From AMPA 2: Practice and Theory Wars.

Practice and Theory Wars in Media and Cultural Studies. 

By Tim Crook.


15 to 20 years ago there appeared to be a war going on between professional media practitioners being hired to teach their skills in universities and the Cultural/Media Studies theory academics they were married with in media and communications departments.

Tensions in Britain increased when research assessment excluded or downgraded practice equivalent submissions.

The publication in journals of articles by Keith Windschuttle and John Hartley seemed to symbolize the position of the warring factions- one a longstanding journalism practitioner turned academic and the other a cultural studies academic who made it his business to use his theoretical intellect to subject journalism to cultural studies criticism.

Keith Windschuttle’s academic pedigree and experience spanned senior lectureships in media studies, social history, sociology and social policy in prestigious Australian universities. His practice journalism career began in 1959 as a copy boy on the Sydney Daily Telegraph and traversed newspapers, magazines, television and radio.

John Hartley was Head of the newly created Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University and Director of its Tom Hopkinson Centre for Media Research. He’s still a professor at Cardiff as well as Professor of Cultural Science and Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University, Western Australia.

Cover of 'Journalism: Theory and Practice' published by Macleay Press in 1998

Cover of ‘Journalism: Theory and Practice’ published by Macleay Press in 1998

In 1998 Windschuttle published a chapter in Journalism: Theory & Practice edited by Myles Breen for Macleay Press titled ‘Cultural Studies Versus Journalism.’ This was a fierce denunciation of what he described as ‘degenerate’ (Windschuttle 2000:158) media theory, that rather than complementing media practice ‘is in fact its very antithesis.’ (Windschuttle 1998:32)

He had an article titled ‘The Poverty of Cultural Studies’ in the first issue of Journalism Studies two years later in 2000 that repeated nearly word for word his earlier chapter. He added more criticism of his central view that cultural and media studies were both ‘educationally corrupting and professionally embarrassing for journalism education.’ (Windschuttle 2000:145)

What can we learn from this angry and historical spat between practice journalists and university media and cultural studies theorists in universities?

Windschuttle was a kind of poacher turned gamekeeper for both sides of the battle. He’d written three editions of The Media: A New Analysis of the Press, Television, Radio and Advertising in Australia that was published by Penguin and acted as the staple theoretical textbook for university journalism programmes during the 1980s.

The cover of 'The Media: The New Analysis of the Press, Television, Radio and Advertising in Australia.' Penguin.

The cover of ‘The Media: The New Analysis of the Press, Television, Radio and Advertising in Australia.’ Penguin.

The Media is now out of date but much of its structure and framework of curriculum would not be out of place in a coherent undergraduate journalism programme today. Under Political Economy there were chapters on The Future of the Press, The Economics of Advertising, The Profits of Television, The Structure of Commercial Radio, Ownership, Oligopoly and the State. Under Culture he wrote chapters on Television and Popular Culture, Advertising and Identity, Radio, Popular Music and Talk, Glossy Sexuality, News as Myth, Politics and Television, Unions, Strikes and the News and Economics and the New Right. Under Reform the chapters covered Advertising and Self-regulation, and Diversity, Standards and Critics.

The Detail in the Conflict

The conflict seemed to stem from an intellectual and ideological disagreement about the nature of journalism and media communication. Windschuttle argued for realism and pursuit of truth ethos where facts could be objective through empirical verification.

Hartley engaged structuralism and new ideas about postmodernism. Understanding of media needed to be analyzed through language theories and he explored the idea that much of what was regarded as reality by media institutions was imagined- including the construction of audiences.

Windschuttle argued that the theorists were wrongly in control of the university subject of journalism teaching:

  • Very few theorists of cultural studies have ever been employed in the media;
  • Most of them have direct experience of the industry only through its external appearances, what they see on the screen, what they read in print, and so on;
  • This, however, has not stopped them from becoming heads of the departments or faculties within which many journalism programmes are taught;
  • In any other professional education, this would be an anomaly;
  • It would be extraordinary to have, for instance, a medical sociologist who has no formal medical qualification and who has never practised medicine, appointed head of a medical school. (ibid 152)

Windschuttle’s view of the central tenets that should guide the university education of journalists still represents a framework of ideals that most practicing media producers would recognize:

First, journalism is committed to reporting the truth about what occurs in the world. Journalists go out into society, make observations about what is done and what is said, and report them as accurately as they can. They have to provide evidence to verify and corroborate their claims and they have to attribute their sources. Journalism, in other words, upholds a realist view of the world and an empirical methodology. Secondly, the principal ethical obligations of journalists are to their readers, their listeners and their viewers. Journalists report not to please their employers or advertisers, nor to serve the state or support some other cause, but in order to inform their audiences. Thirdly, journalists should be committed to good writing. This means their meaning should be clear and their grammar precise. In our society it is journalists and sub-editors who are the front-line standard-bearers for good English expression. (ibid 146)

Windschuttle also believed that media practitioner academics were being discriminated against. They were useful teaching fodder to give the training on skills that would equip students for employment after university. But they were denied the promotion and prospects of their theory colleagues:

Most media practitioners who join academic departments do so after at least 10 years, and more commonly 20 years, employment in the industry. However, most only have first (Bachelor) degrees and that while their industry experience will provide them with a job it will not provide them with a promotion. To be promoted from lecturer to senior lecturer they are required to complete either a PhD or a Masters research degree. Some even need postgraduate qualifications to acquire any status beyond a short-term contract position. Undertaking postgraduate work while taking a full teaching load at this stage of life is very difficult and can take many years. The result is that most lecturers in journalism, television production and similar practical subjects languish at the lecturer and senior lecturer level in the academic hierarchy. Apart from a small number of notable exceptions, few have been appointed professors or heads of schools. In other words, even though it is the industry experience of the practitioners that students value so highly, the university system does not reward this experience in any way commensurate with its appeal. (ibid 157)

Windschuttle’s dispute with Hartley is evident in the articles they wrote because they refer and criticize specifically what each other has said about their respective positions.

Windschuttle wrote:

Hartley describes the profession of journalism in the following terms: “It aspires to the professional status of architects while actually turning out real estate agents—pettybourgeois, self-employed, white collar workers with no commitment to professionalisation.” Again, the notion that journalists are mostly self-employed indicates someone with very little grasp of the profession he so confidently disparages. The great majority of journalists are not self-employed but are employees of corporations. (ibid 153).

In fact, Windschuttle and Hartley were keynote speakers at ‘Media Wars: Media Studies and Journalism Education‘- a seminar organized by the Australian Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy, held at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, 27th November 1998.

Hartley fought back in 1999 with ‘Why is it Scholarship When Someone Wants to Kill You?: truth as violence’ in Continuum’s Journal of Media & Cultural Studies. He noted that in Journalism: Theory and Practice he had more mentions in the index than any other author. In fact he had a total of 24. Martin Heidegger only received one.

He argued that ‘Windschuttle finds it ludicrous that working for 20 years in a university might qualify a professional academic to “run a department”. This is because he has no respect for higher education as a distinct professional area in its own right.’ Hartley 1999:229) Hartley outlined how he had helped practitioners with promotion & support and said: ‘Sometimes it is useful to have someone around who knows how universities work.’ (ibid)

Hartley reserved the main objection in his piece to a chapter in Journalism: Theory and Practice by the former radio journalist and now university educator Martin Hirst titled ‘From Gonzo to PoMo: Hunting New Journalism.’ The chapter could be interpreted as either an ironic joke in the style of gonzo journalism or a rather unscholarly rant replete with a surfeit of aggressive language.

Hirst wrote:

What are we to make of claims (Hartley, 1996) that there is a ‘new’ kind of journalism emerging as we approach the end of the twentieth century? New Journalism was new in the late 1960s, but what is ‘Postmodern Journalism’? As we shall see media theorist John Hartley calls it ‘semiotics with funding,’ I call it ‘bullshit’! (Hirst 1998:198)

It may be the case that Hartley was returning the joke when he observed: ‘He wants to kill me. “I could bare my teeth” at Hartley he says:

I’d like to take Hartley by the throat, shake him like a wounded animal and chew on the meagre evidence he offers to defend his thesis… but there’s no point. My urges are more primal and I harbour an ugliness that demands a response. I want to rip the heart out of Hartley’s claims for this ‘new‘ ‘postmodern’ journalism. (Hirst 1998, p.200)

Hirst described Hartley’s work as ‘low rent’ ‘pimping postmodernism’ and ‘makes [Nelson] Mandela a fancy brooch on a gaudy low cut sweater.’ (ibid various 196-219) Hirst’s article concluded with an italicized quotation: “‘Damn snake, it’ll bite you every time. Unless you kill the fucker first”‘, and two short sentences:

‘History will judge us my friend. Sleep well.’ (ibid 217)

Hartley gave as good as he got in his ‘Truth as violence’ article:

The insight is this: I get up the journalists’ noses because the journalism I study in Popular Reality (Hartley, 1996) is non-violent. I’m interested in feminized, juvenated, sexualized, suburban, domestic, private and commercial forms of media—what Hirst calls ‘Hartley’s Postmodern Journalism’ in short. But for the realist-modernist journalism educator, journalism is a violent profession; truth is violence; reality is war—and therefore best conveyed by violent metaphors. (Hartley 1999:231)

Has this row/war been constructive? 

The question I ask is just what was achieved by this contretemps between theorists and practitioners in media and communications? For myself I can only say that during this period as a media practitioner in UK HE it was a major struggle to get promotion and deal with the hostility.

Attempts to bridge the divide were met with really unhelpful experiences. I was told I could not do a PhD in my department because ‘there would be a conflict of interest,’ ‘there is no way the university can pay for it’, ‘you will never be taken seriously by your theory colleagues until you complete your PhD’ and ‘don’t think for one minute you’re going to get any teaching relief so you can finish your PhD.’

I am not superman. I was already working seven days a week as a lecturer and broadcaster, with one of the biggest teaching loads in the department. I had in fact written and had published by Routledge two successful ‘theory and practice’ books- the first in my specialist subject areas.

An attempt by a sympathetic colleague in a post 92 university to enroll me on a PhD by publication programme was blocked by theorists who argued that this qualification was reserved for theory academics publishing in academic journals and monographs.

Inevitably my first attempt at doing a ‘traditional theory research’ PhD at a friendly outside university ended ignominiously with de-registration. I had collapsed with financial, physical and mental exhaustion combined with an implosion of intellectual and academic self-confidence. All this was going on while my professional practice, recognized by more than 50 national and international awards, was considered worthless in terms of research equivalence.

Matters improved after 20 years in Higher Education, but I also notice that matters are not improving consistently across the sector. My heart goes out to distinguished colleagues coming into HE from the professional practice media field with oodles of enthusiasm and commitment to teaching, who find that they have to ‘retrain’ for the academic profession.

They are not getting the help and support they need. I accept induction does require training and qualification in the profession of teaching in Higher Education and if a media practitioner wishes to be ‘trained and educated’ in the academic profession obtaining a PhD. But these things can only be achieved by the employing universities funding the process and providing the teaching relief and mentoring support for those coming in from the outside.

Part-time PhDs are extremely tough challenges; particularly for mature professionals with families who are doing a full-time job in higher education. In the case of media practitioners this will always mean people with huge teaching and marking loads vis-à-vis their theory colleagues.

What does the Practice/professional and traditional theory PhD achieve for a media practitioner academic? Practice AVPhDs and traditional theory research PhDs have the advantage of effectively bridging the divide and fostering mutual respect and understanding.

The advantages of the Practice PhD are:

  • Forging a partnership between media theory and practice supervision;
  • Extending the nature of academic theoretical supervision from disciplines beyond media and cultural studies;
  • Improving the intellectual and academic recognition of media production;
  • Developing respect between practice and theory academics;
  • Developing an audio-visual PhD culture within the university where there is interaction, discussion and sharing of expertise across disciplines and between research students and supervisors.

The advantages of a media practitioner doing a traditional theory PhD are:

  • Building a better understanding of academic professional culture;
  • Realising that long form research has much in common with journalistic research and investigative media production;
  • Acquiring systematic training in understanding literature review, research methodology and the ritual and professional protocols of presenting papers at academic conferences;
  • Training for authoring academic journal articles;
  • Building academic self-confidence and gaining recognition from academic theory peers.

This is all well and good. The media practice academic takes the journey to bridge the divide and has the opportunity to eventually become an expert in media practice and media theory. But it is important that this route does not become the only way to achieve parity in promotion. Media theorists are not expected to ‘retrain’ as professional practitioners and achieve equivalence in experience at the same time.

It is easy to see the lack of logic and fairness in this equation. There’s a palpable injustice and discrimination going on here. I think the answer lies in setting out a balanced infrastructure of recognition, promotion and reward for the intrinsic fields of practice experience and publication, teaching and theoretical research and publication.

Where are they now?

Keith Windschuttle is an influential figure in Australian media having been a board member of the ABC. He’s been the editor of the Australian conservative periodical Quadrant until February 2015 and remains on its editorial board. He’s the proprietor of the Macleay publishing press. He’s well known for his controversial series of historical critiques titled The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. He has challenged the reliability of academic claims that white Australians have been responsible for stealing generations of Aboriginal children and a historical narrative of genocide.

Martin Hirst is Co-convenor Governance, Media & Democracy Research Group at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia and Associate Professor of Journalism & Multimedia in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University as well as the author of several books on journalism and media.

Professor John Hartley has the following post- nominal letters after his name: AM, FAHA, FRSA, ICA Fellow, and is Professor of Cultural Science and Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University in Western Australia, and Professor of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. He has published over twenty books about communication, journalism, media and cultural studies, many of which have been translated into other languages.

Tim Crook is still in UK higher education and is still a media practitioner. He’s Professor of Media and Communication at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Visiting Professor of Broadcast Journalism at Birmingham City University. He’s written six books and is having another go at completing a traditional theory PhD in Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London.


Keith Windschuttle, 1988 3rd edition, The Media: The New Analysis of the Press, Television, Radio and Advertising in Australia, Victoria, Australia: Penguin Books.

Myles Breen, editor (1998) Journalism: Theory & Practice, New South Wales, Australia: Macleay Press.

John Hartley (1999) Why is it scholarship when someone wants to kill you?: Truth as violence, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 13:2, 227-236

Keith Windschuttle (2000) The Poverty of Cultural Studies, Journalism Studies, 1:1, 145-159, DOI: 10.1080/146167000361221


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