I’ve spoken about Laurie Penny here so many times before that I’m not sure she needs an introduction. British firebrand journalist working in newspapers, books and television. Currently, I believe, a regular reporter for The Independent after a long session at The New Stateman. I wrote the foreword for her most recent book, PENNY RED: Notes From The New Age Of Dissent. She’s in America right now, covering the dissent movement and election politics (and writing a book, and acting as a contributing editor to The New Inquiry, and several other things). When I asked her to write you about whatever was in her head today, she said this:
A little over a year ago, before Occupy Wall Street began but well after the first wave of student riots had made political resistance more than a storybook fantasy in Britain, I found myself at a gathering of activists and anarchists. The occasion was the opening of a free university in an empty pub in central London, and journalists were strictly forbidden in the space. I had been let in on the condition that I hand in all my recording equipment before I was allowed to drink, which is a cruel thing to do to anyone who writes for a living.
Nonetheless, just after midnight, a man with dreadlocks who I had never met before in my life started jabbing a less than entirely sober finger in my face, calling me scum, asking how I dared to speak on behalf of others, and attempting to assault me gently with a rusty bicycle. I was moved by the idiosyncracy of this attack, but far more perturbed by the fact that five or six comrades, people I had stood beside as police horses charged into lines of protesters in Parliament square, people I would have trusted if not with my life, then at least with my dignity – they turned away, and they pretended not to see.
I was bewildered, and heartbroken. More than any other print journalist working in the mainstream media in Britain at that point, I understood what these people were trying to do. I was the same age, I had read the same books, I went to the same meetings, I declined to name names when to do so might have endangered activists, I stepped outside my job description to report faithfully on protests and incidents of police violence that the rest of the press ignored. None of this, by the way required any special cookies for effort – but I thought it might at least be enough to prevent me getting thrown out of a party by drunk hippies.
I thought wrong. The abrupt realisation that solidarity is not extended to members of the mainstream press was less upsetting than the realisation there are entirely good reasons for this. Some members of the collective who tossed me out of the pub had already had their names and personal histories dragged messily through the tabloids, and when I was informed that AJAB – all journalists are bastards – I was hardly in a position to plead for nuance.
I thought I got into journalism to tell truths and right wrongs and occasionally get into parties I wouldn’t normally be cool enough to go to. Right now though, with a few exceptions, professional journalism is rarely seen as an exercise in holding power to account. Justly or unjustly, the media, especially but not exclusively the mainstream, corporate-controlled press, has come to be seen as the enemy of the voiceless rather than their champion. Justly or unjustly, few people believe what they read in the papers or watch on the news anymore, because belief has long ceased to be quite as important as complicity when it comes to the Daily Mail, the Daily Post or News International. On the streets of Athens and Madrid as well as during the London riots of August 2011, journalists have been threatened and attacked by desperate young people making havoc in the streets. Why? Not because these young people don’t want to be seen, but because they don’t want to be seen through the half-closed eyes of privilege.
Journalists are losing any case we ever had for special pleading. For the younger generation of digital natives, there is no particular reason to be deferential towards anyone who happens to be at a protest with a phone that can get the internet and an audience of thousands: it’ll be you and a hundred others, and unless the police have given you special privileges to write precisely what they want and nothing else, your press pass is less and less likely to keep you safe from arrest. As more and more ordinary men, women and children without degrees in journalism acquire the skills and technology to broadcast text and video, the media has become another cultural territory which is gradually being re-occupied. Those on the ground do not have to wait for the BBC and MSNBC to turn up with cameras: they make the news and the reporters follow. They have grown up in a world of branding and they know how to create a craze and set the agenda. They occupy the media. And the media is starting to worry.
Let’s not be naive, though: the professional press still has power, and lots of it. If it didn’t, activists wouldn’t be frantically writing press releases in one occupation and beating up Newsnight cameramen in another. The success or failure of any political action outside the ballot box depends on the participation of the press, and that’s a source of resentment as well as suspicion. Most journalists are employed to produce stories that will sell. If we write for tabloids, we are encouraged to feign a species of objectivity that often includes giving equal weight to the voices of the one percent of the population who believe that all billionaires were sent by Adam Smith to save the free world from socialism and should be rewarded with fruit baskets, tax exemptions and the comeliest of our firstborn children. The best I can do is what I always do: write what I see and believe to be true, and be prepared to take the consequences on either side.
The relationship between activism, journalism and truth-telling has always been complicated. If you do it honestly, you can expect to be attacked by almost everybody, since fearless political writing cannot co-exist with orthodoxy of any sort. George Orwell, caller of bullshit on left and right par excellence, made few friends in his day, and a passage from his essay The Prevention of Literature (1946) is worth quoting at length:
Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his (sic) integrity finds himself (sic) thwarted by the general drift of society rather than by active persecution. The sort of things that are working against him are the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly on radio and the films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books, making it necessary for nearly every writer to earn part of his living by hackwork, the encroachment of official bodies like the M.O.I. and the British Council, which help the writer to keep alive but also waste his time and dictate his opinions, and the continuous war atmosphere of the past ten years, whose distorting effects no one has been able to escape. Everything in our age conspires to turn the writer, and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official, working on themes handed down from above and never telling what seems to him the whole of the truth.
Reading this seventy years later, it seems a wonder that fearless journalism has survived, that reports and commentary are not produced, as Orwell imagined in ‘1984’ entirely by machine. Perhaps, though, it is not such a wonder. Human beings have a refreshing tendency to pursue truth and excellence in the face of staggering hurdles – and for every professional hack who resigns him or herself to a living as a greased gear in the corporate press factory, there is another for whom the challenge of carving out a space for honest, rigorous reportage and inspiring, imaginative wordcraft is a reason to get up and put the coffee on of a morning.
Not that it isn’t a bloody pain sometimes. Anyone can write, but to write well and often and for pay can be a hard and lonely job, because to do it honestly requires, at least at the beginning, a certain amount of boring self-analysis whereby professional and existential crisis feed exhaustingly off one another. To be an honest political writer or journalist today is constantly to negotiate and re-negotiate the complicated relationship between conviction and orthodoxy, between critical reportage and activism-as-journalism.
That relationship never been more fraught than it is now, because the line between activism and media production has become smudged to the point of irrelevance. Anyone with a camera-phone that does the internet can report from a protest; anyone with a blog can write commentary about mortgage foreclosure and financial feudalism. But there’s a line in the sand, and you cross it when you start making most of your living writing about politics. Because once you have decided that you will always tell the truth you see in front of you, no matter what your bosses say, you have to decide what’s more important: your career or your conscience.
It is extremely hard to get into journalism. Even before the recession and the jerky transition to online publishing made new staff reporter jobs harder to get than an NYPD press pass, J-schools were consistently churning out several times as many talented, energetic, hopelessly indebted young people than there were salaried positions at even the smallest papers. So many people want to make a living writing that we are encouraged to accept tiny salaries and terrible working conditions, and breaking into the industry often involves years of underpaid or unpaid interning – closing off the most prestigious jobs to all but a wealthy few. We are expected to be grateful for any opportunities we are thrown, and encouraged to see ourselves as future members of a social elite rather than workers with a living to make and a job to do. In the United States, where healthcare coverage is contingent on salaried employment, it’s even harder to make a living as a freelance writer, and so more young people are under pressure to self-censor, to produce copy and footage that their bosses think will play to the prejudices of their readership.
You’ll have gathered by now that I hold no truck with the notion of ‘objective’ reporting – the idea that there is any such thing in a world where Fox News and the Daily Mail are considered serious press outlets seems to me too ridiculous to seriously countenance. To my mind the best one can ever do as a writer is be honest about your background and partialities and try to understand how they affect your outlook, to do violence to your own cliches, to practice compassion over caricature.
That’s what I’ve tried to do, whilst learning on the job, where practical skills – how to take quotes properly, how to wriggle around libel laws – count for no more or less than emotional skills, like scoring out a line between propaganda and cowardice that you can walk along in good conscience and then, whatever the insults and death threats and character assassinations thrown at you from either side, continuing to put one goddamned foot in front of the other. The best journalists I know have found a way to walk their own line. But for some of us that postion comes with a cost. My friend Natasha Lennard lost her job as a stringer at the New York times simply for being honest about her political affiliations, and responded bravely by declaring that she had no interest in producing that sort of objective journalism anyway.
So the question is: if all reporting is partial, if the mainstream press is hopelessly undermined by advertising, self-censorship and police complicity, if anyone with a camera phone can create a media sensation, then what is a journalist for? Why is it that in London, in New York, in California, in Egypt and across the world, it is young journalists who have come to be identified, in the absence of named leaders, as figureheads in these new movements? Why not orators, organisers, artists, musicians, singer-songwriters? Why journalists?
Because people are sick of being lied to. Because young people want to be told the truth – that’s why they became part of movements that are, more than anything, about finally speaking truth to power. Because in a world of 24-hour news cycles and instagram, good writing, and good, clear, original thinking, still matter, are still worth something. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself, because I’ve got a good fifty years of rent checks still to make.
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know whether what I’m trying to do, and what some of the most audacious, inspiring young people I’ve had the privilege to meet over the past two years are trying to do is worth all that much in the long run. There’s always a chance, isn’t there, that my affection for my friends and colleagues makes the best efforts of our young lives loom larger in the heart than their ultimate significance deserves. Privately, though, I doubt it. I believe in fearless journalism, and I believe that it will continue, and I have seen it change the world in the most daring and intimate ways. I am still inspired by the brave reporters and polemicists who laid the path we run on, I still look to my peers to give me courage, and I still wake up in the night dreaming of the perfect paragraph – the one yet to be written. Some day, I will get old, but I don’t think honest writing ever will.
You can find Laurie in various places, most especially her blog and her twitter, and I want to thank her right here for taking so much time out of her insane writing and publishing schedule to produce the above epic.
- GUEST INFORMANTS: Is Magazine Publishing Really Screwed? (warrenellis.com)
- GUEST INFORMANT: Stoya (warrenellis.com)
- GUEST INFORMANT: E. Paul Zehr (warrenellis.com)