Professor Connie St Louis is dreadlocked, proud of her African heritage, a committed feminist, may have published the odd article in a newspaper and may possibly – though she’s a bit hazy on key details like, ahem, at which university she studied – have a science degree.
Hmm. I wonder which of these credentials most impressed the interviewing panel when she was being vetted for the post of head of Science Journalism at Britain’s most prestigious media-training university.
No, really. We all like to joke that the most important phrase you’ll ever learn on a media studies course is “And would you like fries with that?”. But the course at City University is renowned across the industry for producing some of Britain’s brightest and best journalistic talent.
As it boasts on its site:
Our success is measured in our graduates’ success. Last year 96 per cent of our MA graduates found employment within six months, joining a 5,000-strong alumni network worldwide. Our graduates are newspaper editors, broadcast anchors, magazine editors, and an increasing number work in digital roles as data journalists and online community managers.
You learn from top practitioners in their fields, practise your craft in outstanding studios and newsrooms, and have opportunities for internships in a city which is one of the world’s media capitals.
Presumably, as a departmental head, St Louis would be included in that category “top practitioner in their fields.” Well, obviously she must be. The course of which she is Programme Director – MA in Science Journalism – charges EU-member students £9,000 for the year and non-EU-member students £18,000. No respectable institution would dream of charging that sort of money if the person in charge were less than impeccably suited to the job, would they? Heaven forfend!
Anyway, according to the blurb, graduates of the City Science Journalism course have been doing very well for themselves:
The first group of Science Journalism MA graduates completed their studies in 2010. They are now working at organisations including the BBC, CERN, ITV, National Geographic Green and the World Health Organisation.
I guess this must be partly down to the brilliance of Professor St Louis’s training – borne of her deep and wide experience writing for leading newspapers (most of which, mysteriously, appear to have erased from their records the many articles St Louis was claiming till recently to have written for them. She is now updating her CV after that investigative article by a Mail journalist rudely called its accuracy into question).
Professor St Louis isn’t perfect, though. For example, I suspect one of the things she may have taught her students on the course is: “Your job is to report. Not to become part of the story.” Which, through hardly any fault of her own, she just has.
As a professional journalist of such long-standing experience, the events of the last few weeks must have been deeply painful to St Louis. Barely a month ago she was a complete unknown (as all the best Professors of Journalism are, of course). But thanks to an unfortunate series of incidents this blameless woman has found herself vilified in some quarters of the media for the “crime” of hounding an innocent Nobel-prize-winning professor out of his job.
The story, for those who missed it, went like this. Connie St Louis was attending one of those vitally important foreign junkets – a conference in Seoul, South Korea – which are the lot of the top Professor of Journalism. Suddenly, Professor St Louis found herself listening to a speech by a Nobel-prize-winning scientist called Sir Tim Hunt which involved what may or may not have been a sexist joke.
Being a top Professor of Journalism, St Louis knew exactly where her responsibilities lay. She must put all thoughts of human decency, accuracy or objectivity to one side and shape the narrative in such as way as to turn this jocular but inconsequential aside into the week’s biggest news story.
In this St Louis succeeded quite brilliantly. For a period, Professor Hunt found himself being reviled as the most egregiously sexist dinosaur on the planet. Better still, he had his career utterly ruined – losing his posts and honorary positions at University College London, the Royal Society and the European Research Council.
Not bad for a humble Professor of Journalism with barely a handful of newspaper articles to her credit. (Or with lots and lots of newspaper articles to her credit including The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Guardian and The Sunday Times – depending on whose version you believe, Professor St Louis’s or that pesky muckracker from the Mail who found no evidence of all these articles).
Now it is being suggested that the person who really should have lost their job is not Sir Tim Hunt but Professor St Louis. It seems that the version of events originally put out by St Louis on her Twitter feed doesn’t quite square with other eyewitness accounts of Hunt’s speech, in which his attempts to portray himself as a sexist dinosaur were widely understood to be a joke, leading up to a much longer, serious bit in which he praised the role of women in science.
Indeed, if you read this impressively thorough investigation by Louise Mensch, you may form the inescapable conclusion that an innocent, decent man has been viciously and unfairly traduced by an unconscionable witch-hunt mob of political activists dressed up as university professors.
City University, however, is quite rightly standing by the distinguished head of its Science Journalism course.
What Professor St Louis’s critics clearly don’t understand is that truth, objectivity and evidence have absolutely no place in modern journalism. Most especially not in her chosen field of expertise, Science Journalism – which (we learn from City’s website) includes “environmental journalism”.
This, certainly, has been my own experience in this field. If you want to get on as a Science or Environmental journalist it really is extremely unhelpful to trouble yourself overmuch with outmoded virtues like balance, objectivity, accuracy, integrity, honest scepticism or trying to tell both sides of the story.
What matters, as St Louis so brilliantly showed us at the science conference in Seoul, is taking charge of the narrative.
Here’s how it works. First we show the truth in bold; then we show in italics how the modern Science Journalist’s art magically transforms the base metal of reality into the gold of agenda-setting political discourse.
Truth: Polar bears doing just fine
Narrative: Endangered polar bears on the verge of extinction because climate change
Fracking is harmless
Fracking is deadly – fills water sources with toxic chemicals, causes earthquakes
Global warming is normal
Global warming is catastrophic, unprecedented and man-made
Nobel prize-winning scientist with loving scientist wife makes affectionate joke about women in science
Evil bastard misogynist said one of the most hateful things in the history of science and massively offended thousands of women – well, hundreds, well, dozens, oh all right, maybe just one – and therefore must be annihilated.
See how easy it is? Now you know how it’s done – and I’m sure I’d have Professor St Louis’s blessing here – I’m awarding you all a Magna Cum Laude (with Oak Leaf Cluster) in Science Journalism.
Have fun in your new career. As you’ll soon find, it certainly beats doing anything useful for a living. And what’s more, people will respect you as a sensitive individual who really cares.