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A tribute to Denis McQuail (1935-2017)

We are sad to inform you that one of the major figures of our field and ECREA Advisory Board member and former ECREA European Media and Communication Doctoral Summer School lecturer Denis McQuail has passed away on 25 June aged 82.

Tomanic Trivundza, Ilija 30.06.2017
D. McQuail at 2010 ECREA SuSo

A tribute to Denis McQuail (1935-2017) by Peter Golding

The news of Denis McQuail’s death on June 25th 2017 will have deeply saddened many scholars and colleagues in ECREA. It is a tribute to Denis’ influence and the respect in which he was held that so many people, young and old, and in so many countries, will feel his loss and have benefited from his many personal and professional qualities.

Denis McQuail met the standards of that old cliché ‘founding father’ better than almost anyone. Trained as an Oxford historian, he was awarded a PhD in social studies from the University of Leeds in 1967 with a thesis entitled "Factors affecting public interest in television plays." His transition from social scientist to communications scholar was more or less complete. He was one of the first UK academics to move to a post in mainland Europe, and in 1977 he was appointed to the Chair in Communications at the University of Amsterdam, where he stayed until his early retirement in 1997. He then moved back to his home just outside Southampton and retained his academic links as a Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics at Southampton. Retirement for Denis was, of course, notional. As a note to his friends from his family pointed out “was still scribbling notes and thoughts on the back of envelopes and scraps of paper relating to academic theory right up to the end”.

Denis McQuail’s achievements are legion. One signal example is ‘uses and gratifications’. It is now a platitude that we should examine what people do with media not what media do to them. This truism became the demarcating mantra of uses and gratifications research, but refining and operationalising the idea took a lot of work. Denis was perhaps not one of the originators of the concept, but his work was central in its refinement, constructive critique, and development.

We now see political communication, and the role of television especially, in politics, as a familiar concern at the heart of our field. Denis McQuail's work with Jay Blumler and with Joseph Trenaman was seminal in this field. Television and the Political Image, which studied the 1959 general election in the UK, established many of the key tenets and insights for political communication research in the succeeding decades. When his study with Jay Blumler, Television in Politics, appeared in 1968 the Journal of Communication said that “the researcher interested in television and politics could hardly ask for more”.

Denis McQuail was also one of the clearest and most helpful of guides. In Communication Models, first produced with Sven Windahl in 1982, page after page of lucid exegesis and explanation of the many competing models somehow dissolved the fog; as an example of how to generate a lot of insight in a short space it was, and is, invaluable. As a founding editor, with Karl-Erik Rosengren and Jay Blumler, of the European Journal of Communication, Denis launched what was to become, and still is, a key shop window for so much that is best in scholarship and research in our field. The EJC, however, is not Denis’ only legacy to the development of European media research. He was a key and founding member of the Euromedia Research Group for whom he wrote extensively and helped form debates about media policy in Europe and comparative analyses within Europe of questions of media concentration, commerce and politics.

Denis is perhaps best known as a codifier of our field, providing generations of students and scholars alike with authoritative and phenomenally widely read overviews of writing and research in the field. This, as anyone who has written, rather than simply avoided writing, a text book will know, is an extraordinarily difficult task, and we are fortunate in being in a field where the best known text is the work of someone who is a master of the genre.
Mass Communication Theory is now in its 6th edition, and is rightly titled ‘McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory’. It was first published in 1983, subtitled “an introduction”, and ran to a modest 245 pages, compared to the daunting 621 pages of the current edition. The book reigns supreme, and is almost certainly never to be paralleled, not just in our field but as a guiding and insightful text for any field in the social and human sciences.
It is important to recall that even before Mass Communication Theory became the central and unique text that it is, Denis McQuail provided a number of original and defining texts which reviewed, codified, and summarised in a characteristically elegant and helpful way, the range of work in our field. His overview volume Towards a Sociology of Mass Communications, published in 1969 and the collection he put together in Sociology of Mass Communications which came out in 1972 were both seminal in forging the field, then so rudimentary, in the UK. At some distance now we can see not only how original these books were but also how what in retrospect looks easy to accomplish was achieved when no clear oversight of the field existed, and in that sense their originality and influence are immense.

Denis McQuail was so very much more, however, than a summariser and text book master. He always readily put his scholarship and analytical skills to work in assessing media performance and conduct, and his involvement in normative analysis should not be overlooked. His analysis of press content conducted for the 1977 Royal Commission on the Press in the UK remains one of the most thorough and indicative of its kind. As a comprehensive and comprehensible, socially and politically relevant, empirically sound analysis of what the British press provides it remains foundational.

But over the years and in a number of publications he further explored the many complexities of assessing media performance. Whether writing on media policy generally or the more profound questions of how we should assess the role of the media, he made insistently clear the need for analytical rigour in addressing questions of media power and influence.

These are massively important contributions. In reviewing Media Performance Everett Dennis wrote that “When a short list of the most important books on communication media in the last half of the twentieth century is drawn up at some future date, I would not be surprised to see Dennis McQuail’s Media Performance at the top”. His analysis of the core dimensions of media performance remains unsurpassed. As he wrote, “Without accountability communication is simply one-way transmission, limited in purpose, lacking response, guidance, or even known effect”.

But as important as these writings and contributions are, many in the field will remember Denis best for his personal qualities. He was the most charming and amusing of companions, and endlessly generous in support, advice and help to younger colleagues and peers alike. Denis was a great traveller. Many would recall, with frustration, the experience in coming down to breakfast at a conference hotel, to see Denis McQuail, thinking they had got one over on him by saying they’d discovered a wonderful and unexpected local beauty spot – only for Denis to say, as he always did, “yes I walked up there yesterday, it’s really good”.

Denis’ importance in our field cannot be overstated. His loss is devastating for all who knew him and recall his many kindnesses, as well as those, who even if they never met him, have so benefitted from his outstanding scholarship and tireless analysis. Our field has lost a master of research and thought, and many of us within it have lost an irreplaceable friend and colleague.


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