Mallory Wober on ‘Mass Media in England, Scotland & Wales 2008’

With the permission of the author, Mallory Wober, I am posting this entertaining account of a group of American students on a study tour across Britain:

“On June 1 1908  a journalist Albert Krohn set out from Portland, Maine, to push a wheelbarrow along the perimeter of the United States;  9024 miles and 357 days later he sat down to write about his journey. On several occasions he was arrested by local authorities who sentenced  him to a meal and a night in the town’s best hotel.

June  1 2008 found 24  young Americans on their own “study abroad” journey; the local authorities did not arrest any of the 24, but we tried to help them learn. More than 30 speakers, across a five week course each presented most valuable contributions and this note tries to draw together something of the information that was discussed and revealed.

Meanings of the Topic “Mass Media”

We first explored what might be meant by “mass”  and by “media”*.

That “messages” embodying information and or feelings could be put out by statues and events in public places to be received by hundreds of thousands of people was exemplified in the talk by Ceciel DeLaRue of the Greater London Authority; in a similar way a museum is a stage-point for visible and audible messages, to cumulative multitudes of people, as explained by James Coutts at the Museum of Scotland.  Often neglected in “mass media studies” is the printed book whose widest circulations run to scores of millions, and the fascinating concentration of authorship in one city was dramatised by Anna Burkey of  UNESCO’s Edinburgh City of Literature.

Rob Eastaway’s presentation about cricket suggested that a metaphoric meaning for the term “media” can be very appropriate, in which an evolving institution such as a sport conveys meaning to a mass of perceivers.  Another important metaphoric case is that of the British Monarchy which, as Eila Bannister discussed, presents a particular range of meanings to the British public (even if temptations are not resisted by many in the message system to twist or harm the meanings the performers intend to offer).

The students generally thought of a language as a medium, and it is possible that the initial discussion of what one means by this term helped them resonate to the importance of re-establishing the Welsh and the Gallic languages, to which projects the efforts of broadcasting institutions were explained by Carys Evans in Cardiff and Jo MacDonald in Glasgow.

Meanings of the Referent “England, Scotland and Wales”

It is clear from students’ writings that they tended to conflate London with “England” (perhaps meaning the United Kingdom) certainly at the start of their five week course and, sadly to some extent still at the end. However, a visit to Wales included a morning at the Welsh Assembly and presentations by four party speakers co-ordinated by Francesca Montemaggi, and made a significant difference to the initial misconception; this was underlined and further diversified by the visit to Scotland where talks by James Coutts at the Museum of Scotland, Robert Beveridge at Napier University, by Ian Small and by Jo and then by Ken MacDonald at BBC Scotland, and finally by Alaisdair Allan MSP at the Scottish Parliament staked out a strong description of distinctive Scottish identities.

Major Institutions of Message Production, and their Deployment

The giant of broadcasting, and indeed of British culture in all its momentum, merit and diversity, the BBC, was introduced by Torin Douglas, the BBC’s own Media Correspondent.  Sue Elliott, with deep experience in  commercial broadcasting, discussed the current available range of hundreds of television channels , and focused on ITV and Channel 4 in particular.  Peter Dannheisser surveyed the array of papers in the Daily and Weekly national press (nation referring to the United Kingdom), and Michael  Holt of the Radio Advertising Bureau described the world of commercial radio.  Steve Tucker of the Western Mail spoke about the press in Wales and in particular about reporting a hugely successful year for Welsh sport and in Edinburgh Rob Melville at Napier University provided a careful analysis of the press in Scotland and of the Scottish press. A reporter from Eastern Eye, Nadeem Badshah discussed how Muslims and Islam were reported within their own communities, and quite differently within the national press; and at another small publication, Amy Harrison of Gair Rhydd, the Cardiff University student newspaper hosted the group to explain the paper she edited.

The new message systems of the internet were introduced by three speakers at the Oxford Internet Institute, led by their Professor Bill Dutton, who also described ways in which these systems were being used, and by whom;  in Edinburgh the CEO of the hugely successful company Indoctrimat, Brian Baglow, described the leading position occupied in world production of electronic games, by Scottish enterprises.

Betsy Blair Reisz drew from her experience of work both in Hollywood and in Europe to illustrate memorably high quality film making.  She also illustrated “cross-media” phenomena in which she as an actress could induce tears by imagining certain music, and the use of silent visual signs – in the game charades – with which to convey verbal phrases.
A particular task in harnessing advertising to a prosperous broadcasting system which can then be expected to deliver high quality product is to help advertisers place their messages in the most advantageous positions. The senior executive in this field John Billett covered a very broad scope in his talk explaining the principles of effective placement of advertising both in the established areas of  broadcasting and the emergent field of the internet; he also touched on where operations of the market might function to some extent on skilled advocacy rather than on a scientifically rigorously proven connection between deployment and effect.  The public relations advisor Zaki Cooper urged, with several examples,  that advice in his field was always to maintain clients’ reputations through honest advocacy of their goods and services.

Regulation, and Public Service in Broadcasting

Peter Dannheisser organised group discussions and joint consideration of the question whether regulation should help ensure better quality of product in several sectors, including broadcasting and the press. Zoe Kalu at the Advertising Standards Authority organised a visit for the group in which we were explained the work of the ASA in regulating all of outdoor, print and broadcasting advertising. Michael Johnson, recently a senior executive at Ofcom reflected on the work of that body, with recent cases of large exemplary fines levied on broadcasters whose operations had fallen outside acceptable standards.  Regulation had been a function of British broadcasting which had been headlined for parallel courses several years ago; it had then been downplayed, partly because it was felt that the internet bypassed all regulation; however, slides shown at the Oxford Internet Institute, of “black holes” where, in various countries either parts of or all of the internet were rendered unavailable by central control, reminded our students that some forms of intervention might be technically feasible. And recent actions (by Ofcom) now suggest that the exercise of regulation may still play an effective part in promoting (concern for) quality in broadcasting.

The reality of public service concerns in broadcasting through heavily subsidised provision for minority communities was vividly  revealed in the accounts of broadcasting in Welsh at S4C and in Gallic by the BBC in Scotland.  James Reed MP also gave a detailed and impressive account of the publicly assisted change from analogue to digital broadcasting, in his constituency.

Content, in Message Systems

Torin Douglas on the BBC and Sue Elliott on commercial television told us about high achievements in current and in past programming by these organisations. Sue Elliott showed clips of a TV play, Brits, dramatising the thesis that suicide bombers could emerge from within a second generation of immigrant families, now brought up as British.  “Chapter and verse” of detailed content analysis was provided in the findings of the work of a company called MediaTenor, from which Montserrat Vine showed analyses of press and broadcasting contents revealing that references to Islam, as Nadeem Badshah had reported, were much more often negative than positive.  Mallory Wober argued that a rare aspect of high quality both in British drama and in documentary was the fusion of particularly appropriate music to visual content; this it was argued was more to be found in the television of regulated scarcity where the provocative talents of Dennis Potter and Ken Russell in the 1980s were given space – though Kosminsky’s play Brits was also a rare recent example of the same potent combination (of two “media”). Another matter pertaining to content was given a whole session – but maybe it has been cut from the agenda of this note.  Iain Hollingshead developed two theses in his talk; one held that while “blogs” now offer a torrent of public opinion, its very volume and indiscriminate deployment means that it lacks a shape by which one might see it as a “discourse’; on the other hand, the editorial function in composing a Letters to the Editor section did remove dross and give shape to a public discussion. Secondly, Hollingshead revealed that Prize operations (such as Oscars at the top, along to the Bad Sex (writing) Award of which he was a recent proud winner, might function more as vehicles of publicity than as reliable pointers to quality of product. Miriam Elia, an award winning comic, assured the group that there is a host of laughter makers now emerging through their work not only in clubs but also on radio and on screen.


Students were urged to read the British press, watch television and listen to the radio, to review for themselves the range and quality of what these services offer. They were tested on the contents of the presentations they had experienced, but this did not extend to any further knowledge they may have been expected to acquire by diligent reading, listening and viewing.

JMW  June 2008

* It was not clear what the lower limit of the term “mass” meant numerically – a dozen in a murder, thousands or millions if consumers of information?  A questionnaire filled in by the class showed clear agreement that some items were widely endorsed as “media”; however, these items had very different characteristics. Other items were widely called “not media” – and these were also diverse. A third set of items induced disagreement – many thought these were “media” – others said not so.  Mallory Wober suggested (as he has written about in a recent encyclopaedia entry) that a true “science” tidy up its definitions, and in keeping with an approach by early scholars in communications studies, the term medium be reserved for the pathway by which information reaches each of the human senses. Sight, sound and smell are such distance media;  temperature, pressure, taste and information about position and movement can be activated from outside,  or from the perceiver oneself.  These eight “media” are evolutionarily old and alongside them, in the framework offered here, there can be no “new media”, given that there are no other sense receptor systems (Marshall McLuhan wrote of “media” as “extensions of the human senses”.  Conventionally named “media” can be better spoken of as message systems; we should recognise separate skills involved in encoding and in decoding information; and quite different levels of complexity in coding capacity achieved within different sense-media.”

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