“It didn’t do me any harm!” Too many chicken-shit journalists think abusive newsrooms are character building

It's like Deathstar workers thinking Darth Vader force-choking Imperials is just a motivational technique.

Chicken Snobbery is my favourite Fall b-side.* It’s definitely not my favourite ‘way of doing journalism’ because — feel free to call me unrealistic — I don’t think harassing politicians while dressed up as a chicken is journalism.

If people who dressed up as chickens to run around after elected officials had trade body it would be the Carnies, Understudies and News Tossers union.

But I’m obviously an idiot and realised this after Sophy Ridge, Sky News presenter and giant poultry outfit enthusiast wrote this about the aftermath of Lee Cain, former Daily Mirror chicken suit wearer, resigning from Downing Street:

I didn’t land my dream job thanks to family connections or the school I went to and, in fact, my first job straight out of university was organising activities at language school for foreign students. My first job in professional journalism came next: Staff Writer at Pensions World magazine. I remain hugely grateful to Stephanie Hawthorne, the editor who took a chance on me, but let me tell you, women did not exactly swoon when they heard where I worked.

I quickly progressed through the trade mags into writing occasionally for nationals (about pensions) then on to consumer magazines at Stuff before landing what I thought was my dream job at Q Magazine. It wasn’t. But you live and learn. During this early stage in my career I was never required to harass anyone while clucking, nor did I have to work for The Daily Mail. I have still never contributed a single word to a Mail title.

Tom McTague, now a staff writer at The Atlantic, writes of his time in the Mirror’s no doubt fragrant chicken suit:

I was a Mirror trainee trying to break in to the paper’s political-reporting team before the end of my three-year apprenticeship. My reward: donning a strange rubber chicken mask, sweaty plastic gloves, and an all-in-one feathered suit. I went punting in Oxford; tried to hire a top hat and tails to dress like a member of the Bullingdon Club, the infamous aristocratic drinking society; and attempted to catch Cameron and George Osborne, his chancellor, going into the Royal Albert Hall—all dressed as a chicken. It was weird and strangely fun, though I must confess to the occasional thought about the wisdom of my life choices.

All power to Tom if he found being made to run around dressed as a feathery fuckwit fun, but I wouldn’t have. I would have been mortified. My training at Pensions World involved brushing up on proofing marks, finding ways to dress up otherwise tedious articles in amusing ways (“The Joy of Flex” on flexible benefits, anyone?), and interviewing numerous boring pensions ministers. At no point did Stephanie require me to humiliate myself to prove my worth as someone who can hit a keyboard and line up words in pleasing ways.

Tabloid hacks and hacks, in general, have an almost masochistic love for this kind of story about how they were ‘hazed’ in their early days, months, or even years in newsrooms. And then the self-same people wonder why the industry is not more diverse, more welcoming to different types of reporters, writers and columnists, and most of all why people think journalists are arseholes.

Ridge’s tweet sent a lot of established journalists off into reveries about the tasks, many bordering on abuse, they had been required to do to earn their spurs:

I too am confused about why some people think British journalism is fundamentally unserious and addicted to trivia and minutiae. It’s baffling!

If ‘doing what it takes’ is still having to put up with newsrooms where news editors think it’s acceptable to scream in young reporters’ faces, where humiliating people is just par for the course, where people have to experience what I did in day one of one job (another editor assuring me, having not actually met me, that everyone thought I was a ‘cunt’), is it any wonder British journalism is so diseased?

Later in McTague’s piece, he recounts this bit of tabloid history:

This is the culture that gives us the Mirror chicken. It is the culture that saw two tabloids—The Sun and the Star—enter into a donkey war to save an apparently abused Spanish donkey named Blackie in 1987. The Star claimed that in a festival in the Spanish village of Villanueva de la Vera, the fattest local would ride a donkey until it collapsed from exhaustion (an allegation denied by the Spanish ambassador).

Amid a furor, The Sun offered £250 to save the donkey chosen for that year’s festival. Not to be outdone, the Star then offered the farmer more money and took the animal away, declaring that it would send Blackie to a donkey sanctuary in Devon. When the Star won the race, it celebrated with the headline “GOTCHA!”—a reference to The Sun’s notorious Falklands War splash celebrating the sinking of the Argentinian ship the Belgrano, in which hundreds of men were killed.

“There was more money, more commitment, more editorial space given to that one fucking story than there was about Ethiopia,” said the late Star reporter Don Mackay—who later joined the Mirror and was my first night editor. (The Ethiopian famine was a defining humanitarian issue of the 1980s.)

Years later, in 2010, The Sun sent a reporter to Russia to save another donkey—this time after several papers reported that a Russian company had sent the animal parasailing as a marketing stunt. After sending its Russia correspondent to buy the donkey, the paper reported: “The Sun has now taken Anapka away from her Russian owner and we promise our readers that she will NEVER be forced to parasail again.” It added that the donkey was now being fed “apples, cucumbers and sweetcorn.”

The more tabloid-defending members of my trade will sneer that I have no sense of humour, but these stories aren’t ‘fun’. They were and are part of a wider effort to present Britain and ‘plucky’ Brits as superior to the barbaric foreigners. It doesn’t really matter if their content is true.

British tabloids care more about foreign-owned donkeys that may be suffering than desperate migrants drowning in the Channel. Writing about a donkey in disparaging terms would lead to many letters of complaint, but Stig Abell and the others on duty at the time thought it fine to publish Katie Hopkins’ ‘migrants = cockroaches’ column:

Do I really give a shit if someone wants to dress up as a chicken? Broadly, no. But it says something about the culture in those newsrooms and the wider priorities of British journalism.

I don’t find it funny or enlightening to see a man — and it’s almost always a man — dressed as an animal shouting at a politician. It’s puerile shit. As someone who reviews the newspapers on a daily basis, I can confirm, however, that about 90% of the material published by the tabloids is puerile shit so at least they’re consistent in their output.

I realise I put my chances of getting future commissions increasingly at risk by writing about my own industry in this way. But if I didn’t I’d feel… chicken.


*My actual favourite Fall song is Blindness: