Bad-faith justice: ethics of the call-out

This is a guest post by Jane Clare Jones, philosopher, feminist and person who really, really likes Doctor Who.

A couple of years back – a week after she coined the slogan that would inspire an internet feminist revolution – Flavia Dzodan wrote a piece for Tiger Beatdown dedicated to skewering the “toxic” nature of “the collective dance commonly known in blogging as the ‘call outs.’”  The problem with call-out culture, she wrote, is that it “has developed as a tool to legitimize aggression and rhetoric [sic] violence.”

For while, “[o]n the surface,” call-outs are  “seemingly positive” and “done ‘for good,’” they are not, she suggested, mere instruments of justice. Rather, they need to be understood in the context of a culture in thrall to the cruel theatre of reality television, as a “performative” spectacle of ritual blood-letting fashioned “for an audience” and intended “more often that not … to make the one initiating the call out feel good, more righteous, more indignant, a ‘better person’.”

This points towards a distinction that demands fuller reflection, not least since Michelle Goldberg’s piece on Twitter toxicity further fueled the increasingly internecine debate over the ethics and politics of the call-out. For while the call-out, as Dzodan notes, ‘seemingly’ aims at justice, there are some serious questions to be asked about the justice of its methods.

Call-outs claim to ‘do good.’ They are intended to educate, to shine a spotlight on injustice, by drawing attention to the fact that someone has said or done something (or not said and done something) that serves to support systemic inequality. And they do so by mobilising an explicitly political or social notion of justice – an understanding of justice as a matter of the equitable distribution of power, privilege, and possibility.

These words might sound abstract, but they’re not. They are the conditions of a successful human life. And as a feminist, and an anti-capitalist, they matter to me. In its own way, my experience of the world has made it clear enough that structural inequality is a thing, and that people’s possibilities are circumscribed by, often, multiple oppressions. I recognize that we are force-fed a high-fructose diet of media designed to make systemic domination appear as inevitable as rocks, and which usually reflects the interests, aspirations and assumptions of the people who have most power.

I accept that privilege is often invisible, and that, as a well-educated and mostly able-bodied white woman, the world bends around me in ways it does not for everyone. And I am convinced, therefore, that there are things I cannot see, and that when people with less power than me say that I – or women like me – have mis-spoken or misrepresented something, then we have a political responsibility to listen to them.

But I am unconvinced by much of call-out culture. And I struggle with it – as do many left-wing feminists – because I believe in much of the politics and yet have an abiding problem with the practice. Expressing this problem is fraught, freighted both with guilt, and with the suspicion that it is futile, that I am addressing an audience that will not hear.

For, as the response to Goldberg showed, criticism of call-out culture will be politically re-packaged in an instant.[1] The narrative[2] is, by now, well-rehearsed, and impervious: White feminism rejects intersectionality because privilege.  And this narrative is reiterated, reflexively, regardless of whether the criticism of the call-out is made by a white woman, or a gay WoC , or a trans WoC (who will be situated within a political discourse about white women or otherwise erased[3]).

This move is disingenuous. And it is disingenuous in a way that is indicative rather than incidental. Because the conflict over call-out culture is not about politics, it is about ethics.[4]

Justice is complex. It is both structural and particular, political and ethical – a matter of how adequately we, as a society, distribute possibilities but also the way I, as an individual, approach any given other. At a personal level ‘doing justice to someone’ involves adequate representation, in much the same sense that we talk of a picture ‘doing justice’ to a landscape.

The last century of French philosophy, informed by the dehumanizing cataclysm of the Holocaust, focused much of its attention on the ethical encounter. Expressed, for instance, in the figure of unconditional hospitality, the ideal of ethical justice is to approach an-other in complete openness, suspending all preconceptions about who they are and allowing them to appear entirely in their own terms. And while this is an impossible ideal, I think it is an inspiring one. It reminds us that when our interpretations are over-determined by our projections, we are, in ethical terms, not being just.

Clearly then, there is some tension between the openness of the ethical encounter and the insights of a structural analysis which considers political knowledge to be socially situated. How are we to marry the privileged position of ‘seeing from the margins’ with the ethical imperative to not impose a particular perspective upon a differently-situated other?

On the one hand, the intuition that when speaking truth to power, we are not required to genuflect before another’s self-understanding, is undoubtedly correct. Without it, radical analysis would be impossible, and we could all pack up our feminist bags and go home. But nonetheless, there is a meaningful distinction between the facts of what someone has said or done, and the interpretation of those facts. And to wade into the age-old debate on means and ends, acting in the interests of justice does not relieve you of the responsibility to act justly. Which is to say, in this instance, you still need to represent those you are critiquing fairly.

In the many months I’ve spent watching the feminist blogosphere and Twitter-space convulse with successive call-outs, I’ve noted two specific types of unjust representation:

1.  Misrepresenting what someone has said or done

This is difficult, because the person being criticized may not recognize the way their words or deeds are being characterized for reasons of social position – what with the invisibility of privilege. However, if I want to criticize Richard Dawkins for saying something stupid about chewing gum in an elevator, it is possible to parse ‘what he said’ from ‘why it is stupid.’ In an economy run on 140 characters, this distinction often gets collapsed, and very fast, an interpretation-posing-as-fact will be disseminated and assimilated as the truth about what a certain person did, and more often than not, what a certain person is (see point 2).

Additionally, I have, on several occasions seen the facts of what someone has said, or a particular sequence of events or exchanges, be concretely misrepresented to create a certain impression. If you think this is acceptable because you possess omniscient certainty that you are fighting the good fight, OK. But understand that not everyone agrees with you, and their concerns are not motivated only by the desire to dominate or silence. The belief that just ends are not served by unjust means is genuine, and not straightforwardly structurally distributed (regardless of what you’ve heard from a Slovenian philosopher with a taste for revolutionary violence and really sketchy views on women).

quote(Huh.)

2. Attacking the person rather than the action

This is spectacularly common, and, I suspect, exacerbated by the rigid sediment of a structural analysis which collapses social identity and political position. From there, it’s a short walk to, ‘They said a fillintheblank-ist thing because people like them are fillintheblank-ists.”

But things are not that simple. We all live under conditions of structural domination. Every one of us has internalized views and assumptions that serve to perpetuate that system. That someone said something which represents, say, a damaging exclusion, doesn’t tell you they are a vile bigot in the essence of their being, or that they are a dues-paying agent of the kyriarchy.  And it is, at best, uncharitable to suggest that it does. And that goes doubly for extrapolating directing from a particular event to a totalizing dismissal ending in –phobe.[5]

Jenny

Both these types of misrepresentation fall squarely under the rubric of ‘engaging in bad faith.’ It is true that intention isn’t magic. At least, it is true that whether I intended to say a fillintheblank-ist thing doesn’t determine whether it is fillintheblank-ist  (although it’s not clear that intensity of pile-on is what determines it either). But it is one thing to argue that a specific intention does not define a particular act, and quite another to refuse to credit the person you are addressing with good intention in general.

What concerns me is that the hand-waving of unjust representation takes place against a background assumption that certain people – by virtue of their (often reductively ascribed) social privilege and/or platform – are incapable of a genuine concern with justice[6], and as such, don’t deserve to be treated justly. Not only is this a bleak, and indeed, thoroughly neo-liberal,[7] view of human nature, it presents us with something of a paradox.

On the one hand, the call-out justifies itself by posing as an educative intervention performed in good faith. (And, just to be abundantly clear, I have seen examples where it is just that.) On the other, the tendency to misrepresent people, and invoke totalizing slurs – often accompanied by violent invective – suggests that there is, actually, no assumption of good faith on the part of the call-outers.

And, to return to our starting point, this raises a question about the call-out’s purported function. Because why on earth would you bother telling someone they have done something harmful, if you are proceeding from the assumptions that people-like-them don’t care about doing harm?

More than one answer presents itself, but Flavia Dzodan’s observations about performativity are pertinent to several of them. Yes, there are examples of good-faith call-outs which are genuinely intended to challenge or inform, but they are relatively rare. More often than not, the call-out is performed for an audience, and is undertaken for the benefit of the person or persons performing it.

As such, it may serve several functions. It demonstrates your political credentials, and (for many white women) launders your privilege. It raises your profile, and nets you allies and followers. It bestows the sweet sense of having-right on your side, of bravely battling against the massed forces of domination and injustice. And, perhaps above all – it’s a great way of dumping all your aggression, and usefully comes with a political narrative that exculpates you from taking any responsibility for that.

What has become known as the ‘tone argument’ is important here. As Katherine Cross[8]  has noted, the injunction against tone-policing derives from an important insight. People who experience oppression are angry, and their anger is both legitimate and politically important. Moreover, they are often subject to cultural stereotypes which serve to restrict their ability to assume and express that anger, and in the interests of justice, this needs to be resisted.

At some point however, the tone argument assumed a law-like status which, Cross writes, can “be waved at will in any discussion to absolve one of responsibility” and contributes to what she beautifully describes as “a rapidly oxidizing corrosion” of political discourse.  The ethics of expressing anger are, indeed, challenging. On the one hand it is – often literally – vital, to affirm that anger is legitimate, and recognize that people’s wellbeing and survival depends on channeling it away from themselves and towards the structures of their oppression. But it doesn’t follow from this that every expression of legitimate anger is itself legitimate.

I may be – in fact, strike that, I am – both deeply affected by, and furious about, the levels of sexual coercion in this society. It is rage I’ve carried with me all my adult life. In my twenties it used to spill out, in sudden, inchoate, waves, directed at random men who made me feel disempowered in some way – sometimes by doing something as innocuous as adding a five-quid supplement to my train ticket. When I look back at those moments, I am forgiving of my anger, but that doesn’t mean it was OK to use a hapless train-conductor as a punching bag.

stavvers

And it’s not OK for several reasons. It’s not OK because the person you are raging at is not the source of your oppression. Your oppression is systemic, and individuals are, at worst, symptoms, and indeed, frequently being used as proxies for that system. When a woman is expected to gracefully absorb a long stream of invective, she is being asked to do so, not as a person but as a cipher.

Because of a tweet, or a misplaced phrase, because she asked the wrong person the wrong question, or tried to defend someone, or said something flippant, or challenged the political point of one white-woman calling another white-woman ‘scum,’ she is summarily elected as the representative of an entire structure of domination. She is no longer herself, but today’s chosen instantiation of white-cis-liberal-middle-class-capitalist-colonial-ableist-whorephobic-(and probably, indeed, patriarchal)-supremacy. [9]

Not only is this monolithic system not actually a monolith – another representational error because it is also, well, intersecting – but deciding you are divine violence, and taking it upon yourself to deliver rhetorical punishment to someone on the basis that they are this system, is dehumanization and exemplary bad-faith. And the recent prevalence of tweets mocking women’s ‘sadfeelz’ and ‘White Tears’™ makes it pretty apparent that dehumanizing white feminist women because they have been deemed emissaries of evil is now considered at the very least acceptable, and indeed, by some, a thoroughgoing act of justice.

FlaviaBut people are not structures. They might say things that support structures, and they may well, often by accident rather than design, benefit from how those structures work. And that should, indeed, must, be incessantly critiqued. But individual people – with all their mess, and nuance, and strength, and vulnerability – are not structures. And even if left-wing-white-feminist women really were the best possible proxy for patriarchal-colonial-capitalist-white-supremacist domination, taking to Twitter to lob rhetorical Molotov cocktails at them is not smashing the kyriarchy, it’s being verbally violent to another person.

Unlike structures, which are implacable, and must be slowly, painfully, chipped away with constant, precise critique and concerted political effort, people can be very easily, and seriously, harmed by rhetorical violence. In 2011, this was something expressed well by Flavia Dzodan:

Human beings are complex creatures, not these receptacles of ‘good’ OR ‘evil.’ At once good in some aspects and gross in others. Simultaneously oppressed and oppressors. However, in this performative culture of blogging all this subtlety is obscured. You are either ‘one of the good guys’ or ‘you are the worst person ever.’ …I must question this dichotomy because call outs, and the modus operandi behind them, the pile-on, can potentially kill people. The most virulent call outs can exacerbate existing PTSD. They can drive a person to severe episodes of anxiety and/or depression, they can lead someone to feel isolated and suicidal. It is a toxic and destructive phenomenon.

And it is a “toxic and destructive phenomenon” that seems impossible to resist. As Dzodan noted, call-out culture is “insidious” because “who would dare to say something…when it is supposedly done against oppression?” As was evident from responses to the Goldberg piece, if the call-out is a tool of social justice, then anyone who questions it can only be concerned with strengthening the status quo. And so, shielded by this impervious defense, the call-out adopts a pose of ethical invulnerability, and is free to carry out its righteous work.

The flaw in this defense is, however, that while the call-out claims to work for justice, it is often, in itself, unjust. And while it styles itself an intervention aimed at education, and claims to have engaged its interlocutor in good faith, in many ways, as I have shown, this is a lie. The disquiet many feminists express towards the call out, is animated, not by their desire to keep a grip on power, but by their frustration at repeatedly engaging in an environment pervaded by bad faith. And by the futility of trying to resist.

Because the call-out is a vicious circle. It selects its target as a proxy of ‘The Oppressor,’ and when its bad-faith overture is greeted as precisely what it is, it parades this lack of receptivity as evidence of the very pre-supposition with which it started. It is a snare. A game of ‘Gotcha!’ A way of whipping-up endless vortices of self-perpetuating outrage. It is poisonous, and corrosive, and damaging, both to individuals and to the very possibility of genuine political communication across our differences.

And what it isn’t – when it piles into an encounter, stoked by certainty and suppositions while dressed up, disingenuously, in the garb of good faith, careless, and indeed, often, reveling, in any harm that it might do – is an instrument of justice.

It isn’t doing any good.


[1]When the powerful condemn the medium of a marginalised messenger, it is the messenger they are truly after…Few who see themselves as advocates for justice support the condemnation of those who use it to fight for their rights.” http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/02/blame-it-internet-20142453122572101.html

[2] “Goldberg, on the other hand, through her work defending corporatized feminism, has a vested interest in gatekeeping. Now that the gatecrashers found a platform where they can be heard, her pushback was inevitable.” http://kenzoshibata.com/2014/02/03/breathe-michelle-goldberg-itll-be-ok/

[3] “whoops. mail, mirror, sun.. blah blah. papers that routinely pick on the most disadvantaged (read: minority). it’s your bread and butter, can’t have that challenged.” Comment on http://melissa-fix.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/privileged-problems.html

[4] This erasure of ethics by politics is well illustrated in Kenzo Shibata’s response to Goldberg. She writes, “The real irony I read in her piece is that Goldberg, using her mainstream-ish platform, labels women without a major platform as “bullies.’ Bullying requires punching-down.” This argument relies on the conflation of oppression (structural/political) with bullying (interpersonal/ethical). It is not, by definition possible for a person with less structural power to oppress someone with more structural power – because the power determining their relation is systemic not personal, and cannot be changed within any given encounter, although it make be invoked or off-set. But structural power is not the only type of power. In an interpersonal encounter, power may also be distributed by the willingness or ability of one party to use some type of rhetorical, psychological or physical violence against another. This is what is involved in bullying and/or abuse. It may well be true that it is easier for people with more structural power to bully people with less structural power (as they then have both structural and interpersonal violence at their command), but it is not true that is impossible for someone with less structural power to bully someone with more. As Flavia Dzodan notes, “What is rarely pointed out is that a person can be at once oppressed and an abuser.” A far more honest way of having this conversation would be to ask the question, ‘is it politically justified for people with less structural power to invoke some form of interpersonal violence against people with more structural power?’ That is something we can talk – and may very well disagree – about. But to pretend there is no genuine ethical question here is a smokescreen.

[5] As a friend pointed out to me, the accusations of ‘whorephobia’ and ‘transphobia’ function as analogues of ‘homophobia’. That is, they are claims that someone’s position is entirely motivated by moral disgust, and that therefore, they, and their position, can be categorically dismissed. On the one hand, it is evident that moral disgust towards prostitutes and transgender people is a very real phenomenon, and is ethically and politically unacceptable. On the other, it is not true that ethical discussions about the possible harms of prostitution or gender-critical discussions within feminism are necessarily motivated by moral disgust. There are a number of major issues (sex work, porn, sex/gender to name the most significant) where feminists have good-faith disagreements. But to reduce such disagreements to an issue of ‘phobia’ relies on the conflation of moral disgust and ethical harm. (And to be utterly clear, I am in no way suggesting that a transgender identity is an ethical harm, or questioning people’s right to exist. What I am suggesting is that wanting to ask if the reification of gender represents a harm to some women can be distinguished from moral disgust. Which is to say that it is possible to ask that question in good faith.)

[6] The following caricatures effectively deny:

1) That women are oppressed as women 2) That women who are only (or predominantly) oppressed as women are capable of genuine compassion or concern for anyone other than themselves.

(Just think about that for a second. Not only is it pretty dubious feminism to think that an individual who is only oppressed as a woman, is not really very oppressed at all, and is necessarily self-serving, but it is massively self-defeating for feminists to adopt a model which decrees that, therefore, any woman who finds herself with the power to challenge injustice – and who is thus ‘privileged’ – should be immediately disqualified from exercising that power).

White feminists sit around daydreaming about their next campaign. They’re not fighting for basic recognition like the rest of us, they’re thinking of even sillier ways to assert their power and so they have the luxury of poking at the institutions to look as if they are doing something worthwhile. So we show them how bullshit their feminism is and how do they respond? Do they take on board our feelings about how we are being erased? Do they accept that there is a kyriarchal structure they personally maintain? Do they fuck.  http://samambreen.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/white-feminism-101/ .

Sarah Ditum is on Twitter this morning, promoting herself, as she must, since what she sells is the wisdom of Sarah Ditum, to anyone who’ll pay for it… So, since Sarah’s opinons are the product she’s selling, and presumably tailoring to her market place, we can’t be sure they’re what she actually believes.  http://sometimesitsjustacigar.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/logically-speaking/

The B Classes of white feminism fighting tooth and nail for a place at the table. At our expense. With your writing commissions, the coins tossed in your direction by the men who own the media you so desperately want to be part of. And we pay the price of your success. You are not even good enough to be in charge…The fact that now you are low level media whores edited by people who would gladly throw you into the lions if it meant they can pocket the change is irrelevant for you. We are the bootstraps you pull in the hopes of raising to the top. And raise to the top you will. The top of a vat of turds floating in your own media shit. No ethics, no qualms, no compassion, no humanity.  http://www.redlightpolitics.info/post/77475031929/i-hate-you-all-media-vultures

The only explanation that makes any sense is that being a woman is the only oppression they face. Imagine growing up being told…that if you work hard… and follow Daddies* rules you will…achieve your dreams. Then you grow up and discover…you live in a society where women are paid less, where your work is appropriated by male collegues, where men treat you just like the sluts Daddy warned you about. “Its not fair” you scream…! / These are oppression of course… but if the only black spot in your life is that Daddy wouldn’t buy you a pony you come across more as Veruca Salt than fighter for social justice, which is precisely where white feminism is at right now…Like Veruca Salt these feminists can only see their personal oppressions and think that anything that has happened to them is the worst thing that could possibly happen to a woman. Daddy not buying that pony is a tragedy, because it is their tragedy.  http://sometimesitsjustacigar.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/my-little-pony-feminism/

[7] This is the end-point of a too-rigid application of identity politics. Yes, my social position and lived experience are likely to significantly inflect my political understanding, but it does not determine it. People are capable of acts of imagination and empathy, and only a social-Darwinist-come-neo-classical economist would seriously argue that all human beings act only out of brutal self-interest.

[8] I’m using Katherine Cross’s writing because it is by far the most developed analysis I have read of many of the problems with call-out culture. But I want to recognize that using it is not unproblematic – insofar as while my concern is with the mechanism of the call-out in general, I am also, given the position from which I experience it, particularly familiar with its role in the conflict between intersectional feminism – specifically as practiced by white women – and white feminism. Cross has rightly pointed out that responses to the Goldberg piece served to erase her contribution to the dialogue – which is particularly concerned with the corrosive effects of the call-out within her own community – and re-centre it again on issues of the conflict with white feminism. I am aware that I am doing something similar here, and my thoughts about that are mixed. Cross’s analysis expresses correctly the ethical problems with the call out, and I believe those ethical problems hold in almost all political situations (violence as a political instrument must be very carefully justified – for both state and non-state actors – and it is never justified to dehumanize in order to justify violence). My argument here is that there are serious questions about an unethical instrument of political justice which transcend one’s socio-political interests – because ethics is not reducible to a tool of domination. Elements of Cross’s published work support that argument, and so I have cited them. By so doing I do not want, however, to erase the fact that her political situation differs from mine, or suggest that she would support this analysis.

[9] The phrase ‘white feminism’ is generally used to signify, not simply feminism practiced by white women, but a feminism which is complicit with other existent structures of domination, as Reni Eddo-Lodge suggests here:

reni

White feminism is usually conceived as concerned only with gains for middle-class white women, and has come to be typified by the type of corporate liberal feminism exemplified by Sheryl Sandberg. There is something to this. The problem with the term however, as suggested here , is that the framing allows for only two feminisms – intersectional’ and ‘white.’ Firstly, this is deeply ahistorical, and lumps together all previous (and existing) strands of feminist thought (Marxist, Radical, Psychoanalytic etc) with contemporary corporate feminism, and hence erases the work of the many feminist thinkers who were not rich white women, and/or were not concerned with promoting the interests of what is now called, with considerable imprecision, kyriarchy.  

Secondly, anyone who criticizes the practices of IF and happens to be white, is deemed, by default, a ‘white feminist,’ without any knowledge of their social position or views. There is a totalitarian logic at work here: 1. People’s views are entirely determined by their social position. 2. IF represents ‘the oppressed’ and white feminism represents ‘the oppressor’. 3. Your social position can therefore be deduced from whether you espouse or criticize the beliefs and the practices of intersectional feminism 4. The best way to demonstrate you are not ‘the oppressor’ (perhaps the only way if you’re white) is to regularly denounce and attack people identified as being so. 5. If you think that’s kind of shitty, it’s because you are the oppressor.

Hence, by writing this piece, I become a de facto ‘white feminist’ – even though I am a Marxist-anarchist who thinks Sheryl Sandberg sucks. Indeed, as tends to be a problem with excessively rigid identity-politics, Twitter intersectionality functions with an incredibly reductive account of the relationship between social position and political principle (Marx, Engels, Lenin and Guevara were middle-class, people!), and also, a very reductive vision of its ‘other,’ having, as far as I can tell, no account of the mechanism of kyriarchy beyond amorphous ‘domination’. The fact of this imprecision, and the rapidity and vehemence with which the label ‘white feminist’ – and its homonyms – are dispensed, raises the suspicion that, as a political force, twitter feminism is above all animated by the impulse to expel negativity onto its other. For all its laudable political principles, in practice, intersectional feminism is as ‘you’re either with us or against us’ as neo-conservatism. It is, in many respects, simply its dialectical reversal – an anti-colonial totalization to neo-conservatism’s colonial one (and just because that’s not as bad doesn’t mean it’s good).

Stitched up

Giving an interview is an act of trust in someone else’s ability to represent you. And a good interviewer is one who accepts that they’re responsible for the way their subjects appear: not obliged to make them look good or bad, but to be accurate and fair.

hitler moustache

One of the things I learnt from the last big interview I did was the value of collaborating with the subject, and it’s a principle that I found reinforced by Dan Baum:

the ensuing back-and-forth usually helps me make the story better. I honestly can’t think of a time when somebody took the opportunity to take something back. What usually happens is, the source says something like, “You didn’t get me quite right here. What I was trying to say was this….” And that opens up a second interview — a deeper one, that often leads to even more interesting insights. I’ve had reporters throw up their hands in horror at the thought of allowing a source to amend a quote after the interview. But why not? Isn’t the point to portray people, and their ideas, accurately? I would never show a source my story before publication, but until I’ve processed them into copy, the notes from our interview feels to me like our joint property. I don’t want to play “gotcha” with sources; I want to understand and convey their ideas properly. I want them to read my stories and say, “He got me right,” even if they don’t come off well in the article.

(I can see exceptions to this. If the governor admits in an interview that he looted the pension fund to play the horses, I’m not going to let him take that back. But in the 16 years I’ve been offering to share interview notes with sources, something like that hasn’t happened to me.)

WordWork, “Type fast”

When I interviewed Graham Linehan, his go-over on the transcript was exactly was Baum describes – in a couple of places he restored what was lost in tone when the words were detached from his voice, in a couple of others he clarified the normal ambiguities of speech so they could survive the page. He didn’t remove or retract anything, but he was able to rephrase things in a way that would have been rankly dishonest if I’d done it myself.

That only works, of course, if you “don’t want to play ‘gotcha’ with sources”. If the “gotcha” is what you’re looking for, you’re going to have to try something else. Say, for example, you’re Brian Logan – you’ve pitched a feature about the new offenders of standup comedy, had it accepted and now you need to harvest a few good quotes to inject a hefty jolt of outrage into your reader. Ideally, you want it to read something like this:

This year, veteran comic Richard Herring is sporting a Hitler moustache for his show, Hitler Moustache, in which he argues “that racists have a point”. […] One recent [podcast] episode aired Herring’s purported hatred of Pakistanis, a routine that he expands on in his new standup set. In another routine, he claims to support the BNP’s policy to deport all black people from the UK. Into the awkward laughter that greets this joke, he says: “Don’t go thinking I’m the new Bernard Manning. I’m being postmodern and ironic. I understand that what I’m saying is unacceptable.” Then he pauses. “But does that make me better than Manning, or much, much worse?” This is “playing around with things”, he tells me: “it’s the intent behind it that’s the important thing.” But is it?

The Guardian, “The new offenders of stand-up comedy”

Unlike Baum, Logan isn’t generous enough to let us in on his techniques for journalistic success. But Richard Herring can:

I did sense during the interview that Logan seemed uninterested or bored by a lot of what I was saying. I felt like he wasn’t listening to much of it, but hoped this was just the affected smugness and superiority that I have sensed in his reviews. He works for the Guardian and I felt I could talk in quite a lot of detail about what I do without fear that he would become sensationalist and take things out of context. I didn’t tape the conversation and I have done several long interviews recently and so can’t remember everything that I said, but I know that I was careful to explain myself and the context of some of my more contentious ideas. I was largely critical of offensive comedy, arguing that it takes a very experienced and thoughtful comedian to get away with it and that there must always be a point behind it. I briefly described the “maybe racists have a point” routine from the new show, but (as far as I remember) expressed concern that most of my show was, if anything, a bit of a throw back to the 1980s political and polemical comedy and was a bit right on. […]

I had a slight nagging sense of unease about it all. Just the distance and detachment that I had sensed, perhaps, though I thought he might pick up on me saying that after a certain point a comedian is not responsible for the stupidity of the audience – I had said that Al Murray was not necessarily at fault if his audience took him literally, but Al has said something similar himself.

The article came out today and I was, I have to say, pretty astounded by how it misrepresented what I had said and my material. Here it is.

Richard Herring, “Warming up” 27 July 2009

If Herring’s description of the interview is right – and what I’ve heard of the show suggests that the Guardian piece has framed him horribly – it sounds like the interviewer was sitting out the interview, waiting for the “gotcha”, possibly rather bored at having to listen to all the self-scrutinising stuff about a comic’s responsibilities when using offensve material. He got his moment, and he was able to push his facile little thesis that there’s a new reign of nasty in comedy.

And then, Herring got to unravel his interviewer’s methods publicly. And this is another, excellent and self-interested reason for journalists to follow Dan Baum’s advice: if your interview subject is a public figure, they’ll almost certainly have their own blog. If you stitch them up, they can let the people who’ll be most furious with you – their fans – know what you’ve done. If you’re not worried about the ethics of interviewing, you should at least be worried about what readers and colleagues think of your ethics.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

Stephen Glover on NOTW phone hacking: lay off, we’re dying

Den and Angie

A painfully constant theme of journalists talking about their trade is the wail that things are hard enough for them already and papers shouldn’t make things harder by criticising their own industry. You get it from Dacre, you get it from Wade, and this morning, you get it from Stephen Glover in the Independent.

Glover indentifies a conspiracy between the BBC and the Guardian to push the NOTW phone hack story. If I was looking for the ingredients of a conspiracy in this business, I’d probably be looking at the organisation that’s been paying off the victims of its own criminal actions. Not Glover:

Most of this story was old. We already knew eight-tenths of it, though we had probably forgotten we did. Nonetheless, it was imaginatively repackaged by those symbiotic organisations, The Guardian and the BBC, and sold as new. The Corporation had been put on red alert by the newspaper at a senior level well before the story broke.

In the next paragraph, he dismissively mentions the part of the story that was new – the vast pay-offs – and instead accuses the BBC of being vindictively anti-Murdoch. Has it been? The BBC routinely runs heavily on critical media stories about its own actions. During the Brand/Ross farrago, most bulletins led on the outrage; when the BBC executives’ expenses were released, a large chunk of PM was devoted to picking them over. The BBC is an imperfect organisation and there’s plenty that it should be criticised for, but the best I can say without having a breakdown of broadcast-minutes-per-story is that the BBC has given no more prominence to the phone hack story than to any of those (probably much less important) stories. In contrast, News International has barely acknowledged that it’s under discussion.

But Glover is distressed to see the press’ failings exposed, as his ad hom attack on Nick Davies shows. First he silkily denigrates the investigative work of Flat Earth News by calling it “a book which suggests that the press is wildly dysfunctional” (my emphasis), and then, having failed to represent Davies’ ideas fairly, he goes on to give a poisonous description of his personality:

I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him, but he seems to me a misanthropic, apocalyptic sort of fellow – the sort of journalist who can find a scandal in a jar of tadpoles.

What Glover doesn’t mention – and this is curious given how aghast he was a few paragraphs ago at Newsnight’s failure to reveal a perceived conflict of interest in Peter Wilby’s commentary – is that his own employers (along with every other Fleet Street institution) were substantially and specifically criticised in Flat Earth News. Glover is also a columnist for the Daily Mail. Apparently that’s not relevent to his views on Davies, though. Nor, seemingly, is the fact the Indy and its parent company have their own reasons to be displeased with the Guardian’s media coverage.

Still, it’s not as though Glover approves of the dark arts. It’s just that his “guess is that most newspapers have cleaned up their act”, and anyway, newspapers have more important things to think about than the quality or legality of their investigations:

Naturally I do not condone newspapers listening into the private conversations of celebrities, though I would have no problem in the case of a minister who was on the fiddle or betraying his country. I do know that the national press is weaker than it has been for more than a century, with most titles losing money, and I regret that, at such a time, The Guardian and the BBC should use largely old information to weaken it further

When pundits speaking for the press adopt this line, they sound like nothing so much as Angie Watts weedling Dirty Den to take her back by pretending she only had six months to live. There’s no other organisation from which newspapers would allow such claims: MPs who complained that the heavy reporting of the expenses scandal was undermining public respect for parliament were, rightly, ridiculed. The idea that newspapers’ problems come from an excess of self-examination is – as this indulgent, incoherent and partial article inadvertently shows – equally absurd.

© Sarah Ditum 2009

The News Of The World: everyone’s at it

mobile by donknuth(Photo by donknuth, used under Creative Commons licence.)

The News Of The World’s first strike back at the Guardian is pretty unconvincing, calling the stories “ferocious and, at times, hysterical attacks on its credibility, integrity and journalistic standards” while also having to admit that the hacking, the blagging and the snooping all went on. All that’s really under discussion is the number of crimes committed, and the extent of management complicity.

The paper’s self-defence is less shaky when it turns round to attack the Guardian’s own sometime news practices:

No newspaper, least of all the Guardian, is perfect. Nor is our craft a perfect science. Its practitioners are human. They misbehave and make mistakes for which they – rightly – pay a heavy price. So let us remember that it was the Guardian that knowingly, deliberately and illegally forged a cabinet minister’s signature to get an exclusive story. It was the Guardian that cynically abandoned one of journalism’s most fundamental and sacred covenants by revealing the identity of a confidential informant.

New Of The World, “No inquiries, no charges, no evidence”

The NOTW doesn’t come out and say that a story is a story by any mean necessary, because one of the problems they’ve got is that almost all what they were doing falls a long way outside of a public interest defence: when WikiLeaks defends the NOTW’s cheap inbox hacking by comparing those findings to tape recordings of corrupt South American politicians, the mismatch between the authority claimed by journalists and the use they put it to feels more like a devastating criticism than the winning argument it’s supposed to be. It’s hard to feel like there’s a democratic principle being exercised everytime someone snoops on Vanessa Feltz’s voicemail (and while John Prescott might be the most vocal victim at the moment, he’s also probably one of the most defensible targets).

But it’s accepted that journalists will do bad things in search of a good story, and they’re allowed certain privileges legally and culturally for that reason. Blunt, a local newspaper editor who blogs pseudonymously at Playing The Game, pushes this line hard:

It will be fun to watch this unfold and every major national paper is likely to get dragged into it but what actual purpose does it serve?
Journalists often lie, cheat, beg, borrow, and steal for a cracking story.
But is using subterfuge really that bad to expose the porkie pies of others, especially celebrities. Those vacuous arseholes who only want publicity when it serves their own purposes but, in the words of Dad’s Army, ‘don’t like it up ’em’.
I agree that it may got out of hand over at News Int’s factory farming of mobiles (ALLEGEDLY) but, Christ, good intel is still good intel wherever it comes from.
Many people say what gives us the right to appoint ourselves the moral bastions of this country. But I would argue that because most good journalists are essentially amoral – it goes beyond what we think is right or wrong.

Playing The Game, “House of cards”

The problem with this, though, is that it starts out claiming that journalism is working to a higher standard than the law, and ends by saying that it’s amoral, playing out in a few lines the cognitive dissonance that the News Of The World was trying to avoid over several paragraphs. You can be immoral and inside the law, and claim to be untouchable; or you can be outside the law and morally inspired, and claim special privileges.

But when you demand extra-legal privileges so that you can pursue your amoral craft – well, then you’re not making an appeal for sympathy so much as inviting crushing regulation on your own trade. Giving evidence to the select committee on culture, media and sport, Ian Hislop said “It’s dangerous to let Mr Mosley impose his anger at what happened to him to allow him to change the law.” One of the problems with the mass invasion engaged in by the NOTW is that they may well have created scores more mini-Mosleys, some of whom may well have the fury, the political sympathy and the private means to push for legal changes.

Scale counts, of course. The comparison with the MP’s expenses scandal works on two levels, as Fleet Street Blues points out: because that was an example of longstanding and fairly mundane malpractice that suddenly hit the headlines, and because it’s also an example of a very good story picked up nefariously. Lots of MPs need a second home, but that doesn’t mean they should get away with a moat. Journalists need stories, but a scoop like expenses doesn’t justify low-grade habitual spying. Throwing out the logic of the newsroom as justification risks dragging down the good stuff with the dicey, and journalists who fervently believe that there’s nothing to see here might be wise to remember the treatment that they – and MPs – dealt to Speaker Martin.

© Sarah Ditum 2009