Journalism, ethics and the movement

4 February 2011


This is the last of three posts dealing with Laurie Penny’s New Statesman piece on the student movement and how the movement relates to journalists. Part one is here and part two here.

Turns out it’s not easy to decide how the movement, such as it is, should relate to the press. There are no simple, clear lines here. As mentioned in my last post, the Free School have chosen total hostility to all mainstream media – check communique #2 for more, and their amazing ‘paywall’ here. They’re probably right. A project like theirs – carving out space for re-imagining education – doesn’t need the media, and might be actively harmed by it (imagine a swarm of journos, present at various point at the UCL occupation, invading a session. Hardly ‘free’).

But the UCL occupation was a bit different. We were, in some ways, doing the same thing. But we were also campaigning for a specific national goal, on a deadline: pressuring, pushing and shaming MPs into rejecting the increase in fees, and attempting to get our management to do the same. I think press coverage largely helped, though that doesn’t mean all of it, or not criticising it. One size doesn’t fit all.

The Free School communique is worth having another look at. It doesn’t say “fuck off if you’re a journalist”. It’s more like “you can’t do your journalism here”. From what I’ve heard, a distinction is drawn between ‘journalists’ and ‘people who also happen to be a journalist for their job’ – no one is going to kick you out for owning a press card if you behave by the rules. Journalists can be activists (and people!) too.

That’s a problem for any hard and fast set of ethics for left-wing journalists. What exactly is a journalist? I write a blog, lots of people from UCL write personal blogs, or for more established blogs, and even articles for magazines and newspapers on occasion. In the same way, Laurie Penny started as a blogger, and is clearly a different kind of journalist to Newsnight’s Paul Mason (who turned up frequently, and also… has a blog), though both, I think, would describe themselves as left-wingers of some sort. Then there are journalists like Kate of Hangbitching, doing the hard slog of travelling around and talking to people to get the anti-cuts news out there, mostly online but also occasionally in the dreaded mainstream media. Drawing the ‘journalist’ line – deciding who should be subject to the kind of demands I’m coming to – gets complicated, and it’s a question those of us who write publicly and participate as activists can’t ignore.

Partly I think it rests on the kind of piece being written. Anyone who turns up, is verifiably an at least vaguely on-side journalist, and says “I’m going to write an opinion piece on what I think” is much less likely to do damage. Lifestyle or colour pieces (the awful “Inside X movement” style the New Statesman and Guardian love so much, for example) are much more problematic. They purport to be truthful pictures of actions or movements, and have little room for the author’s politics to be clearly stated. Or, in the worst cases, any politics at all.

I’m starting to think these kinds of articles just aren’t useful for a movement, or a good use of time for activist-aligned journalists. That’s not to say, though, that honest, left-leaning, factual reportage from inside movements can’t be done, or is never helpful. It just doesn’t need the well-turned curlicues of sentences, the piped-on passion of so many ‘insider’ articles. So please, journalist comrades (comrade journalists?) by all means tell it like it is. But here’s some things you might want to consider first.

1. Don’t invite yourself
Contact squats, occupations, organising groups or meetings first to ask if you’re welcome. Never just turn up. You’re likely to get a much more hostile response if you admit you’re a journalist after walking into the middle of a general meeting than if you’ve contacted someone first to advise you want to come and have a look (this probably doesn’t apply to demonstrations, where movements go public).

2. Identify yourself, identify yourself, then do it again
Always make it clear you’re a journalist. Don’t assume everyone you speak to knows who you are, no matter how famous, or that they saw you flash your credentials in a meeting, even if it was five minutes ago. Say you’re a journalist as soon as you open your mouth, and before they open theirs.

3. Check your motives
Remember that while you’re embedded in a movement your interest is not necessarily congruent with everyone else’s. For example, in an anti-cuts group or trade union organising meeting, their struggle to save their jobs might be directly fuelling your job/career. You’re getting something out of activists’ hard work, even if you’re not a careerist and you don’t mean to. Keep your relative privilege in mind, particularly your ability to speak much louder, in press terms, than the actual workers/students/activists waging this fight.

4. Don’t go native
Maybe you’re an activist on your day off. Maybe you’re a full-on, man-the-barricades revolutionary. But if you’re reporting on a movement, you cannot participate in it on equal terms with anyone else. If you participate in decision-making you’re creating the story, not relating it. Bear point 3 in mind too; remember you’re here, at least in part, because it’s your job. Keep a professional distance – a one-foot-in-one-foot-out stance can leave activists feeling betrayed when you finally publish and they remember you’re a journo, not a comrade.

5. Let us speak for ourselves
You likely have contacts and strings to be pulled on in the world of the press. Use these where possible to facilitate the movement speaking for itself – writing articles collectively, for example – rather than just to get yourself work. Ask in collective meetings for the group to discuss how they do and don’t want to be presented and be honest about any pressures on you, like editorial lines or briefs. If there’s a press team or media guidelines, work with them to the letter. Read all press releases, keep on top of decisions made in meetings.

6. Don’t make shit up
In on-the-record discussions (clearly noted as such to all participants) take notes, use sound recorders, and collect contact information. Don’t be tempted to include speech you haven’t got a clear record of, even if you think you can remember it. Get in touch with anyone you’ve quoted before publication to check they’re happy with your record of their words. Do not quote anyone you can’t contact, even if they’re not named explicitly. You might be accused of making them or their words up.

7. Don’t get offended
Regardless of how committed you are to the cause, there will be meetings to be had and decisions to be made that it’s not appropriate for you to be part of – for example, in occupations, legal strategy is often under wraps from the press in case it harms defendents. If asked to leave, leave. Do not throw a strop, or complain. This will only make nice people – and we’re mostly nice people – feel guilty, and question their right to exclude you next time.

8. Leave your feelings at the door
This might be the first political thing you’ve been involved in, or the hundredth. Either way, it’s important to get a sober, grounded assessment of what’s going on and where it’s going from experienced and less-experienced activists alike. Just because you’re excited/optimistic/keen or sceptical/pessimistic/unimpressed doesn’t mean these feelings should necessarily form the basis of your writing. Ask lots of others how they feel about it.

9. Own your politics
If you feel compelled to take a particular political viewpoint on the debates inside a movement or action, say so and say why. Don’t airbrush division to back up your ideas. It’s far more honest and useful to say “Some people said/did this, I don’t agree”. Then responses can be in the form of political ideas, ten million times more productive than arguing over the ‘true’ nature of a movement.

10. Synecdoche, No Thanks
If you only checked out one or two parts of a much broader movement, don’t make them represent the whole. Stick to them, or go do some more visiting.

These are off the top of my head, and may be coloured by repeated bad experiences with our media-producing comrades. So thoughts, comments and critiques are very much welcome.