Nick Thomas Media Matter
This is the time of year when many of us who live and work in Oxford find ourselves teaching visiting American students, and for the past few weeks I have been running a seminar in “British and American Media and Culture” for St Bonaventure University, a fine Catholic institution that has a solid relationship with Somerville.
This has proved to be highly enjoyable, but early on I was informed that I am regarded as a rather tough “professor”, as they will insist on calling me, by members of my group. For I made it clear at the outset that I would not tolerate the use of “media” as a singular noun, and read the Riot Act when every one of them committed this howler in their first essay.
They’re not used to having their English corrected, but it is also true that I am probably the most pedantic practitioner of the language they will ever meet (not that I’m infallible, even within the loose conventions of this column, as readers with green biros at their disposal occasionally write to tell me), and the other day I was reminded why this is.
Greetings, therefore, to Patrick Hare who, I’m informed by his friend and former colleague Brian Martin, is a regular reader of the Herald. For back in the dim and distant past Patrick and Brian taught me English, at Magdalen College School, Oxford, a truly excellent establishment which, I’m happy to say, continues to thrive. In the mid-1970s the fag-end of the hippy era made sloppiness of both speech and apparel virtually compulsory amongst the nation’s adolescents; but these two men were not only invariably well dressed, to the point of dandyism, but also rigidly intolerant of grammatical error, redundancy, tautology, and even any lapse into racy vernacular that might undermine the academic credibility of an essay. Furthermore they taught, with authority and wit, not only why our tortured prose was wrong, but why it mattered.
This brings me back to the word “media” (not before time, you might think), and to why its misuse offends me so. It’s not just a matter of sloppiness in the application of a Latin plural, though that would be enough to elicit a pretty crusty harrumph all on its own. Rather it is the sloppiness of thought on which the error depends, and its implications. The media are means whereby information is communicated, mainly newspapers and broadcasting networks, housed in buildings and staffed by people, identifiable, tangible, accountable. But the media, as a singular, is a concept which becomes a presence, allpervading yet intangible, something referred to, credited with attributes, motives and powers, but which does not, in fact, exist. In our western liberal dictatorships’ minds, “the media”, if we let it, takes the place occupied by “the state” in those of people conditioned by ideological dictatorships. It is, in effect, a false god, and potentially every bit as dangerous, in its effect on the spirit, as any atheistic political creed.
Am I taking a sledgehammer to a nut? Am I investing a commonplace error that happens to annoy me with a theological significance it cannot bear? I don’t think so, though I’m not suggesting that people who make this particular mistake through ignorance or laziness must be damned as idolaters.
I’m just remembering that I must teach not only why ‘media is’ is wrong, but also why it matters, to intelligent young Catholics who are keen to learn; and for that I thank Patrick Hare.