On journalism, subjectivity and the movement, again

31 January 2011


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

Outside of my anger at having private words twisted and served up to suit an agenda I don’t subscribe to, which I’ll happily admit is a relatively small issue, there are other political problems with the one-size-fits-all style of the piece, which while emphasising our lack of leaders, airbrushes problems and dissent. There’s an uncomfortable sentence at the beginning where the UCL occupation is labelled “the unofficial London headquarters of a national youth movement”. This is pretty unhelpful, as well as chiming oddly with the no leaders claim; UCL got so much media attention, due to a convenient location and a good media team, that if I was from another occupation I’d be pretty hacked off with it by now. Not all occupations were like us, in activist make-up, ideas, organisation or anything else. It’s interesting to look at UCL promotion in relation to the politics Laurie espouses. We conveniently fit, in some senses, the model of new, young, non-Trotskyist activists, whereas other occupations don’t; their political make-up reflected tensions more clearly, in a way that’s harder to airbrush out (see, for example, Leeds).

It’s true then, when Laurie says Ben is “one of a minority of student protesters with a background in far-left politics”. But only if far-left politics means ‘organised revolutionary socialist groups’. But it doesn’t. The hard work of building and maintaining an activist presence on campus when nothing so high-profile was going on, laying the foundations that made occupation possible, was the work of a group of UCL activists who I think would very much consider themselves to be hard-left: socialists, anarchists, radical greens. And some of them, some of us, are the people who are coming up against this generational, consensus-based, romantic vision the hardest. But we’re not here. None of the disagreement is here.

Some apparent agreement, which didn’t take place, is though. There was no vote on banning ‘sex in the toilets’, not that I saw or heard of. If sex was raised, it may have been to remind people that having sex while we’re all in such close quarters would be a bit anti-social. But there was no common line of ‘straight edged sexual abstinence’. Who cares how we conducted our sex lives in occupation anyway? Why is it any of the New Statesman’s readership’s business? It strikes me as creepy, and unfortunately provides the ridiculous title: ‘No drugs. No sex. And no leaders’. I don’t have much to say on this, because I literally just. don’t. get. it. Is having sex meant to be shorthand for wild hedonism (ooh, edgy) and our apparent rejection of it supposed to figure as a mark of our seriousness? We’re all adults, yeah, we are allowed to have sex lives. In private. Away from occupiers and journalists. Weird…

Then there’s the gender issue. Apparently in occupation meetings ‘the voices of women and younger pupils [were] given priority’. This simply isn’t true. There was real anger at various points over facilitation styles, the tone of speeches, people talking for too long, etc. putting off women and less experienced activists (there’s some interesting overlap here). I’m not claiming this is only a problem of consensus decision-making (you might argue it’s a failure to do it properly, and it’s an issue the whole left suffers from), and maybe a critique of it wouldn’t fit here. But even so, there was no need to explicitly state that it wasn’t a problem. That lets people who behaved badly, or who didn’t notice, off the hook – we should all be thinking about this stuff, not being smugly self-satisfied that we’re inclusive. Given the sidelining of women is such a common problem in all movements it’s odd to see a feminist writer glibly decide it wasn’t going on with us.

The same strange failure to probe more deeply, on feminist grounds, is evident in the profile of Sarah versus the profiles of Ben and Aaron. Laurie rightly says Sarah did lots of the shit, boring drudgery of political life – “organising meetings, making sure the younger ones are listened to”, to which I’d add security shifts, legal work, facilitating, cleaning up – but concludes this means she’s ‘really running the show’, compared to the ‘dramatic male activists’. There’s a massive problem for feminists with women being stuck doing so much of the daily reprodutive, even domestic, work of occupation. But it’s not explored here. Instead the image is uncomfortably close to the old sexist stereotype of this domestic labour giving women real power, the “who runs the home runs the world” bollocks. Actually we’d love to be able to stomp around being demagogic on flash mobs, or even just sit around talking ideas more, but the burden of this labour, which women more often feel responsible for, prevents us. You don’t run the occupation from the kitchen – you’re excluded from it, from setting the agenda and participating in the politics, in large part.

Laurie’s feminism and my feminism are different, and we’ve clashed over it before, but I think we can all agree that any feminism needs to be taken into whatever movement we’re in, whichever struggle we’re conducting, and kept sharp as a critical tool in all activism. I can’t see that here, and this isn’t whataboutery – oh you didn’t mention my ism! – it’s another example of the lack of reflection, the attempt to portray the movement as unified and holistic and romantic where it’s actually fractured and complicated and political. And all the better for being so.

This brings us back to the question of subjective political reporting, of journalists immersing themselves in a movement and reflecting back their own ideas rather than a fair picture of what’s actually happening on the ground. Subjectivity here seems to be used as a defence of selective reporting. From the collection of articles Laurie has produced on the student movement – notably ‘Out with the old politics’ for the Guardian – it’s clear that she has a particular political line on what the movement looks like and where it should and shouldn’t go. Rejection of the ‘old order’ (Organised groups and trade unions), non-hierarchal networks (or so they seem…), young versus old and pragmatism over ideology are the order of the day. The piece finishes with a claim for the plurality of the movement:

We have never spoken in just one voice. We speak in hundreds of thousands of voices – voices that are being raised across Europe, not in unison but in harmony.

The New Statesman piece doesn’t have these voices – as we’ve seen, there’s no dissent, no problematics, no arguments, just the romantic energy of angry youth. The desire to push this viewpoint, to portray the UCL occupation as the ideal-type of Laurie’s ‘new politics’ stretches even to the point of changing ‘quotes’ to fit her subjective political view of the movement.

It’s possible to conclude this doesn’t matter. After all, Laurie’s journalism is just one voice in the ‘hundreds of thousands’. But it’s necessary to look at the power relations here. Acknowledging the existence of multiple voices and networks and viewpoints is meaningless while one voice – the journalist’s – gets to report on, define and give edges to the supposedly amorphous and pluralistic movement. This isn’t a particular problem of Laurie Penny’s journalism. It’s a problem for political journalism as a whole, even more so for those hacks who really genuinely feel they’re on our side. Laurie defends her right to be subjective, to take a political stance, in her introductory piece, following it with:

It is, nonetheless, important for liberal writers to retain distance where corporate flunkies refuse to, lest our romanticism – and left-wing politics are, at heart, always romantic – be mistaken for propaganda.

Laurie anticipates here the critique from the right – “you’re not objective enough, your piece is just propaganda” – but fails to imagine a critique from the movement itself: perhaps ‘liberal’ writers ought to retain distance to avoid promoting their own idea of what a movement is or should be, at the expense of other ideas and currents. The introductory piece is insufficient as an exploration of subjectivity, truth and journalist power – exemplified by the claims it makes for the movement (‘deeply romantic’ and ‘desperately idealistic’) which are themselves political and non-objective, and fit right into this ‘new politics’ argument.

Again there’s a the problem of an imagined binary – inside/outside the movement – being applied here. ‘The movement’ as a united, discernable, whole entity doesn’t exist. Which facets, or people, of the disparate collection of anti-cuts initiatives and groups you choose to focus on necessarily colours your interpretation of what the politics of it are. If Laurie had spent two weeks with the RMT, or a community anti-cuts campaign, or the working-class kids out in force for the demonstration days, the sense of our ‘movement’ (s?) would be very different. As it is, she embedded herself with the UCL occupation; it should be starkly obviously to anyone, let alone an activist, that a group of mostly middle-class students at an elite university aren’t representative of any political movement in its entirety, or even in significant part.

So what would a truly useful, engaged piece of journalism look like? You might take the line, the extremely tempting line, from the Free School; hostility to the press, or at least strict guidelines – no collective communication except via the website, all conversations at the school off-the-record, no legitimacy for one person to speak for all. But it depends on what you’re trying to achieve. In retrospect, this is a conversation we should have had at the UCL occupation, and the Free School have it partly right, I think. It should be a case of deciding how we want journalists to behave, and telling them, rather than deciding how we, as activists, will engage with them, the press.

So for the final part of this critique, I’m going to look at some of the potential ethics activists might suggest to left-wing journalists looking to report on our movements/groups/actions.