Anyone who has ever written a feature for the Daily Mail knows what it feels like. You only have to read the features pages to understand that something strange is going on – lots of first person pieces all written in the same style, with the same vocabulary, the same mawkish self-revelatory nature and bizarre turn of phrase. Who are these people who all write exactly alike, suffer bereavements, mental health problems, addictions and family troubles, wear brightly-coloured dresses and too much make-up?
Well, we are the unprincipled writers who will do almost anything for the money. The Mail is the only paper that still pays decent rates and so we email them, call them and go into the office to meet them, desperately hoping that our own first person trauma will take the commissioning editor’s fancy. I drink a lot! My dad died! I’ve had Botox!
I noticed recently that The Mail was running lots of stories about female journalists going off to war though their children begged them not to. Reading these pieces, I can hear the Daily Mail commissioner sending the journalist’s first person copy back to her with the questions in bold: ‘PLEASE INSERT A LINE ABOUT HOW YOUR CHILDREN FEEL ABOUT YOUR JOB WHEN YOU LEAVE FOR A WAR. ARE THEY UPSET? HOW OLD ARE THEY? WHAT ARE THEIR NAMES? HOW DOES YOUR HUSBAND FEEL ABOUT IT ALL?’ (The gaze of the man is on all Daily Mail women, from the too-fat/too-thin celebrities to the ideal housewife in lavender, from dowdy politicians to sponging, single mothers).
Then, in this strange and brainwashy way, the war correspondent, who wants the cash and has a book out, herself writes a tortuous Daily Mail sentence something like this: ‘When I left to cover the recent conflict in HellHole last week my children, Amy, 5, and Ben, 12, begged me not to go; my husband, Luke, is more sanguine.’ The Daily Mail commissioner will cut the word sanguine, replace it with the word ‘resigned’ and add a few other words that render the sentence meaningless – and perhaps even a cheeky little exclamation mark: ‘My long-suffering husband, Luke, is, thank goodness, rather more used to my peccadilloes!’
I knew all this, but I still quite wanted to write my piece. My own father was a war correspondent, killed on the job in El Salvador in 1989. I feel sad for the kids left behind by war correspondents, male and female, and I wanted to write about that from the perspective of an anxious child, watching the news, hoping their parent will come home safely. It seemed perfect – a story I actually wanted to write and some decent pay for a change. I emailed Femail at The Daily Mail. The idea was taken to conference and I got a quick reply – they wanted 1800 words focusing on my feelings when my father was away and my feelings now about war correspondents leaving their children.
I wrote the piece, slightly embarrassed about having churned out yet another piece about my dad. His death has defined my whole life and I write about little else. The same picture, provided by myself, always gets used with the story (a lovely photo that his girlfriend, Shirley, took of me and dad in Greece in 1982) and I can hear my friends groan at reading the same old crap again (a few friends in particular). But, what the hell, I need the work and this was a slightly different point really – about life not being in the extremes of war and death, but in the boring bits in between, the bits you miss if you don’t show up. That’s what’s sad about leaving your kids behind for war – something I personally chose not to do when I had the very brief (and usually regretted) opportunity.
A few days after filing I got my copy back with massive edits in block capitals throughout the text. ‘HOW DID YOU FEEL?’ ‘HOW DOES YOUR HUSBAND FEEL?’ The capitals were things the person working on my piece wanted me to add. However, the rest of the text had been heavily cut and rewritten, but the changes were unmarked. If I’d been in a hurry I could easily have missed them. Lines like; ‘I strongly disagree with Janine di Giovanni,’ (I don’t) and ‘That made me sit bolt upright’ (it didn’t) had been inserted.
Bear in mind, this was an emotional first person piece, so to slip in first person additions about feelings this copy editor had obviously not had, and under my name, was distinctly odd. I mentioned this to her and she said, very sweetly, that these were only suggestions and I must, of course, write in my own voice. Fair enough, I thought. Oh, and I was instructed that the paper does not begin paragraphs with the letter ‘I’, even as the first letter of a longer word. The copy editor herself admitted that this was weird.
So, I reworked the piece as requested, hardly noticing that instead of reworking the piece I had written myself, I was now reworking the someone else’s reworking – restructured, heavily cut and angled as an attack on women leaving their children for war. Don’t get me wrong – I hate to see people macho-ing off to have fun in the basement bar of a war -torn hotel, feeling at the centre of life and death, important, endangered, living for the moment…adrenalin addiction blah blah blah. But I’m only jealous really, and feel left behind even by people to whom I’m not remotely related. The attack on Janine di Giovanni (a friend and a brilliant journalist who can live her life exactly as she chooses, without any input from me, obviously) kept reappearing and I kept deleting it.
I deleted it a few times too many and the piece I had thought hard about and cared very much about got spiked. I knew it had been spiked because, after a flurry of frantic emails back and forth as deadline approached, The Mail suddenly stopped replying to my messages about the piece. Eventually, still desperate to insert a line about Harry Evans making a speech at my father’s funeral about why journalism is worth dying for (oh, please), I received this: ‘Just to keep you in the loop, the piece is not in tomorrow’s paper but will be relisted next week and beyond if need be. Do speak to X if you have any queries then.’
I emailed X about invoicing for a kill fee (since now it was as near explicit as they get that the article had been killed), but I got no reply. Over the past ten years or so it has become acceptable simply to ignore correspondence from journalists as a way of rejecting their pitches, or even, in my recent experience, as a painless way of sacking them from a regular slot after years of working together. It is hard even to feel properly upset about it, as it’s just the deal these days.
Of course, the spike meant that I didn’t get to the next phase of feature writing for The Mail - being styled and photographed. There is a tacit understanding (whether true or false in actuality) that the editor of The Daily Mail doesn’t like women to appear on the pages of the paper wearing either trousers or dark colours. Last time I was styled for them someone came round with a rack of red and purple evening dresses and lots of matching satin shoes. Just have a look at the paper and you’ll see that this is something of a theme.
Anyway, the whole experience was so depressing that I pitched this here article to a magazine I thought might like it. The editor sympathised with my experience and had, indeed, once shared it, however, they couldn’t take the Mail-bashing piece because it might start people complaining about their own editorial practices. She said The Mail quite often bought pieces from her magazine, tried to get the journalist to rewrite in weirdy Mail style and from weirdy Mail angle (ideally starting what they would probably call a ‘cat fight’) and then spiked them if ‘the writer wouldn’t play ball.’
I won’t drag anyone else in here, but I have lots of journalist friends who have been invited to stitch themselves up, expose themselves far beyond what they intended and make themselves look stupid in words and pictures all for a bit of book publicity and a few hundred quid. I am not denying that we do this to ourselves, but the process is designed to produce an article that we did not initially know we were writing. It is a very complex deception. I now know that what they wanted from me was a piece saying; ‘How dare Janine di Giovanni and Alex Crawford leave their poor children to go away to war. They are women and should stay at home with the children.’ That’s not the piece I intended to write but that would have been the essence of the headline.
I am acutely aware that I will no longer be on the receiving end of that few hundred Associated Press quid and very welcome book publicity, but I have started to think that we shouldn’t do it and we shouldn’t keep quiet about it.
Just because our phones aren’t being hacked, doesn’t mean we haven’t been exposed and embarrassed in the press – we do it to ourselves without quite allowing ourselves to notice.
PS. I am 41, have just ‘penned’ another frivolous piece, am thinking of ‘stepping out’ in a new pair of shoes, worrying about ‘taking a tumble’, considering why I got sucked into ‘THAT’ correspondence and wondering; ‘Why the glum face, Mr Cameron?’ etc. etc. in Mail style ad nauseum.