Guardian Review | The Next Next Level by Leon Neyfakh


The biggest mistake you can make about fandom is to think of it as a passive state, as if the fan were just a stray piece of paper blown on the breeze of their idol’s endeavours. Fans are curators. Fans are creators, assembling the myths we can believe in. Fans are a kind of clergy: we congregate, we recognise the other believers among us, we seek to make converts. Leon Neyfakh is a fan – not just any fan, but a number one fan. The Next Next Level is the document of his fandom, and the brilliance of this memoir is in no way diminished by the fact that his idolatry is focused on the distinctly unpromising material of a white Milwaukee rap-rock artist called Juiceboxxx who offers lines such as: “Hanging out, chilling on my porch up front / Nothing to do so we let the beat bump.”

Read the full review at the Guardian

[Comment is free] Time for burial to die a death

Originally published in The Guardian.

Counsellors talk about “letting go” as the last phase of the mourning process, but before the bereaved can get there, they have the urgent problem of “getting rid”. Human bodies need to be disposed of, although not primarily for health reasons – corpses are surprisingly benign, according to the World Health Organisation. Funeral practices are about much more than hygiene. Dealing with the dead is a last tribute to their humanity; but there’s also a powerful element of disgust involved too. Continue reading

Paper chasing

Guardian, Guardian, why did you desert Labour? Since The Guardian plumped its electoral backing behind the Lib Dems, there’s been a l0w cry of anguish from some Labour supporters, involving words like “betrayal” and “hypocrites” and “haha, look, David Cameron’s the prime minister anyway”. Kerry McCarthy MP goes for The Guardian again in a blogpost this weekend:

… with its ‘once in a lifetime chance to get PR’ line, [it] lost us the chance of winning several seats where the Labour challenger would have made a far better MP than the Lib Dem incumbent. See Lucy Powell’s campaign in Manchester Withington, where victory looked a dead cert until the Guardian stuck its oar in, and Bristol West, where the votes ebbed away after the Guardian came out for Clegg. And Labour was offering a referendum on AV anyway, which could have put PR on the agenda for discussion too (especially if Labour had been the biggest party, with the Libs holding the balance).

Shot By Both Sides, 22 May 2010, “Puttin’ it down”

One of the curious things about this election was how little the campaign seemed to matter. Back in October, when the feeling of inevitability for Dave was running high, I caught an episode of The Week In Westminster with a pollster and a psephologist discussing the relative standing of Labour and the Conservatives after conference season. Both of them called it for a hung parliament, on the grounds that the swing needed for a Tory majority was immense. Six months before polling day, before most of the papers had pinned on a rosette, it was known that the general election would come down to two things: how big the swing from Labour to Tory would be, and which party was most successful in courting the Lib Dems.

So did the papers’ support make any difference at all? Not really. After all, if The Sun’s Camobama fantasia and The Mail’s dire threats of a fiery doom couldn’t sway it for the Tories, it’s laughable to imagine (even in tentative brackets as McCarthy does) that The Guardian’s support might have made Labour the biggest party in Westminster. As it happens, the Lib Dems gained a measly 1% of the vote and lost 5 seats – hardly a triumph for tactical voting. This was a bad election for newspapers, and a combination of poor judgement and hubris served to underline the fact that newspapers really aren’t as influential as they’d like to be.

But politicians still believe in the power of the press – still crave the cushion of a friendly new agenda. Which leaves the depressing spectacle of the Labour leadership contenders running around, chirping anti-immigration talking points back at the right-wing media that created them. This dedication to becoming BNP-lite seems more likely to undo Labour than any amount of disagreement with The Graun over electoral reform. Labour’s pursuit of press support will hurt it much more than the withdrawal of media backing ever could.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Feminism by the numbers

New feminism, you have failed us all, says Charlotte Raven. What is “new feminism”? Something to do with cupcakes, Katie Price, bra tops and nail polish, according to the Graun essay by Raven: it’s not very well-defined, but it seems to cover the same sort of area that was labelled as “post-feminism” and “girl power” in the ’90s. “It isn’t difficult proving that women are more oppressed than ever,” she claims. Ever? Really? I have a bank account, a ballot and a contraceptive implant. I reckon Mary Wollstonecraft would trade eras with me in a heartbeat.

Where has it gone wrong? Again, it’s hard to tell from Raven’s essay exactly what injury has been done to the female population or how “new feminism” caused it, but there’s a vague definition in the opening paragraph: “Women’s belief in specialness and a concomitant sense of entitlement has inflated in line with [Jordan’s] most famous assets.” We’re all just too fierce for our own good, and it would be much better for everyone if women started treating sex as something dangerous and avoidable – or at least containable.

And it’s a problem of the monied and leisured, not one of those actual struggle-for-subsistence problems. “You can’t simply opt for power – power isn’t a fridge or an elliptical training machine,” she says, sagely. You can’t simply “opt” to consume, either, but Raven never notices (or mentions) the independent disposable income she’s assuming here.

Instead, she presents it as a problem afflicting women in general. So how has she diagnosed it? I checked. She cites about 40 sources – the rest of the evidence is spun out of her own anecdotes. (“I wore Chanel’s Night Sky at meetings with editors, aware that much was at stake,” she reveals. Oooh, take that, “new feminism”. Raven wore nail varnish. Pow!) And most of this evidence is from polemic feminist books and novels by journalists. Look, I’m not saying that she didn’t do her research, but she doesn’t seem to have looked much further than her own immediate peers.

Actually, I am saying that she didn’t do her research. And you can really tell when you get to the four bits of statistical information she throws into her theory. (Apparently, four statistics is the minimum threshold for demonstrating universal gender malaise. I think it’s in The Guardian’s style guide.)

The first stat she cites comes from a survey:

In a recent study of 1,000 British girls (admittedly by a mobile entertainment company), quoted in Walter’s book, 60% said glamour modelling was their preferred career.

It’s not recent – it was from 2005. And I’m buggered if I can find any reference to how the survey was actually phrased or conducted. The apologetically-mentioned “mobile entertainment company” doesn’t even exist anymore. (Update Dr Petra Boynton did a takedown on the “girls want to be glamour models” PR survey at the time. Read it here.)

The other figures are about the extent of the sex industry and the number of punters. “There are now an estimated 80,000 women involved in prostitution.” No there aren’t. In 1999, a researcher estimated that there were 80,000 working prostitutes in the UK. Early last year, she spoke to the Radio 4 program More Or Less about how her work had been endorsed and interpreted by the Home Office:

That figure – recently used by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in an interview about the proposed new law – comes from research done 10 years ago by Hilary Kinnell, when she was working for an organisation providing health services to sex workers.

Ms Kinnell contacted 29 projects that provided services for sex workers to ask how many prostitutes they were working with. She had 17 responses. The average number of prostitutes per project was 665. She then multiplied that figure by 120, the total number of projects on her mailing list, to get an estimation of the total number of prostitutes.

“That brought the total up to very close on 80,000, which is still being quoted,” Ms Kinnell says. “And I find that quite bizarre really. The figure was picked up by all kinds of people and quoted with great confidence but I was never myself at all confident about it. I felt it could be higher, but it also could have been lower.”

BBC News, 9 January 2009, “Is the number of trafficked call girls a myth?”

So everything Raven says about the number of prostitutes in the UK is true, except that 80,000 is probably wrong and the figure’s a decade old anyway, meaning it has nothing to do with the influence of Belle De Jour, Girl With A One Track Mind, Katie Price, Nigella Lawson or any of the other “new feminism” villainesses of the noughties on whom Raven is slapping the blame.

Raven’s got a solution to her made-up problem, anyway:

If awareness returned – if modern woman were no longer disassociating from her pain and victimhood – all her decisions would be different. The things that hurt us would never seem “potentially enjoyable”. We wouldn’t wear silly shoes, blog about our sex life, worry that our babies are upstaging us. Most importantly, we’d resist the temptation to caricature ourselves. We’d lose the Nigella-esque pinny, the Price-esque lash extensions; the Belle-esque pose of erotic empowerment would seem inhibiting. We’d recover our desire for the missionary position with the person lying next to us. In every sphere of existence we’d be free to choose normality.

“New-new feminism”, then: hunting out and rejecting the abnormal, accepting essentialist gender roles (don’t you even think about mocking the sacred pain of femininity by camping it up with a cupcake), and absolutely never forgetting that sex is an embarrassing necessity. No post-natal depression – that’s definitely not one of the “normal” things you can “choose”. Oh, and apparently learning to handle statistics reliably is a hopelessly masculinist tendency you’re best off jettisoning for the cause. Welcome to Raven’s new-new sisterhood, same as the old, old misogyny.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

[Comment is Free] The trouble with Tory Twitter

My piece on the ill-conceived, crassly-executed #Kerryout campaign went up yesterday on Comment is Free:

Labour MP Kerry McCarthy has had an unobtrusive career since she entered parliament in 2005, voting along party lines with relentless loyalty. Her parliamentary expenses are a bit more interesting, if you’re keen on interior design – McCarthy furnished her London home from Habitat – but even then, she’s a fairly middling figure. TheyWorkForYou gives her claims for 2007/2008 a ranking of 215th out of 645 MPs. That leaves plenty of more spectacular receipt-flashers ahead of her.

The Guardian, “The trouble with Tory Twitter”

Follow the link to read the full piece – although with today’s news, I’d guess the PLP is more worried about internal enemies that the little blue gnats behind #Kerryout.

© Sarah Ditum, 2010

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

[Guardian Books Blog] Can the newspaper novel survive in the internet age?

I’ve got my first piece up on the Guardian books blog:

In a world of declining newspapers, is there any future for the newspaper novel? I recently stormed through Michael Frayn’s satirical 1967 newspaper novel, Towards the End of the Morning, and Nick Davies’ scathing study of how reporting works now, Flat Earth News. For the press, dawn is closing time, when the final edition has been printed and the hacks can go to bed – so Frayn’s title is a reversal of the usual metaphor: the end of the morning implies more of a shutdown than a rebirth. The novel, with its warm satire of the gentlemanly dissolution of the newspaperman in the fading days of old Fleet Street, makes a tender record of a deeply flawed but somehow loveable industry – before colour printing, before Wapping, and back when TV had only just begun to threaten the papers’ ownership of the news and comment business.

Read the rest at The Guardian…

Dog sniffs dog, gently

Dog doesn’t eat dog. That’s always been the rule in Fleet Street. We dig into the world of politics and finance and sport and policing and entertainment. We dig wherever we like – but not in our own back garden.

Flat Earth News, p. 1

Which might be one explanation for the strange mismatch in the Guardian media section’s reaction to the BBC’s treatment of Chris Moyles after an Ofcom judgement against the DJ (“How long can the BBC continue to stand by its man?”, says John Plunkett), and its reporting of the Express‘s barelyadequate sorry as a “strongly-worded apology”.

The apology was self-congratulatory and short-sighted. It dealt exclusively with the offence caused to the subjects of the shabby reporting and readers of the paper: there was no acknowledgement of systemic failings in editorial policy, never mind a promise to do better next time, and no one on the Express‘s staff has taken responsibility for this and stepped down. But the tone of the Guardian report is that the Express apology has fixed everything – and as far as it goes with the self-regulatory Press Complaints Commission, it probably has.

That’s because the PCC (whose board is dominated by newspaper men) maintains a preposterously narrow remit. They look at the extent to which a newspaper’s reporting is untrue, unfair or improperly obtained only within the complained-about article – and the risible sanctions the PCC will impose are no deterrent for newspapers with a systemic culture of abusing the truth. Publishing a correction or a retraction is enough to have a complaint classified as resolved. If all you have to do to get out of trouble is to say sorry in a very small voice, where’s the incentive to be good in the first place?

And because the PCC will only investigate complaints from the direct subjects of reports, they’re able to discount most of the reports they receive: only the two complaints from people mentioned in the Dunblane article really count for the PCC’s purposes, even though 10,000 people have signed the petition to say they are disgusted by it.

The press is every bit as responsible to its audience as the broadcast media, so why shouldn’t the PCC follow Ofcom and accept complaints from any party who feels offended by a piece? You don’t have to be Will Young – you don’t even have to like Will Young – to think that the joke lyrics broadcast by Moyles were inane and unpleasant. And you don’t have to have been nearly murdered in a Scottish schoolroom to think it’s inappropriate for a newspaper to run a story like the Express‘s Dunblane one.

But while the press won’t regulate itself or answer to its public, at least the readers and the bloggers have taken an interest and acted as a self-organised, informal watchdog. And it’s beginning to be recognised that the papers can’t get away with this sort of thing forever: an active community of critical readers online means that malpractice can be spotted, recorded, and made available to anyone who searches for it. Like Anton Vowl, I think that the traditional outlets of print and broadcast journalism are irreplaceable. Reporting, properly done, is one of the checks and balances that makes a democracy work. I want a strong press and an honest press, and if the PCC can’t make that hapen, bloggers are the best hope we have of getting newspapers to fix themselves up.

Your friendly neighbourhood newspaper

When I was doing my GCSEs, I wanted to be a journalist. I told one of my teachers this: she shuddered as if I’d said I was planning a career in the brothel over the kebab shop, and then said, “You do know that journalists have to do some awful things.” I was 14, so I wasn’t quite savvy enough to explain that I was after a job writing well-informed topical essays rather than one where I had to doorstep the bereaved.

Anyway, the summer after that and before I started college, I did three stints of work experience at the other sort of journalism: three local papers took me on and assigned a patient hack to show me around their world. I interviewed a new lady priest. I scammed sandwiches and wrote the restaurant review. I turned police reports into crime stories (getting bollocked by the sub for my sloppy tabloidese) and magicked interminable NFU press releases into news-in-briefs. I went to the magistrates court, and I went to county council meetings, and found them both fascinatingly banal.

Some of the journalists who taught me were middle-aged and comfortably cynical; some of them were young and ambitiously cynical. But importantly, there was lots of cynicism and a fair amount of smoking at desks, which is what counts when your idea of glamour is mostly derived from Brighton Rock. Ian Jack wrote a good column this weekend about why the local paper matters. Ignore the junior Marxists in the comments: they’re only half right, and Jack’s half is more important.

Dear George

George Monbiot says that environmentalism needs to follow the evidence and separate itself from the spurious quackery of alternative medicine – which is the sort of talk that might actually convince me to up my involvement in green issues from current levels of lax vegetarianism and energy-saving bulbs. If it means the anti-vaccination crowd would definitely keep their germ-harbouring children away from protests, I might even bring my kids campaigning.