It’s an exciting time to be a student of journalism in Sydney. Sure, the digital editing workshops can be a little dull, and there’s little pleasure to be found spending your evenings pacing the long corridors that wind around the University of Technology Sydney’s high-rise towers. But thanks to the intrepid efforts of The Australian’s media columnist Sharri Markson, we all know there’s a lot more going on behind the doors of Sydney’s media classrooms than the sleepy expressions of classmates in my 6 o’clock tutorials would let on.
Today, Markson had a fresh scoop, an “exclusive” revealing the indoctrination occurring at two of Sydney’s major universities, both prolific producers of media studies graduates. Cleverly disguised, Markson went undercover to get the inside word on what was being taught to students in media degrees at the University of Sydney and at UTS. She sat in on some lectures, she read some course materials. In the spirit of deep, hard-hitting reporting, the piece ran with a selfie of Markson dressed as a university student. It was classic Woodward and Bernstein stuff.
The evidence for Markson’s accusations, aside from an interview she conducted with News Corp company group editorial director Campbell Reid, was that lecturers at the University of Sydney had been critical of, God forbid, Rupert Murdoch. Others had been so brazen as to suggest News Corp may have tried to tip the 2013 election in favour of the Coalition.
There was nothing too new about Markson’s jabs. On The Australian’s long list of enemies, academics — especially those calling the shots at UTS — have been a highly prized target for some time. Yet as a student who has studied at both the institutions referenced in the piece, there were some particularly galling features about this particular story.
The problem with Markson’s dig is it fails to acknowledge the critical environment that universities foster, and the intellectual capacities of the people who study there. Universities foster extremes because they allow ideological debate to expand beyond the narrow remits of public discussion, and far beyond the often honed agendas on display at papers like the Oz. When I spoke to friends studying media at the University of Sydney this morning they agreed some academics were very left-wing. But they scoffed at the idea any agenda had been shoved down their throats.
Reflecting on my own postgraduate study at UTS, the critique that seems most obvious to me is the exact oppose of the one Markson makes (in fairness, she referenced the undergraduate course, but she didn’t seem to think the indoctrination was limited to any particular section of the media department). Both my Television and Radio lecturers were former ABC employees but both have encouraged us to engage with a broad range of media, explicitly including conservative shock jocks, to get a feel for the whole media environment.
UTS is ruthlessly pragmatic in its approach to training young journalists, and students receive a never-ending flow of emails pushing internships and job openings, frequently including News Corp gigs. After editing the University of Sydney student rag Honi Soit I saw many of our reporters, alleged victims of the media world’s equivalent of the Ludovico technique, land sweet jobs at Sky News.
If I had any objection with the media training I’m currently receiving it would be that in the mad rush to develop vocational skills to make us competitive in an industry where jobs are scarce, we don’t spend enough time tackling big questions. Markson may cringe, but there is great joy and benefit in dealing with challenging and ideological media debates — how can reporting avoid favouring elites? What can we take from radical critiques of the media business? How do we report on politics without reducing ourselves to giving spin a platform?
Notably absent in Markson’s writing was any word from actual students. Most insultingly, she seems to think we can’t tell when a lecturer is a bit of a lefty or a Tory. That’s the reason that just about every media student in Sydney is laughing at Markson this morning.
Some of us come out of our degrees with a burning hatred for News Corp, just as many will go on to work for the company, none of us are defenceless to interrogate any of the criticisms, ideologies or arguments put to us in lectures. The only interesting element of The Australian’s investigation was an anonymous piece run next to Markson’s by an unnamed student from an unnamed institution attacking the progressive culture of media schools.
It raised the question: if this student managed to put up their own, independent critique, why does Markson think others are incapable of doing so?
*Max Chalmers is a journalist and editorial assistant at New Matilda.