I was set wondering by an e-mail I received from Nicholas Leonard, who went up to St Johns in 1958 and edited Cherwell, before a lengthy career in financial journalism (and finance itself), ending up at LBC and the Financial Times group. Nicholas commented that he had “always thought that the tutorial system could have been designed especially to train people who would thrive in the media environment, including acclimatisation to last minute deadlines and the ability to project an appearance of knowledge considerably greater than the reality.”
Oxford doesn’t teach journalism, or do “media studies” – but perhaps the way in which we learnt our subjects was more relevant than the subjects which we actually learnt?
Of course there are media figures who have commented on the benefits of their academic course itself. Ian Hislop (Magdalen College, 1978), Editor of Private Eye, once said that reading English “gave me a chance to read everyone I'd ever wanted to who was any good, which if you are going to become a writer is fairly useful… I seem to have done a huge amount of Congreve, Restoration comedy, Swift, Dryden, Pope the people I read might have given some indication of what I was going to do later in life.”
Some, like the BBC’s Balliol duo of Robert Peston (1979) and Stephanie Flanders (1987), leveraged expertise in a subject like economics into a media career. And Stewart Lee (St Edmund Hall, 1986), Observer columnist, comedy writer and performer, said that reading English showed him “the guts under the bonnet of a story”, a wonderful insight for a writer to gain.
But it’s the Oxford system which, as Nicholas Leonard observed, provides such a good foundation for a media career. To his observations I would add, myself, the self-confidence which grows from arguing your case in tutorials. A media executive confirmed to me that Oxford graduates present themselves and their arguments much more confidently in job interviews for her organisation than students who have been lectured in classes. They’re used to being put individually on the spot, to answering challenging questions and to justifying their opinions. Little wonder they come across as better candidates.
The significance of deadlines is another insight which the Oxford system instils. Every undergrad has felt the chill of an essay deadline – and, as the former Controller of Radio 4 (now Master of St Peter’s) Mark Damazer confirmed to me only last month, “In the media, deadlines are instinctively understood and everyone works around that understanding. They are not a matter for negotiation.”
(In this instance, though, one has to wonder whether they are still quite as relevant. When digital content is being constantly updated, do “last-minute deadlines” hold the significance which they retain in print and broadcasting schedules? Tina Brown (St Anne's College, 1971) now presides over the Daily Beast, the “news reporting and opinion website” which has subsumed Newsweek. She recently remarked upon the fact that “all the boundaries of print just feel so incredibly old-fashioned now – the need to do things in a certain shape, in a certain mix, by a certain time of the day in the week.” Which remains, of course, exactly the Oxford tutorial process.)
Surely it’s an even broader training which the whole Oxford process provides, through the individual research, the construction of an argument and the pulling together of an essay, which the system requires.
Recently, I interviewed a menswear designer, Patrick Grant (New College, 2004), who did his Executive MBA at Oxford. He remarked, in the context of becoming a designer, that “Oxford taught me how to open my mind, and become an assimilator. To put together a fashion collection, you collect ideas around a central thought, you weave strands between them, and eventually a central idea runs coherently through 20 outfits. That thought process, of assimilation and reduction, whether it’s with aesthetic or intellectual ideas, I learnt very clearly at Oxford.” And, I thought, that exact same process of assimilation is what one does in the media, drawing separate strands of ideas and information together into a single coherent statement – whether that statement is a documentary, a report, an issue of a magazine or an article.
Either that or, of course, I still retain “the ability to project an appearance of knowledge considerably greater than the reality.”