On journalism, subjectivity and the movement

28 January 2011


This is the first of three posts on journalism, subjectivity and the movement. Part two is now up here. The article by Laurie Penny it critiques can be found online here

This week’s New Statesman is leading with a cover piece by Laurie Penny on the British student protest movement. I’ve known about this for a while, having been asked to feature in it, alongside my partner – the piece profiles several activists from the UCL occupation, which we took part in. We declined, feeling that being profiled doesn’t really fit our politics (but obviously have nothing against the individuals who did choose to feature – it’s just not for us). So imagine my surprise when, not having read the piece yet, Laurie told me last night that I’m quoted: I am the ‘girl in a grey hoodie’ in the beginning of the piece. Here’s what “I” have to say:

“People have to stop talking about us like we’re just idealistic kids,” says a girl in a grey hoodie, jabbing her roll-up in my direction. “We’re on the front line of a class war. We have a better understanding of this government’s economic shock doctrine than most adults.”

This is far from what I actually said. And this blog is going to largely be about why that matters.

For a start, I didn’t say “idealistic kids”. I am idealistic. Particularly when the flipside is so often ‘pragmatic’, that horrible New Labour dog-whistle for ‘not radical’. What I said was ‘romantic’. And I said romantic because Laurie and I were talking about the political problems I have with the tone and message of many of her recent articles (in particular, this one on Millbank). So it’s not ‘people’ who have to stop believing we’re idealistic. It’s Laurie who needs to stop writing us up as romantic. Big difference. Big elision.

Laurie has, to be fair, taken some of my criticisms on board here. The paragraph about hard work above the quote (“a hub of light and activity…”) reads in similar way to my New Statesman piece, explicitly written to counter the romanticisation of the movement that render it sexy, fun and ultimately non-threatening, toothless. But too much of this same myth-making creeps into this piece; the paragraph on the snow, the image of “members of the so-called lost generation” pressing “their faces against the glass”, running outside “interrupting a debate” to check it out, rings very false. It certainly didn’t happen like that while I was there. Because we’re serious, and committed, and not five years old. It makes us seem sweet. We’re not fucking sweet.

The deployment of the generational metaphor matters here too. Going back to ‘the girl in a grey hoodie’ (I’m 24, do I get to be a woman yet?), ‘I’ say: “We’re on the front line of a class war. We have a better understanding of this government’s economic shock doctrine than most adults.”

So, OK, I’ll cop to probably having said the class war bit, because that’s the kind of overly hard-edged, bombastic shit I’d say in a late night, private, friendly chat. I’m a bit of a show pony, and sometimes the politics slides to the rhetorical over the realistic. We all have our faults. But ‘shock doctrine’? I’m a revolutionary socialist. I have literally never used that formulation, and I can’t imagine I ever will. It’s just not in my political vocabulary, or that of most comrades who’ve spent more time on picket lines and demos than reading the New Statesman. So why put these words in my mouth?

Worse is the ‘we’ (youth) understanding more than ‘adults’. I am an adult. Some of my best friends are adults. This isn’t teenagers v. grown-ups, particularly not for me, as one of the older occupiers. And Laurie knows that I’m a vociferous critic of the generational struggle argument, which makes raising the spectre of it here, in ‘my’ words, all the more dishonest.

So, I get anonymously misquoted by a journalist (though while portrayed enough for UCL occupiers to guess it’s me – class war, roll-ups, the ever present grey hoodie..). Big deal, big cliche, they do it all the time etc. I’m just being precious.

But this isn’t like your recorded, interview-style, on-record words being taken out of context, or mangled a bit. Laurie wasn’t recording our conversation, or taking notes. I thought we were talking as activists, acquaintances, even friends. This isn’t a misquote, because no original quote exists. It’s a fabrication. And a betrayal of trust, albeit a small one, that is potentially stifling. Would we have agreed to let Laurie become so embedded in the occupation if we knew anything we said, at any point, might become ‘on-the-record’, however misremembered and spun? If this is how we’re doing journalism now, better watch what you say. All the time.

In the warm-up piece for the longer article, Laurie argues that objectivity is both impossible and undesirable, as a defence of being very clearly pro-activist here. She’s right. But there’s another kind of objectivity, not relating to which side you sympathise with: the objectivity of relating events and words truthfully, as they actually happened or were said. Having a good line on one kind of objectivity, the being on our side kind, is not a defence for too often ignoring the other. There are huge problems with ‘going native’ – reporting from the inside, subjectively, means reporting your subjective experience. Articles get filled with your analysis, your ideas, with you. That’s fine if you’re writing a political column, where it’s clear. But a lifestyle or colour piece is different – subjective views here are more easily hidden, harder to spot and evaluate. There aren’t just two sides to this, “outside” and “inside”. The inside has differences and nuances, and the decision to play up some of these – internet, youth, the wonders of consensus – is political.

Laurie’s subjective view, her political choices, are high-profile, unlike mine or yours. Her points are powerful, because thousands read them in the NS or Guardian. This power should be used with more care if Laurie is on our side, not just in it.

There’s more to say on the piece in general, outside of my frustration at being the grey hoodie girl, which I’ll fill in tomorrow.

Part two is now online here.