Category Archives: Journalism

Hold the front page!

On the night that Princess Diana died, I had just flown back from Los Angeles and, jet-lagged, was finding it hard to sleep. An hour or two before the death was officially announced, a newscaster on the BBC World Service, in the description they supplied for those few people in the universe who might not know who she was, slipped up and used the past tense. It was immediately clear that the crash was way more than the fender-bender that, around 3am, was being reported.

In August 1997, I hadn’t really worked as a journalist for several years, and, as a freelance, never had worked in a newsroom (although I’d been in several), and so my reaction surprised me. I longed to get on the phone and start writing before the story fully broke.

friday__1308944158_2434 In the days that followed, and as the scale of national grieving filled the front pages, I felt that my own reaction had been ghoulish and cynical. Yet I couldn’t disown that spontaneous rush of excitement that this was such a great story!

Like the scent of battle in the nostrils of a retired war-horse, the nose for a good story never leaves you. That instinct became the life force for Ivo Sweatman, the scabrous tabloid crime reporter in my new novel Good Girls Don’t Die.

I did once write regularly for two Murdoch-owned papers – The Times and Today – and was once in a room with him as my features editor was ordered either to make a call she regarded as distasteful and unnecessary, or clear her desk. I hate everything that News International has done to the British press. But I can’t condemn Ivo Sweatman for his war-horse instincts: there’s a treasured part of myself deep within him that makes me forgive his sins.

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Where I Was From

I went this last weekend to stay with a friend I have known since I was 16. Our mothers, too, were friends. Much about her new home overlooking the sea I was seeing for the first time, especially the idyllic flower garden she has created, but many of the unusual pictures and pieces of furniture were familiar. I had not seen them for many years, and they took me back not only to the Norwegian log cabin in which her mother had lived in Cheshire but to my own late teenage years, so that I was seeing my former self, and the origins of this old friendship, in a new context.

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That interface of past and present, both unsettling and full of fondness, takes me back to a Writer’s Choice I contributed earlier this year to the wonderful weblog of Norman Geras which was about Joan Didion’s first memoir, Where I Was From. You can read it here.

Wishes and beliefs

I have just finished reading an excellent piece of journalistic non-fiction, Our Guys by Bernard Lefkowitz. Subtitled The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb, it chronicles how the inhabitants of an affluent New Jersey town rallied around not the victim but the high school football ‘heroes’ who inserted a broom and baseball bat into a girl they’d known since childhood, a girl with a mental age of eight.

The rape took place in 1989. With recurrent gang-rape cases involving athletes (all too often footballers) both here and in the US, nothing much seems to have changed in a generation.

What such cases have in common with how the BBC or Chetham’s School of Music or the Catholic Church have all handled allegations of sexual abuse is what Lefkowitz calls ‘a corruption of decent intent’.

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The greater the ‘decency’ of the institution involved, the harder it becomes for those tasked with upholding that decency to trust fragile, uncorroborated, immature, distasteful testimony, and the more reluctant they become to perceive sufficient cause to wound the reputation of a beloved ideal with which they themselves identify. Those who work for a prestigious institution – or cherish the image of a community like Glen Ridge – want it to remain good and unsullied. Wishes become beliefs: victims easily become unreliable, undeserving, predatory, while abusers become tragic victims of a momentary lapse, a witch-hunt, ‘boys will be boys’.

The reason such boys regard themselves as omnipotent is that an institution confers special status on them. The footballer, charismatic music teacher, priest or charity fund-raiser is encouraged to see their own aggressive dominance as heroic; the more they get away with it, the more they internalize the right to dominate.

The symbiotic relationship between institution and abuser means that disowning a hero, one of ‘our guys’, appears to damage or shame the beloved institution. Then the institution appears frail, in need of protection, requiring its leaders to vigorously defend it by attacking the suddenly powerful source of the threat against it. In Glen Ridge – for example – the ‘powerful’ threat was a local schoolgirl with a mental age of eight who couldn’t say no to the gang of ‘jocks’ she idolized. Very few people in that ‘all-American’ suburb spoke up in her defence. Their wish to protect their psychological investment in their beloved ‘institution’ overcame their own vaunted morality.

Cultural grooming

Jimmy Savile hid in plain sight, and got away with abusing mainly vulnerable or defenceless girls for decades. The victims themselves were either groomed by Savile never to speak out or did speak out but were not believed. Colleagues were either genuinely blind or ‘conditioned’ by Savile not to see clearly. Savile must have put as much effort into grooming and conditioning as he did into perpetrating the abusive acts, and no doubt his ‘duping delight’ hugely augmented his pleasure. You can see it on his face.

Like all victims of fraud, those who ‘should’ have realised what was happening are left feeling foolish, guilty and slightly ashamed. But Savile – like a Harold Shipman or a Bernie Madoff – was very good at what he did. That’s why he got away with it.

But there is another group – and I was tempted to believe that it includes some of those interviewed in the recent Panorama documentary ‘Jimmy Savile – What the BBC Knew’ – who did know (or strongly suspected) what was going on but who chose to remain silent. Why?

Suzanne Moore has written in today’s Guardian about ‘how supposedly “good guys” did nothing to stop it, and how girls are never really to be trusted. Or never actually a priority.’

One transparent reason appeared to be shared by several of those interviewed: I wouldn’t have been believed and so my credibility, reputation or career would have been at stake. Why would I risk that?

The common assumption seems to be that we’d all be entirely sympathetic to the way in which they answered the question ‘Why risk my job?’. In other words, we’ve been ‘conditioned’ not to question the assumption that a white middle-class male’s job may ultimately be of greater value than the body of a vulnerable young girl. Savile traded very successfully on that assumption.

Maybe we all need to ask ourselves whether we too easily let ourselves be ‘groomed’ into silencing our own voices in favour of a status quo that may not care to examine how easily other priorities took precedence over Savile’s victims.

Plot doesn’t matter

For the past few years I have been Writing Tutor on the MA Screen at Drama Centre, Central St Martin’s. The students are thrown in at the deep end, with a tight and difficult brief to write a 10’ short that will showcase the actors on the course and also give the student directors something to get their teeth into.

Students often arrive with a project they’ve been nursing for a while. I see my job as to get them away from a cherished idea (which they can return to later) and to develop the ability to generate stories fluently and quickly, while simultaneously exploring what most interests them, what ideas, themes and predicaments drive them to write.

This new ad for The Guardian demonstrates perfectly what I do. (Except that I use ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.)

 

 

Maybe it’s my own background as a journalist, that I’m trained to go looking for the story, but what I try to teach is that plot doesn’t matter, plot comes last, all that counts is story, and story is “what it’s about”. Plot is merely a way to dramatise an idea – and the only way to do that in drama is through character.

The new gonzo

I decided to call it a day as a journalist when, years ago, the new young features editor of a large-circulation monthly women’s magazine to which I contributed didn’t know what Watergate was. (What was worse, she had no interest in finding out: why go into journalism if you lack curiosity?) So, glued recently to the Twitter-stream about NewsCorp, it has been as if the good old days are come again.

I went into journalism inspired as a teenager by the Washington Post, by TV coverage of Vietnam or Kent State, and by Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

As a freelance journalist in the late 1970s and ‘80s, I wrote regularly for two Murdoch papers, The Times and the now defunct Today (stalking horse for the battle with the print unions over computer typesetting), both before and after he acquired them.

It was difficult then to pinpoint the sea-change on both papers, but it was there: a shift in priorities, a coarsening, a sense of internal competition and fear, a culture of bullying that labelled you a wimp if you talked about ethical standards.

It is easy now to show where, thirty years later, it has led. To the arrest of two former newspaper editors who intimidated political leaders with impunity; a total distortion of the balance of power between politics and the old concept of the Fourth Estate; and a bizarre new twist in the ages-old relationship between reporters and corrupt cops.

What has also changed is that I followed it all on the new Gonzo journalism that is Twitter.
#givesmehope