The documentary and media professor Brian Winston, who has died aged 80, was one of his field’s leading and seemingly tireless thinkers, writers and organisers, having authored more than 20 books addressing questions of media history, technology, aesthetics and ethics, particularly freedom of expression. 

He had worked in the field for almost 60 years, since a post-college traineeship in 1963 with the newly launched World in Action, Granada television’s provocative investigative affairs series; and in academia for 50, having turned to media teaching in 1971, and taken his first lectureship at Bradford College of Art the following year. From 2003 he was based at the University of Lincoln, where he served as professor of communications, pro-vice chancellor (2005 to 2006) and inaugural Lincoln Chair from 2007 until his retirement this March. 

In 1974, after taking a post in the sociology department at Glasgow University, Winston became one of three founders of the Glasgow (University) Media Group, who pioneered research into bias in establishment media (the Observer would later call the group “academic hit men stalking television’s newscasters”). Winston co-authored its first two books, Bad News (1976) and More Bad News (1980), which dismantled TV news’s claims of neutrality and ‘objectivity’. The latter concept endured Winston’s ongoing assault right up until his last book, The Roots of Fake News: Objecting to Objective Journalism (2021, co-written with his son Matthew).

Likewise, a powerful scepticism for the ‘transparent’ truth claims of both British documentary’s Griersonian tradition and the handheld Direct Cinema innovators in the US is a strong current through Winston’s writing on documentary, much of it now standard texts and sources, from Claiming the Real: The Griersonian Documentary and Its Legitimations (1995) and Claiming the Real II: Documentary: Grierson and Beyond (2005) to Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries (2000) and The Act of Documenting: Documentary Film in the 21st Century (2017), co-written with Gail Vanstone and Wang Chi. (He also wrote a BFI Classic on Humphrey Jennings’ Fires Were Started, 1999, and edited The Documentary Film Book reader, 2013.)

A champion of the alternative tradition of reflexive, heterogenous documentary pioneered by Dziga Vertov, Winston was delighted when the Soviet visionary’s Man with a Movie Camera surfaced in the top 10 of Sight and Sound’s 2012 Greatest Films of All Time poll; when it topped a documentary poll we ran two years later, Winston was the obvious choice to write its case. 

Complicating simplistic truth claims in no way meant doubting the need for truth or its pursuit, and Winston remained a dogged advocate of free speech, whether in his historical survey Messages: Free Expression, Media and the West from Gutenberg to Google (2005) or in A Right to Offend (2012) and The Rushdie Fatwa and After: A Lesson to the Circumspect (2014). Back in 1971 he had marked the end of the infamous trial of the editors of Oz magazine for obscenity by publishing a more obscene cartoon of Mary Whitehouse in a special edition of a publication called Ink, eliciting what his daughter Jessica says was a prized threat of legal action from Whitehouse’s lawyers. In his 1986 book Misunderstanding Media he proposed the ‘Law of the suppression of radical potential’, describing the inhibition of new technologies’ radical potential by the forces of the status quo. 

A proud, progressive British Jew, Winston was active within the Lincolnshire Jewish community and as his university’s Jewish faith adviser. In 1985 he won an Emmy for co-writing the television documentary Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, amid a decade he spent teaching in the US, first at NYU, where he chaired the cinema studies programme, then as College of Communications dean at Pennsylvania State. (A later screenwriting credit was for 2010’s A Boatload of Wild Irishmen, a portrait of documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty.)

Winston returned from the US in 1992 to head the Centre for Journalism Studies at the University of Wales (now Cardiff University), and the following year launched the enduring Visible Evidence conference on documentary film. Before his Lincoln posting he headed the School of Communication, Design and Media at Westminster University from 1997. In 2011 he was a founding member and first chair of the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies. He also served a term as BFI governor, was a Grierson Trustee, sat on the board of the British Journalism Review and advised Sheffield International Documentary Festival. 

  • Brian Winston, 7 November 1941 to 9 April 2022