We Know It and They Know It – It’s The Emperor’s New Clothes
(A quick response to all your comments and messages – could probably do with a really good Daily Mail-style edit…)
The response to a blog I wrote about writing for The Daily Mail has been astonishing. I have had hundreds of messages, mostly from journalists who have had similar experiences writing for The Mail and other papers and magazines. Predictably, there were a few ‘well, you are crap so what do you expect’ comments and one superb one, obviously from someone at The Mail disguising themselves as a real person, talking about the paper’s journalistic integrity, universal popularity and high standards of editorial precision. Brilliant!
All very funny and, as I hope was clear in the original blog, the main point is that we all collude in the whole humiliating charade. We beg to be allowed to write about our crises, partly in the hope of reaching out to people, perhaps offering some solidarity, but mainly in the hope of raking in some cash for writing the piece as well as we can, as meaningfully as we can, within the format. I am the first to admit that if The Mail offered me a two hundred grand a year column I would suck it right on up. Anyone who says they wouldn’t is lying or already rich. They don’t use me much because they don’t like my writing. All fair. But there is another point here, and a rather bleaker one.
I (and, yup, there’s a par beginning with an ‘I’) got one message from someone who has written a lot for The Mail. She said, simply: ‘I hate everything I write for them.’ Another said: ‘Most of us has written for The Mail at some stage or another – I under pseudonym – and I don’t suppose any of us is proud of it, but they pay so damn well.’ I got at least twenty messages from women (and one man!) who had indeed written features for The Mail and been humiliated by the lurid headline and the embarrassing rewrite. A lot more from people who had been interviewed by them, not realising how they would appear in print.
Okay, so, of course, The Daily Mail can be great fun (I love the heart-warming animal stories). It has a house style and invites only the kinds of features that sit well with the rest of its content. It has every right to demand whatever it likes of its contributors and to write whatever attention-grabbing headlines it desires. The depressing thing is that everyone involved in the features process on The Mail, and most of the other papers, from the commissioners to the writers, finds it ridiculous. Everyone knows it’s (largely misogynistic) bollocks, but as long as you don’t say so directly in the office or on the phone, you can still thrive. The editors are apologetic, the writers a bit cowed. We all of us get together and produce a piece, a product, that none of us really wants to read, that none of us, if we’re honest, would dream of reading.
It’s a perfect piece of Soviet satire. Danil Kharms couldn’t have made it up. We all toil over something we know is meaningless but we are all to afraid to admit that it’s meaningless in case we get carted off to Siberia (or, in this case, get consigned to writing for free on the internet. Ha! That is a Russian laugh, ie. a bleak sort of despairing noise, a mockery of actual amusement).
A friend of mine, a beautiful, intelligent woman, became a section editor on a Murdoch paper a few years ago. ‘I’m on the Tits Section,’ she said, knowing I would understand. Actually, I made up the section name myself years earlier when I seemed to write about little else, and there’s not even much of them to write about, God knows. She meant, clearly, that her pages of the paper would be full of blandly confessional stuff about how women can make themselves more attractive to men, better mothers and bigger consumers of the products these pages are actually put together to advertise.
Someone on the Telegraph said to me recently; ‘We’d love to change that section completely but the advertisers won’t let us.’ Straightforward enough. Almost everyone who has ever commissioned me to write a feature has rolled their eyes and said; ‘Well, you know what The Times/The Mail/The Telegraph/The Guardian is like.’ What they mean is that they’d like to produce better journalism, but they are Mailifying in order to chase sales. That is, they are going for the lowest common denominator, spelling out the complexity of human existence, particularly female existence, in garish, infantalising colour. There is a simpler world where women suffer but have long hair and satin shoes. Maybe, the reader thinks, I am a bit like them…Maybe my difficult life is simpler than I think…
But is this really what readers demand? Or, rather, would readers demand it if they knew that it was produced for them by people who themselves think it’s crap? It seems so patronising to the readers and so soul destroying for the people who have to churn it out (not just the writers).
I (there I go again) am not knocking voyeuristic first person journalism itself. I know that a lot of people hate it but I am not one of them. My first ever piece was a G2 front for The Guardian about a million years ago. I’d been chatting about a Russian boyfriend I used to have and the G2 editor (Roger Alton – now at The Times and always brutally honest) asked me to do a piece. I loved writing about the romance and snow and…well…you get it. It didn’t get rewritten in the first person by someone who wasn’t me and, though I hated the headline (Married To The Mobski – I didn’t marry him and ‘ski’ is an adjectival ending etc. etc.), it felt like something worthwhile – a nice little read for someone on the tube. That kind of entertainment journalism is not for everyone, but it’s pretty innocent.
However, it becomes a lot less innocent, basically seedy, if it isn’t really what the author wanted to say, is skewed into salaciousness and turned into something both homogeneous and fake (a horrendous combination). That has nothing to do with style guides – it is dishonest manipulation. Another message I got said; ‘Writing for The Times always leaves a bad taste in my mouth.’ This bad taste is experienced and accepted by the editors as well as the writers. The attitude is: ‘It’s what sells, so let’s swallow our pride, be slick and produce it well.’ Again, sort of fine. Newspapers are businesses and they’re all just trying to boost sales. It’s just that I don’t think many of their readers really know how it’s done.
A former magazine editor said to me this week: ‘Hacking phones? I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. We all used to hack phones back then!’ If you had someone’s mobile number, you dialled it, put in the answering service code and got their messages. Apparently, hacks used to sit around restaurant tables doing it to their friends and any celebrities whose numbers they had – just for fun.
So, back to the essential point, which is that you don’t have to hack people’s phones to stitch them up. You just have to tell someone what to do and give them enough money to ensure that they’ll swallow the bad taste, shut their eyes to the subtle deception and get on with it. And, hell, there are plenty of us out there willing, no, clamouring to take part (though my own chances are diminishing somewhat….).