your own head that there is a clear division between the image and the
reality. The sorts of examples they give constantly depend on making the
division that they say doesn't exist.
You know the one about how television
stories are constructed as news events. So they say for example the timing
of bombings is done so it times in with the Nine o'clock News or something
like that. The first question we would ask is are you sure that was what
was done? You're absolutely clear that this actually really occurred that
they actually did time the bombing in this kind of way? So someone's done
some empirical research to know that's really what they did. As soon as
you tell the audience that's really what they've done--there is an immediate
division in the audience's mind between the reality of what they've done
and between the image that's been constructed. And of course that happens
all the time and audiences do pick those kinds of arguments up. And that's
what we find. We find people very distressed at the actions of governments
because they start to be aware of these kind of things. Television journalists
start to reveal that sort of thing, they start to deconstruct it and to
constantly point out the difference between the reality of what's occurring
and the image that's attempting to be constructed. To say that it's all
one bundle of images and you can't distinguish one from the other is just
What seems to be most peculiar was
that as the society got worse in material terms, as it created more and
more problems for the people who actually lived in it, at the same time
cultural studies seemed to be less and less able to actually analyse that
or to talk about what was going on
V: You're describing certain
academics who have got all this material and are saying we'll just give
this to the kids, that'll give them something to do: There's vague amorphous
stuff which we can check if you've actually been reading or not. This is
very much painting a picture of academia as having just a Bourgeois agenda--and
that it always will have, even when they get hold of quite radical stuff--it
will always fold back into this...
GP: Yeah that's fair enough,
ha ha ha! There's a marvellous quote here from Nick Garnham which describes
exactly what you've just been saying. Post modernism was the perfect practice
for academics because it came with lots of cheap research opportunities,
it in no way challenged anything, you didn't get into any trouble, it didn't
require any major movement out of their offices...
He says that the focus on the text,
the postmodernist approach:
"Developed out of literary and film
studies and carried its texuality into versions of structuralist and post-structuralist
Marxism and on into post-modernism. It took with it the bacillus of romanticism
and its longing to escape from the determining material and social constraints
of human life, from what is seen as the alienation of human essence, into
a world of unanchored, non-referential signification and the free play
of desire...It is also perfectly designed as an ideology of intellectuals
or cultural workers for it privileges their special field of activity,
the symbolic, and provides for cheap research opportunities, since the
only evidence required is the unsubstantiated views of the individual analyst."
What you find is this odd combination
where you have a complete relativism in what is being taught to students
combined with an absolute demand that they toe the line. If people come
round and say what about material structures or...this is just dismissed
as oh that's old fashioned. This is what you have: a movement through intellectual
fashions. And I do think the Birmingham school were terribly susceptible
to that, not just them, a lot of cultural studies moved in that direction.
But it left it in the end unable to address the everyday life of most people
in the world.
There's a section of the book called
'Critical Journalists and Silent Academics'--which is saying that the great
bulk of critical work done in the 80s was not done by academics at all.
There are one or two people at it, but the actual analysis of power all
but disappears and is not a fundable area--so we find the whole of the '80s,
if you look at research councils, the way in which funds were given out,
it was very difficult to do any kind of research that was critical at all.
If you wanted to, for example, investigate even something like the relationship
between unemployment and ill health: very difficult to do--to get funds
for it. It was a kind of area which would be almost impossible to fund
through normal research-type channels because it would be regarded as an
absolute no-no, a very politically difficult thing to look at. And you
can imagine how much trouble we had when we wanted to look at Northern
Ireland, when we did all that work on the broadcasting ban. We had to do
that entirely out of our own resources, people were working for free.
V: What I've never understood
about that was when Thatcher banned the BBC from reporting, all the independent
journalists just fell into line, they just complied with the ban. What
power has the government got over independent journalists? With the Independent
network why did it comply?
GP: Fear. That's the main
issue. I think they are much more tightly controlled than people imagine.
'I've spoken to some friends on the Sunday Times: They were talking about
short-term contracts, how quickly people just get tossed out if your face
doesn't fit, if you do something wrong. People like Andrew Neil who you
would not see as a radical by any means was hoofed out of the Sunday Times
because of the story on Malaya and the dam. If somebody like Andrew Neil
can go well what about the lesser mortals. This friend who was on the Sunday
Times was saying to me that it's like Watership Down working here--people
just disappear, you look around and someone else has gone.
V: Would you say what is
happening In the Glasgow media group is unique...it was hardly really taken
up as a model throughout the country was it?
GP: I think it was used a
lot by journalists. I think we are closer in that sense to the practice
of journalism, we are contacted as a source of information, because we're
the ones who have done the empirical work, there's so few people doing
it and they keep coming to us...there's a few people, we're not the only
ones. There's people in Leicester, in Loughborough (Peter Golding), James
Curran in Goldsmiths, in Liverpool. There are quite a number of people
who are in the same tradition as us on empirical work on the media.
V: I'd like to ask about
the development of your research methodology...
GP: First of all we started
with the study of television news--we looked at the content of it, we did
a very big study of the news and what was available in terms of explanation.
Then we started quite quickly to move into production processes. One of
the first studies was 'From Buerk to Band Aid'. We started to look at the
conditions under which stories became stories and who made decisions and
what the basis of the decisions being made were and things like that. And
the difference really between the media's version of how wonderful they
were in covering such an issue and what had actually occurred if you look
at it--the cack-handed series of accidents...
V: Yeah it almost never got
GP: Absolutely, if Mohammed
Amin hadn't have gone and met Buerk at the airport you would more or less
not have had the whole Live Aid thing. The point that we made in that particular
case, was that the story was turned down by most of the media. It was 'just
a new famine.' They were really quite shocked at the public response to
it. So we continued with a lot of work on production, interviewing people
about particular stories.
David Millar came to work with us
in I think about '85/6. He started to work for the Media Group then later
formally in the Media Unit. He pioneered all the work on Northern Ireland.
We had done some work on Northern Ireland before, but David did a PhD on
it and then later published a book 'Don't Mention the War'. He worked in
areas of production processes and began to look at audiences as well. Just
before that I had started to move into audience work--so I did the Miner's
strike stuff. Apart from theoretical and academic interest, it just seemed
to me to be a crucial issue to show how the media did in fact inform public
opinion; we couldn't go on just doing content studies we had at some point
to say well look it does make a difference. So I interviewed a large amount
of people up and down the country with the intention of seeing whether
it was possible to show in a definitive way what the power of a media message
It seemed to me that all of the
previous studies had not been able to do this because--I don't want to be
too rude about people, ha ha ha--they had not managed to identify very clearly
what the impact of specific messages were on audience beliefs or understanding.
That was the problem--they had a blunderbuss approach. They would use divisions
like heavy watchers and light watchers. It's not very clear how you draw
a line between a heavy watcher and a light watcher. Then they would say
heavy watchers are more scared of the dark, or more scared of strangers,
or more scared of being attacked in the street. You weren't clear whether
they'd actually watched violent programmes or which programmes they watched.
So there was a lot of work which seemed to me to be not very methodologically
There was also a lot of work which
had relied upon showing people a video or a television programme and trying
to measure whether there was any difference in their beliefs. It was very
difficult to work out what the contamination was--all the other possible
factors which they could be bringing to bear on that. Anyway you were putting
people into very artificial situations, by forcing them to watch something
which otherwise they would not have watched.
So all of those things seemed to
me to be wrong. What we did was to develop a method which turned all that
on its head; and said the first thing we've got to do is empty people's
minds of what they already know. The way to do that is to give them a very
minimal stimulus and to get them to write the programme. Then you can find
out what's already in their head about that particular issue. Then the
next step is to take apart all the things they've written and to work out
what the sources were. But tie it to very distinct and very measurable
issues which are new so that you can date the entry of this information
into the public arena. That was why the Miner's strike was so good because
there was a whole range of new information which was coming in: Like 'Miner's
pickets are violent', things like that, which have never really been in
the public area before that or been associated with violence.
One of the things we did was to
give photographs and tell them to write [a headline]. What we found was
that people could reproduce actual headlines from the strike--over a year
after it had taken place. These lines--almost word for word--the juxtapositions
of the failure of the strike and the apparent increase in violence were
very deeply rooted in people's minds. We then traced the source of people's
beliefs and we found huge differences between people who had any kind of
experience of the strike, even at the level of a solicitor driving to work
in the morning and who would go past a picket line: His vision of it was
completely different from anyone who had got their ideas from television
news. That sort of person would say 'oh... they just lay about on the grass
all day'. Ha ha ha! While people down in St. Albans or something--who'd
never seen a picket line were terrified of even meeting a miner in case
they were set upon! We showed very clearly that this had occurred.