Fast fingers and a bigmouth: The journalistic confessions of a man who can't do anything else

I can't and don't want to do anything else. That's surely a sign of madness.

I’ve burned more bridges than retreating Nazis. Had more fights than a boxer with short-term memory loss. Fought more losing battles than a one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest. For me, journalism and writing are both trades and an opportunity to conduct a decades-long guerilla war campaign in the jungles of conformity, spite and avarice, pitting my pop-gun against the massed artillery of the arsehole/columnist confederation, a group more dangerous than even Eisenhower imagined the military/industrial complex to be.

This tilt towards the nostalgic is inspired by two things: One — a lack of sleep that has slipped from inconvenient into a kind of narcotic wonder; and two — reading a piece on Unherd (I know, I know, I do it to myself… I do) on the job that myself and my peers laughingly still refer to as “a trade”. Emerging soot-faced from the stinking content mines, Sarah Ditum — usually to be found toiling away terrifyingly in the trans wars — hacked up half a lung and wrote fairly honestly about her progression through the ugly world of British journalism. And I related… a bit.

Journalism was already on the fast train to Fucksville when I emerged blinking and broke from the chrysalis of Cambridge University, a punkish moth rather than the beautiful butterfly that teachers and dons had assured me the time, effort, and cash would buy me. It turned out that the other requirement was to have emerged from a womb owned by a rich woman and impregnated by a rich man. I had carelessly neglected to do that. So off I went to learn my trade at Pensions World magazine before swiftly tilting towards tech journalism, then onto music, then into the dark magic world of the newspaper comment desks and other hives of scum and villainy.

If journalism is a war — and I treat it like it is — I arrived at the time when establishment forces were backed into a corner, shooting wildly, and getting their plan together for a retreat to the embassy and a helivac to the stinking safe harbours of public relations, consultancies, and think-tanks. But while they closed ranks and started running, I wandered through the city with a moth-eaten flak jacket and an AK-47 snatched from a rebel corpse.

I had no idea how I was going to get out of this place but was hopped up on brain chemicals and excitement that I was getting to tell any stories, no matter how hard it was to get them commissioned. I was being shot by all sides and told that I should smile about it.

In the journalism wars, the discourse skirmishes, of the oughts, comment desks became the shock troops and the snipers, the place that brought in more kills than anywhere else. They were dark, cynical cruel places and I, being an angry young man with bile to spare, was a useful weapon for commissioning editors with a job to do and no qualms about pressing the ‘fire and forget’ button. Ditum writes for Unherd:

I developed a routine for picking up this kind of work. Every morning started with the Today programme, scanning Twitter, reading the headlines, especially reading the headlines in the Mail, in search of something that I could be mad enough about to write 600-800 hundred fiery words on it.

Being mad was important because the economics of this kind of content required fast output (since timeliness is critical) and high engagement (since this is how editors, and writers, measure success). I write quickly when I’m angry, and anger begets more anger, so people are more likely to share and react.

Not everything I wrote when this was my main form of journalism was bad, but only some of it was good, and the worst of it had a dishonesty that made me feel ashamed: I was deliberately riling myself so I could rile other people in turn, and the arguments I offered had a kind of incuriosity, a clamshell quality, where the main thing to recommend them was how impervious I could make them to critique.

If she was so ashamed she would have stopped. I have also talked about my guilt and shame about writing fast-response comment. I, like Ditum, needed the money. But my guilt didn’t come until later after I had resigned from The Telegraph before they could fire me after I had started on a journey to refusing to write opinions for the sake of it after I had basically given up on making a proper living in favour of scraping and surviving barely. A big mouth had got me a career in journalism, now it was destroying everything I ever got my hands on. My Midas touch turned everything into ashes.

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In her piece, Ditum gets half-way to a revelation:

People have always thought badly of hacks (I remember a secondary teacher who, when I told her I wanted to be a journalist, looked appalled and said: “But you’ll have to do some awful things”), but today journalism occupies a strange niche of being low reward and low prestige, yet still high resentment. There’s an assumption that writers have reserves of wealth and power which means the public is entitled to a piece of them.

The fact is that people who work at tabloids — and I include The Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph in that category as tabloid is a mindset now, not just a format — do spend huge amounts of their working lives doing awful things and they revel in it.

And while Ditum — and I — do not have reserves of wealth to draw on, a lot of the hereditary hack class do. They marry each other. They keep their wealth among them. They make journalism an ever more inbred, ignorant and dogshit industry while pretending that they are just like you and me.

Ditum concludes her article by saying:

Journalism still matters — however few people buy a paper, the front pages continue to strike righteous terror into politicians. I still love my work. But if I had the choice to make a third time, I don’t know if I would, or even could, go into journalism again.

I would. I would do it all again. Every painful moment. Every time I didn’t get promoted or paid properly. Every time I nearly broke down completely. Every fuck up and failure. Because journalism isn’t a trade to me, it’s a pathology. I am Kurtz in the jungle, waiting and planning. I am Malcolm Tucker admitting that the job has taken him over, that it “fucks me from arsehole to breakfast”.

While there are many journalists that can start out as Trotskyites and end up as Telegraph columnists, I’ve gone the other way: From mildly centrist to radically Marxist. If I continue this way, by the time I retire, it’ll not be an option because I’ll be dragging my sorry arse through a jungle somewhere, hunting the last of the fascist holdouts… or I’ll just be in the pub, writing something for not enough money, to be seen by not enough eyeballs about something that really matters.

Fuck writing. It’s all I’ve got.

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