Independent Thinking

On the death of journalism - and my Indy career

4th September 2013

I’m on holiday. I didn’t mean to be, but I am. I did mean to be here, in this tiny village, on a mountain in Spain. I did mean to be sitting on this hillside, gazing out at olive groves, and pine trees and a blue, blue sky. But what I meant to be doing was write. I was meant, now that I’m freelance, to be doing the kind of writing that means you can actually eat some food and pay some bills. I was meant, in fact, to be writing a little e-book. The trouble is, I didn’t have time to do the research. There are some things that still need research. Proper research, that is, which means meeting people, and talking to people, and looking at things in real life, and not just on Google. The trouble is that to do proper research, you need time. And time is very, very, very hard to find when you’re freelance.

I didn’t actually plan to be freelance. Like all journalists, I knew I probably would be one day. Like all journalists, I knew that newspapers were, and are, and unfortunately soon will be, going down the pan. This makes me more sad than I can say. I believe in journalism. I believe in the kind of journalism I was able to do at The Independent for 10 years, and the kind I did last year looking into the state of nursing, and which got me (though it seems immodest to say it) on the shortlist for a prize that bears a great writer, and journalist’s, name. I think that to look at things, as clearly as you can, and write about them, as clearly as you can, and think about them, as clearly as you can, as Orwell did, and as all good journalists should aim to do, is a good, and proper, and maybe even a noble thing to do. Doing this, or trying to do this, felt to me like a vocation. But a vocation isn’t a hobby. Someone has to pay the rent.

We all know that the clock is ticking. Even Rupert Murdoch knows that the clock is ticking. During the Leveson report, he gave newspapers five to ten years. When I was asked, last autumn, to speak about Leveson at the Battle of Ideas, I tried to think about what newspapers should and shouldn’t do, and what readers should and shouldn’t want, but actually all I could think was this: we are fiddling while Rome burns.

When I saw the play Enquirer, in an office block in the City, it felt like an elegy to an industry that was dying. It probably felt like that because it was. Some of the conversations in it, which were real conversations put into a kind of collage that made up a script, were between people I had worked with, and knew. Some of them, for example, were between Roger Alton, who was one of the nicest editors I ever worked for, and who sent me flowers when I was diagnosed with cancer, and Deborah Orr, who also used to be a colleague, and who is clever, and fierce, and kind. The play talked about Leveson. Of course it talked about Leveson. But most of all it talked about how newspapers were, or soon would be, a relict of the past. The play made me cry, but I think it made a lot of journalists cry. Deborah told me that in Glasgow, where it was first performed, in a building overlooking what used to be the shipyards, almost everyone cried. At the end, she said, the sunset they could see from the window was like a message to a dying industry from one that was already dead.

When I saw Chimerica, a couple of weeks ago, I nearly cried again. The play, which is very, very good, and talks about things plays ought to talk about, like the balance of power between East and West, and between human rights and money, and between the old world and the new, is also, in a way, an elegy to an industry that will soon be lost. It’s set largely in the US, where budgets for newspapers are still much bigger, and more lavish, than they are here. (No wonder the Washington Post needed Amazon profits to keep it going, though the irony of the man who used the internet to kill the high street bailing out the other big industry that’s being killed by the internet can hardly have been lost.) The photographer in the play, who’s trying to revive his career with a story about the “tank man” hero of Tiananmen Square, seems to be shocked that the editor isn’t all that keen to pick up the very, very big costs the story will incur. He’s even more shocked when the editor tells him he has to drop the story, for reasons to do with (Chinese) money, and power. The photographer seemed to think, as many journalists have thought, that it was his right to write the story he wanted to write. I’ve been lucky, over 10 years at The Independent, to write, at least most of the time, the stories (and columns and interviews and features) I’ve wanted to write. But you can only write them for as long as the owner wants to pay.

Newspapers are a rich man’s hobby. They’re a very good way of getting a bit of kudos, and a bit of power. They’ll get you invitations to Downing Street, and opportunities to mix with the great, and what passes for the good. What they won’t do, or hardly ever do, is make you money. The Guardian loses about £40m a year (though last year, apparently, it cut its losses by nearly a third). The Times loses about £40m a year. The Independent loses between £10m and £20m a year. Forty, twenty or even ten million is a lot of money to burn. When people bought newspapers, or, to put it in a more modern way, were happy to “pay for content”, it was bad enough. But how do you try to limit your losses when people expect their “content” - their words, their arguments, their virtual encounters with the great, the good and the reasonably talented – to be as free as the air they breathe?

The answer, it seems, is you don’t. So what you do is cut your costs. You might, for example, want to get rid of all your expensive staff writers. You might decide that “content” is something you can get from a college leaver, for 18, or 19, or 20 grand. You might even decide that the important thing isn’t to get the right words in the right order, but just to get some words – any words – down.

So, we’re losing our jobs. We journalists always knew we’d lose our jobs. We knew it in the way smokers know that sucking a little stick of tobacco gives you cancer. We knew it, but when it happens, it’s still a shock. For me, the week before it all blew up – and I think we can probably say that shouting at the editor so that he threatens to call security does count as things “blowing up” – I had been asked to address a seminar at the House of Commons and present a film for The One Show to coincide with the release of The Francis Report. One moment, I was being asked, by politicians, and TV presenters, and radio presenters, for my opinion on whatever I’d written about that morning. The next moment, I didn’t have a job. The next moment - the next day, to be a little bit more precise - I was telling Harriet Harman, on the phone, while pacing round my study, that I’d been looking forward to doing the interview we’d fixed, for a series on “women and power”, but that it didn’t seem all that appropriate any more, since I didn’t seem to have any power – and that my career as a journalist on a national newspaper seemed to have come to a sudden end.

Since then, I’ve done what freelancers do. I’ve sent a lot of emails. I’ve had a lot of meetings. I’ve discovered, as freelancers apparently often do, that most of your working hours, at least for the first few months of being freelance, are spent trying to get work. You can only do the work – or start to do the work – when the working day ends. Which means, or seems to mean, you end up working pretty much all the time.

It has been an interesting time. I don’t just mean that it’s been interesting in the way the Chinese mean interesting.  All journalists know we live in “interesting times”, and most think some boring times would make a nice change. But it really has been interesting. I’ve started reviewing regularly again – fiction, and non-fiction – for the Sunday Times. I’ve been able to do some long-form journalism for the Sunday Times magazine. I’ve written the odd column, for the Guardian, and for the Guardian’s comment website, Comment is Free, but I haven’t had to have an opinion about one of the big issues of the day, once or twice week, as I have done for the past seven years. I’ve worked with some exceptionally nice editors, and I always have what you don’t always have when you’re a staff journalist on a daily paper: the right to say no. But when I’ve looked at the next day’s front pages, for the Sky and BBC News press previews, I haven’t quite been able to decide whether it’s still my world, or not. I know it’s where my heart is. But the body also has to be fed.

Like most journalists, I want to think, and I want to write. Like most journalists, I’ve been lucky to do this for so long. Sure, we can write books, but most writers can’t earn a living any more by writing books. Or at least they can’t unless what they write about is secret codes or sadistic sex. When you’ve worked on a newspaper, and had to deal with some bullying bosses, you’re quite likely to find yourself wanting the home, and the bedroom, to be a sadism-free zone.

We’re meant to be blogging. We’re meant, in other words, to be giving the thing we used to be paid for away, in the ether, for free. Plumbers haven’t yet been told they should mend toilets for free. Builders aren’t yet expected to put in new kitchens for the thrill of being asked. But we’re all meant to be building our “brand”. I don’t know about writers as brands. I suppose a writer can be a brand. But I’d rather think writing was less about brand, and much, much more about “voice”.

So, here I am, freelance and free, on a mountain in Spain. I’m at a writers’ retreat. It’s a very lovely writers’ retreat. It has, as you’ll see from the website, if you look at it (www.oldolivepress.com), a lovely view, a lovely terrace, and a lovely pool. It also has a lovely library. When I looked at the library, and at the 3000 books I was suddenly dying to read, I thought I could be locked in that library and not be too upset if I never had to leave. It also has poets. There’s a poet, Christopher North, who runs the place with his wife, Marisa, and there’s a poet, Tamar Yoseloff, who’s running a course here now. I’m not doing it. I couldn’t, I think, write poetry, even if I tried. I used to run the Poetry Society, and I’ve worked with some of the best poets in the world. I only like good poems, and I’m pretty damn sure that any I wrote would be bad.

I’m not here to write poems. I can’t write the little e-book I was going to write, because I haven’t done the research. What I can do is write a little bit on my blog every day (or almost every day) and gaze at the mountains, and the clouds, and wander round the village, and look at the little houses, painted blue, and green, and pink, and red, and listen to the silence, and remember that sometimes what a recovering journalist needs, more than work, or money, or even a plan for the future, is sunshine, and peace.


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