Interview with Professor Greg Philo, Director of the Glasgow Media Group, a group of sociologists at the University of Glasgow who analyse the media and its impact on public understanding
What is the work of the Glasgow Media Group trying to achieve?
Right from the beginning we were interested really in the construction of public knowledge. We didn’t really see ourselves as a media monitoring group, we were really interested in questions about ideology and the way in which the media contributed, or didn’t, to public understanding and in the construction of available debate in society around what were in effect a rather narrow set economic and political prescriptions.
We began simply looking at a range of different issues looking simply at what was available in terms of public debate, and how the absence of alternatives structured what was possible in public understanding. So we moved pretty quickly from looking at the content of news to looking at public reception, and we were always interested in production processes so we interviewed journalists and looked at the construction of particular stories.
Do you think the Glasgow Media Group has had an impact on the media in the UK?
I think we have had an impact because we took a set of what were quite remote arguments and made them almost mainstream discourse, certainly amongst the left. The analysis we offer in terms of understanding news and information, and the dissemination of information as being intricately linked to political power and to structures of power within society has almost become mainstream in contemporary thought. We were part of a whole strand of intellectual work in that area and it did have an influence.
On the extent to which we influenced the actual output of journalists, I think it has varied at different times. For example at the time of the second Intifada I think what we wrote did have an impact, a lot of journalists wanted to talk to us, and that was in a sense one of the last periods when the BBC was quite open to discussion and debate.
Since then the BBC has moved very much to the right alongside the movement of politics to the right in the country. In some ways I think we won all of the battles in which we were involved but the war moved in the direction of neoliberalism and that is an enormous struggle still to be fought.
But I think our contribution is still there. There is now a large body of well-educated people on the left who do understand those kinds of issues and who are very interested to debate them, but its a minority, and that minority doesn’t have access to the mainstream media. That’s why it’s strange to see someone like Russell Brand appear. I don’t accept any of his solutions, I think they’re daft, but it’s interesting to see someone like that use his celebrity status to get onto Paxman and to lay out in clear terms the kinds of things that are routinely said on the left that now look so bizarre when they are on Newsnight.
An interesting feature of the GMG is the extent to which is has been able to take a political stance, which is quite unusual in academia. Have you come under any pressure as a result?
Universities don’t work on political grounds in my experience in that kind of way. They don’t say ‘oh my God you’re really left wing we’re not going to support you’, they don’t see it in that way. If you get research funding that’s enough. They are not going to argue much beyond that.
Universities are becoming businesses and the issue is whether you are doing things which one way or another contribute to the well-being of the university, and that really means research funding. Well the Media Group is very popular with students. It’s not that we are short in any way on the criteria by which universities work by.
We also get a lot of grants from charities. Every time the Conservatives get into power we get loads of work because all the human rights organisations want us to do work, and oddly we did very well under Thatcher because they shut down their own research departments and we received huge amounts of research funding. So there was never any problem getting money in and in us being part of the academy in that sense, in that way we managed to square that particular circle.
The Glasgow Media Group seems to spend a lot of time analysing the media in current form, but without discussing what alternative models might look like, why is that?
We haven’t ever written a book saying ‘this is what an alternative media would be like’, I think I was more interested in explaining public understanding and also in exerting pressure and providing the techniques whereby people could exert pressure on existing structures. The BBC has always been an issue with me because it’s a public body, its owned by the people, and its duty bound along with ITN to be impartial and balanced and accurate. So it always seemed to me to be a point of contact that we could use either by pushing them into changing their coverage with which we had some success, or else by educating people through our academic work by saying ‘look, these are the things you are not being told’.
This article was first published in Post Magazine Issue 2. You can buy or download the magazine here.