Alastair Stewart: Graduates from Bournemouth and Cardiff are “worth nothing”

ITN newsreader Alastair Stewart attacked journalism education at the IRN awards last month (Press Gazette 27 April 2007)

Stewart, who studied at Bristol University and has an OBE for services to broadcasting, advised students to follow a non-journalistic degree course and do
“real practical journalism”.

He said: “It’s heartbreaking the number of
people turning up from Bournemouth or Cardiff [University] and they are
worth nothing to us.”

Stewart advised that having a set of
cuttings and a 2:1 degree outside journalism would stand a student in
better stead than “the person with a diploma” and no practical
journalism experience.

The debate over the validity of journalism degrees has grown rather tiresome, so I’ll keep this brief.
Those that sneer at journalism / media degrees usually don’t have them. Instead they read “proper” subjects – like the classics.

Stewart studied economics, politics and sociology at Bristol University (not quite Oxbridge, but nearly there!). He also wrote for BACUS – the long established Bristol student magazine that I too used to do a bit of writing for (years later, I may add). He secured a job at ITV Southern Television in 1976 (now Meridian)

I’m sure Stewart would join in the jibes about “Mickey Mouse” degrees (vocationally orientated degrees) and sneer at the decline in  “proper” university subjects.

The fact is that journalism or media studies degrees are incredibly popular. Why? Well, students know that it’s the way to get a job in a profession that is far more competitive than it was in the 70s.

All degrees have the same purpose, regardless of content. They produce graduates with the skills to critically think, analyse, research, question, self-motivate etc etc. The good journalism degrees combine this academic rigour with practical skills.

Stewart is also wrong to suggest that journalism degrees lack the element of “real practical journalism.” The students who study at the university where I work get plenty of “real journalism”. They do work experience, NCTJ exams and come out with a set of cuttings that Stewart rightly says is so essential.

There are many people working in the media today with media degrees – including a former chief exec of Channel 4. That’s not to say that graduates should see a degree as a golden ticket into a job.

Talented young people (and the not so young) from all backgrounds and ethnic groups should see journalism as a profession for them. It’s a point that needs to be banged home time and time again.

Unfortunately, many of those that sneer at journalism degrees and make cheap points about standards in higher education come from a particular social background (yes, Mr Stewart). They’ve been fortunate  enough to attend prestigious schools and to pursue their career ambitions, yet they seem reluctant to afford this to others.

In a fascinating and detailed report, The Sutton Trust looked at the educational backgrounds of leading journalists (June 2006 PDF report). It suggests that new recruits into journalism are even more likely to come from a privileged background than previous generations. The report concludes:

For a profession that has done much to uncover the inequalities elsewhere in society, this prompts some awkward questions. Is news coverage preoccupied with the issues and interests of the social elite that journalists represent? Should the profession not better reflect the broader social make-up of the audiences it serve.

Anyway, that’s my rant over with.

For more comment see:
Journalism is a profession and universities have a role (Richard Tait in Press Gazette)

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