Tom Hopkinson Centre for Media History
The Tom Hopkinson Centre for Media History brings together scholars, research students, journalists, photojournalists, documentary-makers, archivists, media activists and practitioners into an international, interdisciplinary network focusing on the evolution of media forms, practices, institutions and audiences within broader processes of societal change.
The Centre’s name honours Sir Tom Hopkinson (1905-1990), a distinguished British journalist and founding director of the Centre for Journalism Studies at Cardiff University. Hopkinson’s professional achievements included his role as editor of Picture Post from 1940 to 1950, and later editorship of South Africa's Drum magazine. He was a steadfast advocate of socially responsible news reporting, with a lifelong passion for photojournalism.
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is a familiar saying, reminding us that a study of the past better equips us for engaging with the future. For media historians, the rationale for their craft is often expressed as a commitment to interdisciplinarity, where a diverse range of conceptual and methodological frameworks may be brought to bear in order to align scholarly research with historical issues and problems in real-world contexts.
We strive to encourage innovation, forging collaborative links across otherwise disparate modes of enquiry. Our members share their expertise in distinctive approaches to exploring media history which, when taken together, span the breadth of factual and entertainment media domains. Members employ methods from the humanities and social sciences - such as interviews, document analysis, archival work, ethnographies and so forth - in order to examine primary sources, which may include eyewitness accounts, diaries, letters, speeches, notebooks, videos, films, photographs or sound recordings. Members are self-reflexive about their chosen strategies when gathering source material and interpreting evidence, especially where questions related to media “effects” or causation are being addressed.
‘Remembering, Forgetting and Moving on’. Media coverage and trauma 50 years after Aberfan
The Tom Hopkinson Centre for Media History was created to ‘align scholarly research with historical issues and problems in real-world contexts’. This conference, held on 16 September 2016, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, fulfilled this aim ideally.
It brought together the scholars, students, journalists, photojournalists, documentary-makers, media activists and other practitioners that the Centre expects to attract – along with people directly affected by the Aberfan disaster. It discussed fundamental questions about the coverage of a major traumatic event, not only its expectations, practices, effects, and audiences but also journalism’s role in the evolution of social history, art and memory.
Aberfan is a community 20 miles north of Cardiff and four miles south of Merthyr Tydfil. The Aberfan disaster on 21 October 1966 was caused by colliery tip material sliding down the mountain, engulfing Pantglas School and surrounding houses, and killing 116 children and 28 adults. It was an event that became burned into national and international memory.
Speakers on the day
Jeff Edwards, a survivor of the disaster, speculated that it achieved such prominence because it was the first major event to be televised and was accompanied by the production of iconic photographs of children. The treatment of the community after the disaster - by the Charity Commission and the National Coal Board - kept it in the news, but it was also the nature of the disaster itself which made it unforgettable.
Journalist Elwyn Evans was present at the event and greatly affected by it. He recollected it as a disaster for himself and said he had spent the last five decades trying to forget it. He recalled that he spent eight hours frozen to the spot, failing to be either a reporter or a rescuer. But he said it made him the journalist he became, sensitive to people and to suffering. He was a participant who tried to forget the tragedy, but could not - and a theme of the conference was whether such events should be forgotten, so people might move on.
Stephen Jukes, a journalist who worked for Reuters covering Dunblane and Columbine, is now a professor of journalism at Bournemouth University and Director of the DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma. He spoke of news being not only the first draft of history, but as framing the way the public continues to view an event. He touched on the difficulties of being objective in such coverage, the demands of the news cycle and the impossibility of forgetting.
Chris Morris, an award-winning documentary film maker, has ensured that in some form the disaster is not forgotten. He described the production of the film An American in Aberfan, which he made for the 40th anniversary. Many people in the community were tired of media intrusion, the continual regurgitation of the black and white archive, and wanted to be involved in the construction of a documentary to create a different picture of Aberfan.
Reporter Melanie Doel has covered the Aberfan story for 40 years, watching as the village moved on and recovered money from the appeal fund which had been taken to pay towards the cost of removing the tips. The media coverage of the disaster was also scrutinised by Louise Walsh, whose idea for her novel Black River came from an attempt by the Welsh office to get the press to ‘Lay Off Aberfan’ after the disaster and the difficulties of dealing with the misreporting and sensationalising press.
Photo-journalist Chuck Rapoport talked about his photos and described the six weeks he spent in Aberfan after most of the press had left, capturing the heart of the village as the community tried to move on in their lives without children. For him Aberfan was the most important photo essay of his life, staying true to his belief that in the minds of people photos engender caution, remembrance and realisation. He talked of bringing Christmas gifts to the villagers, of quoting Dylan Thomas to save himself from being beaten up, the first wedding and the first birth after the disaster, and of the impact of his photography on John Collins, who lost his whole family in the disaster.
The day ended with Vincent Kane’s searing journalist’s verdict on the disaster, its causes and its aftermath. He explored the responsibility of the National Coal Board, the National Union of Mineworkers, of men from the community who worked on the tip. He highlighted the betrayal of the victims by the Charity Commission and the Labour Government, whose Welsh Secretary was George Thomas. And he did not spare himself and others in the media for their failure to be passionate – not pedestrian – in the face of vicious criticism of the victims themselves.
This archive of the event includes video recordings and transcriptions, including the talks by invited speakers and contributions from the floor from many survivors and those involved in the disaster, some of whom had never spoken out before. It begins with a personal and professional overview from Prof. Kevin Morgan, Cardiff University’s Dean for Engagement, who highlighted the role of the university in providing a ‘safe space’ in which people could share their experiences of a traumatic event.
The Centre currently brings together six archives, and is open to exploring further possibilities:
Cudlipp Collection: Letters and documents concerning Hugh Cudlipp's early journalistic career in Cardiff and his rise to editorial prominence in Fleet Street.
The Richard Stott Daily Mirror Papers: The archive contains information in relation to the Daily Mirror, personal letters, photographs, and unpublished work.
Osman Collection: A significant collection of twentieth-century photojournalism.
The Victor Davis Journalism Archive: The archive records, on a substantial number of cassette tapes, Victor’s interviews with major film and television celebrities from Britain and America between 1967 and 1994. His spiral bound notebook catalogues an alphabetical listing of interviews with dates and places.
First Edition: An archive of children's news programming.
The Great Journalists Archive: The archive hosts a selection of interviews conducted by Master’s students, where each student selected an outstanding journalist from their own country to interview about her/his own professional journalism work.