“Nothing says thank you like dollars in the waistband”

With apologies to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Over at the Times, Libby Purves reveals the ‘shame of our lap-dancing universities.’

Disappointingly, this isn’t news that some UK university is literally teaching its students how to climb the greasy pole. Instead, it’s a rather confused opinion piece which is sort of about plagiarism, sort of about the dangers of academics chasing media attention and sort of about a supposed overall decline in academic rigour (which some how gets connected to the ‘dodgy dossier’ on Iraqi WMD.)

I don’t know what’s more irritating about this article: the fact that for a piece partly on plagiarism it is largely dependent on unattributed quotations from unspecified ‘messageboards’; its unsubstantiated slurs on the quality of UK PhD’s (which mainly reveal a complete lack of understanding of how PhD’s are supervised and examined); or its bizarre connection of supposed falling academic standards with the war in Iraq.

Actually, the most galling thing about the whole article is the smug undertone that newspaper journalists are somehow a more respectable and ethical bunch than academics. Now, the journalists I know are certainly ethical, and some of them are even respectable. However, Purves surely misses the point that the academic plagiarism in the dodgy dossier was a far less significant crime than the packaging of that evidence into a case for war. The person largely responsible for the organisation and presentation of the intelligence was a former Daily Mirror journalist, Alastair Campbell.

If an academic did any of the things Purves suggests that they are doing, they would be sacked. However, the consequences for an ex-journalist who helped make a spurious case for a war that has killed thousands of people appear to have been less serious. Which is the more intellectually rigorous and ethical profession?

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