MURDO MACLEOD
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Where the bodies are buried

Whether you’re alive or dead, Sue Black knows who you are – as dozens of murderers and war criminals have discovered.

Even before she became an anatomy student, Sue Black was used to death. From the age of 13 she had worked every Saturday at a local butcher’s shop. On cold days, she would rush to pick up the livers from the incoming vans, the fresh organs warming her hands in the cold Scottish winter.

By the time she arrived at the University of Aberdeen, having lied to her worried parents that she had secured a full grant, she was already familiar with bones, blood and flesh. But what she saw inside David – the nickname she gave to the cadaver she was instructed to dissect – was very different.

She calls the inside of the human body an “amazing world”, a life story written in skin and tissue. Stretching out her pale forearms – she is red-haired and “tans as well as a snowball” – she shows me her freckles. Their ­position was decided in her mother’s womb: the cells settled in a layer of skin called the basal lamina, waiting to be activated by sunlight. “If you stay indoors and you never go outside,” she says, “well, you’ll always remain pale and interesting.”

Black, now 54, has made her career painstakingly learning to read these human stories. She is now Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology at the University of Dundee and one of Britain’s leading experts in human identification. She sees bodies that betray their owners – the veins on a paedophile’s hand, for example, which are more distinctive than a fingerprint – and bodies whose marks and scars become testimonies to murders and war crimes. She cannot help looking at the world as an anatomist: it always annoys her that political cartoonists put the gap in Tony Blair’s teeth in the wrong place.

Three deaths influenced Sue Black’s childhood and set the pattern for her career. The first was that of her grandmother – a tough old woman who, when she knew she was dying, told the young Susan that whenever she needed advice, she could turn to her own shoulder and talk to her. (She still does.) The second was a young mother called Renee MacRae, who went missing in 1976 with her son Andrew near Inverness, where Black grew up. “I can remember the police coming round and asking my father to look in the outhouses,” she says, her hands cradling a cup of tea in her university office.

The officers found no trace of MacRae and her son, there or anywhere else. The case remained dormant until 2004, when a new chief constable decided that there was enough intelligence to excavate a local quarry. Black was involved with the search but after the police moved tonnes of earth, they uncovered only a few bones – which belonged to a rabbit. The disappearances are now Scotland’s longest-running missing persons case. “Those kinds of things get under your skin,” she says. “You think there’s a family sitting with their life, in part, in a stutter. They just want their sister back . . . Whoever killed her is the only person, I suspect, who knows where she is.”

The final death that changed the young Sue’s life was that of a rat, beaten to death by her father, who had found it scavenging outside the hotel that he ran on the shores of Loch Carron. She remembers its eyes, its teeth, its tail, its fevered thrashing as it died. It left her with a fear of rodents, so she was stumped when, on reaching the fourth year of her anatomy degree, she was told to dissect the brains of hamsters and mice. She convinced her tutor to let her study human bones instead – and never looked back.

***

What Sue Black does is easy to explain but sometimes difficult to accomplish: she finds out who people are or, more often, were. After training as an anatomist, she was employed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and travelled to Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Thailand and Iraq to help identify the bodies of those killed in natural disasters and massacres. Her first big mission came in 1999, when a colleague, Peter Vanezis, was asked to collect evidence in Kosovo for a possible war crimes tribunal. He arrived at a barn in the village of Velika Kruša, in the west of the country, and found it filled with 42 decomposing bodies. He told his superiors that he needed help. He needed Sue Black.

She was by then the mother of three children, aged 15, five and three. With her husband working full-time and her parents living 120 miles away, she hired a nanny and got on the next plane. It was not a hard decision. “The girls have grown up knowing that we adore them but they also know that their dad has a life and their mum has a life, the same as they will have a life – or they do have a life now, because they’re much, much older.”

What she found in Kosovo was a scene of horror. There was a survivor from the barn massacre – a man who had made it to the corner of the room and had been shielded by his friends as Serbian troops sprayed the men with bullets, then tried to set the barn on fire. He lay still under their bodies until it was safe to emerge, many hours later. Black’s job was to see if the physical evidence corroborated his story.

That involved sifting through the remains with her fingertips, working on bodies that had been burned and partly eaten by local dogs and were now a boiling mass of maggots. There was no running water on site and there were snipers in the hills. There were also no toilets. On the first day, one of the police officers on the mission returned from the tree that the team had been using as a makeshift loo, beaming from ear to ear. He had found himself urinating on an explosive device. It had a tripwire that would have triggered if anyone walked down the road away from the barn, killing or severely injuring them. But the man was thrilled: at his age, he had managed to stop mid-flow as soon as he saw it.

During her time in Kosovo, Black took on the role of the team’s surrogate mother. “Everybody kicks in to a professional mode the minute you get into the car and you’re heading out to an event,” she says. “But when you’re in your lodgings at night, when people are being people rather than being professionals, there’s a different dynamic that goes on.” In that role, she says, she could tell them to stop drinking, have a proper meal, or go to bed. “And those buttons are ones that a mother can hit. What becomes quite disruptive within a team is when you have single, available, attractive women and you have men.”

She also helped the rest of the team deal with the emotional demands of the job. Once, she was conducting a post-mortem in a field. The subject was a toddler, still in red booties and a sleepsuit. Soldiers had chased the village children into the field and then used their heads for target practice while the adults were made to watch. Pausing for a moment from her work, she looked up and saw a line of policemen’s boots. One of the officers had broken down – he had a toddler at home – and his colleagues were sheltering him until he could continue. Black, however, was having none of it. She stood up and threw her arms around him, allowing him to cry in the open. Then she told him that he had to keep his work and home life separate.

When she is working on a difficult case, she has a mantra: “You didn’t cause this, you didn’t do this, you’re not responsible.” She keeps her professional life in the “work box” and, because of this, she professes never to have had a sleepless night as a result of the things she has seen. The crime writer Val McDermid, who has known Black for 20 years, says that she is “very good at compartmentalising . . . It’s that ability to not bring her work out of the building that makes it possible for her to survive.”

***

For the first half of her career, Black was mostly concerned with identifying the dead. But it can be just as important to identify the living – as in the case of Scotland’s largest paedophile ring.

Some time between 2005 and 2007, a man called Neil Strachan, who worked as an engineer with Crown Paints in Edinburgh, attached a personal hard drive to a computer at work. He forgot all about it, until one day the computer was sent away for repair. On the hard drive, the technician found a sexually explicit photograph of a child.

That discovery set off a chain of raids and arrests, leading to the trial of a group of men who had met online to swap indecent images and boast about their exploits. One of Strachan’s contacts, a man called James Rennie, had an email address beginning “kplover”, standing for “kiddie porn lover”. When the case was coming to trial, though, the police faced a challenge. Strachan had sent messages to Rennie indicating that he was not only looking at child sex abuse images but abusing children. “I might have found us a contact with two boys, two and four, willing to share,” he wrote once. Another time, he boasted of “having fun” with an 18-month-old boy; police found a picture of a man abusing a child roughly that age around New Year, which became known as the “Hogmanay image”. They desperately wanted to know if Strachan was the man in the photograph, because the penalties for making child pornography are far greater than those for merely viewing it.

But how? The images didn’t show the man’s face. For some unknown reason, however, the defence counsel had taken images of Strachan’s thighs – and although his legs were entirely unremarkable, in one of the images he was holding the photographic scale. And there, on his thumb, was the mark that betrayed him. He had a deformation of the lunula, the crescent-shaped white area at the base of the nail. So did the man in the Hogmanay image. The evidence went to court and in 2009, Strachan was convicted of the ­attempted rape of the 18-month-old and sentenced to life.

Black and her team now examine dozens of similar images every year and in 80 per cent of the cases they work on, their identification of an anatomical feature convinces the defendant to change his plea to guilty. She is the only member of the team who has children and again the mantra – “This is  not something you caused . . .” – helps her, as does her day job in the dissecting room. “When you’ve worked in anatomy, where you spend your life with the deceased, when you then work in forensic anthropology, where you see individuals in all sorts of circumstances, whether it’s in burnings, whether it’s in explosions, whether it’s in murder, suicide, whatever it may be, all of these serve to help you find that ability to retain a detachment.”

Some of Black’s opinions are unexpected, such as her belief that defendants in rape and child abuse cases should not be named unless they are found guilty. “I can’t think of anything worse for a man than to be wrongly accused of being a child abuser,” she says. “Once that label’s been put on you . . . even though you’re found innocent, in the public’s mind there is still always this: ‘Is there no smoke without fire?’” She is wary, too, of investing too much in cases and feeling tempted to overegg the science or her certainty. “It’s incredibly important that we only say things that are backed up by research, because to put the wrong person on the wrong side of bars is unacceptable. That’s not justice working, that’s injustice.”

In almost all of her work, the forensic evidence is just part of a larger case built by the police. This can have unexpected consequences, as in an early case that used vein pattern analysis. “The very first one we did was a case of alleged child abuse where the girl alleged that her biological father was abusing her and she – bless her – had her Skype camera on her computer. And I don’t know if you know, but if you run it in night mode, it goes into infrared, so you had infrared capture through the night. And a picture was picked up on the camera at about half past four in the morning of a hand coming in and interfering with the girl under the covers.”

The infrared camera picked up the perpetrator’s hand and, from her years in the lab, Black knew that the veins that were visible were very distinctive. Her team compared the blood vessels in the images with the defendant’s. They matched. “But what I had no research on – and didn’t present [in court] – was what the likelihood was of anybody having the same veins, because we simply didn’t know,” she says.

After some back and forth between the judge, the prosecutors and the defence, the vein match was ruled admissible. “So the jury heard it. The jury then went away and they came back with a not guilty verdict.”

Black and her team wondered what they had done wrong, so they sent a note to ask whether the jury had not been convinced by the untested technique. “They said, ‘Oh, no, we had no problem with the science, that was fine.’” The trouble was that the members of the jury did not believe the girl, whom they had found to be too composed in the witness box. She sighs. “She was a young teenager. Who else would be in her room at half past four in the morning? But, you know, that’s not our case.”

***

Since then, Black and her team have discovered that the veins in the hand are, as they suspected, highly distinctive – even in identical twins. (Earlier, she told me with relish: “That’s the wholly wonderful thing about identical twins – that the one thing that they are not is identical.”)

This new information provides police with a more reliable method of identification than many of the better-known forms. In Scottish courts now, for instance, fingerprint matches are treated as matters of opinion rather than fact. This follows an inquiry into an eyebrow-raising case in which a police detective called Shirley McKie was suspended, then sacked, then charged with perjury, after her fingerprint was apparently found on a door frame at a murder scene, although she denied ever visiting it. Her father, a retired detective, took up the case and McKie was eventually acquitted and awarded £750,000 in compensation. It seems likely that although her prints matched those at the scene on all the points that had been sampled, they were not identical.

“It took her many, many years to prove that, in fact, the way in which fingerprints were being assessed was fundamentally flawed, so that all cases where convictions relied on fingerprints were now in jeopardy,” Black says. Other staples of forensic science, such as gait analysis, now face similar questions. “In America at the moment, they’re having horrendous problems – and we’re not surprised – with bite marks.”

She is also dismissive of iris identification, because it is possible to make a good-quality replica of an eyeball on acetate and print it on a contact lens. “If you can spoof the biometric, then ultimately it’s not a very good biometric. And they’ve now been able to spoof irises. Spoofing of fingerprints is child’s play now.”

Such concerns are why Black talks about a “crisis” in forensic science. For many years, DNA evidence has been a kind of deus ex machina in criminal cases – the DNA has spoken: that guy did it – but matches are based on probability rather than certainty and the modern techniques used to isolate very small strands of DNA are open to contamination.

Other types of evidence are prone to misunderstanding. In February 2014, she brought together a group of forensic scientists to discuss the limitations of their work. Without the scientists’ knowledge, Black also asked several senior judges and lawyers to attend. “We have two key players in the forensic world who only ever meet in an adversarial position, so they’re never, ever going to understand each other,” she says. “So, by the scientists being open and honest and not realising the judges were in the room, the judges were going, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is what the scientists think. Ooh!’”

The result of the meeting was that the scientists and lawyers agreed that 40 evidence types needed attention. “And that went from DNA, fingerprints, footwear marks, gunshot residue, bite marks – you go through the whole list – that said either we’ve got a problem in detecting it, or recognising it, or comparing it, or evaluating it, or communicating it.”

The scientists are now producing primers, written in simple English, to help juries and judges better understand the science they are being asked to weigh up. “That’s probably the biggest ever project attempted in public engagement with science, if you think that’s taking science into every single courtroom in the land, every single day.”

***

Alongside these grand plans, Sue Black’s attention in the past few years has been on a project closer to home. When I visit Dundee on a wind-whipped December day, the department is humming with quiet industry: there are students (95 per cent of them female), mortuary assistants and colleagues in Christmas jumpers. And there are bodies.

When Black arrived at Dundee in 2005, anatomy departments were in decline – they were either closing down altogether, or moving to “prosection”, in which an instructor dissects a cadaver in front of the class. But she is an evangelist for the importance of hands-on experience, and the department receives 80 new bodies every year for its students to cut into and explore.

Val McDermid was one of a group of crime writers who agreed to help Black raise the funds for a new mortuary a few years ago. They asked their fans to vote for a room to be named after them and to pay a pound to do so. It’s clear who won, as Sue Black guides me into the “Val McDermid Mortuary” and then to the “Stuart MacBride Dissecting Room”. The other eight writers each got their name on an embalming tank, with the exception of Lee Child, who decided to use that of his lead character Jack Reacher instead. “We realised early on we couldn’t have the Child Mortuary,” says Black dispassionately.

The dissecting rooms are cool, and – to my surprise – smell of very little, not even disinfectant. The air-conditioning draws the air downwards and the new Thiel embalming method stops the bodies from decomposing. This has been Black’s pet project for the past half-decade, as formalin, the old embalming fluid, is known to be carcinogenic and leaves dead bodies stiff and unyielding. Other departments tried “fresh frozen” – dismembering a cadaver and defrosting each section as it was needed. Black thought that this was “incredibly wasteful of the gift”, because each body part has a usable life of just a few days, and wasteful of money, too, because limbs and organs had to be bought in from abroad. “You could have 12 legs come in, shipped into Heathrow. They would carry a health certificate that they’re free from everything – I’m sorry, but I’d want to check – and then they’d go off and be dissected. Incredibly expensive.”

Black’s preferred alternative is the Thiel method, named after the Austrian anatomist Walter Thiel, which involves soaking bodies in a mixture of salts, chemicals and a smaller measure of formalin. It keeps the bodies soft and pliable, which Black says works better for everyone except trainee neurosurgeons and colorectal specialists (a living gut has more tension). McDermid says that the Thiel cadavers “look like people – albeit slightly strange, with no hair or fingernails. For the students, that’s a huge advantage, because it gives them a sense of what they are going to be working with in a way the old bodies didn’t.”

Downstairs, two of the department’s mortuary assistants, Claire and Sam, are dressed in scrubs and wellies, preparing a body using the Thiel method. The cadaver is propped up, almost upright, on a table, with tubes running into the top of his head and out of his thigh. He looks peaceful; the scene is not in the least Gothic. “I do tend to talk to them,” Claire says. “I applaud them if they have very good veins.” What’s the difference between picking up a live patient and a dead body? “The bodies are heavier, because they’re not helping you,” Sam says.

Black and her PA, Vivienne McGuire, meet many of the cadaver donors while they are still alive, offering them a cup of tea in her office, which is spangled with plaques and knick-knacks. (“To save time, let’s assume I know everything,” reads one slogan. “My job is secure – nobody wants it,” offers another.) There’s a skeleton in the corner, which might eventually be replaced with Black: she has said that she would be delighted to become a teaching aid in her old department one day.

There are many reasons why people agree to donate their bodies. For some, it is as simple as wanting not to burden their families with the £3,600 that the average funeral costs. Others want to pay back the medical profession, or hope to train doctors to cure the disease that killed them. As they leave her office, Black tells the donors, “Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but we really don’t want to see you soon.”

She takes me upstairs and shows me the book of remembrance: the donors for 2014 included Shelagh, James, Irene and Angus. On the first Wednesday of May every year, the department holds a memorial service for donors’ families, attended by the staff and students. “I found it quite moving to go into the mortuary and see the cadavers,” says McDermid. “There is a sense of respect for the people who have donated their bodies. This is not Doctor in the House. There’s no larking about in Sue’s mortuary.”

Throughout her career, Black has been close to death, often involving the most traumatic circumstances. Yet she is one of the most serene, untroubled people I have ever interviewed; serious when the occasion demands it but ready to laugh. “Her students are utterly devoted to her,” McDermid says. “It’s extraordinary. They’d walk on hot coals for her.”

Perhaps the cliché is true: contemplating death really does make you feel more alive? “It’s my view that we have, as a society, removed ourselves from death,” Black says. “We’ve built a wall around it that makes us uncomfortable, whereas if you go back just a few generations, when Granny died she was in the coffin in the front room. It was viewed as just as natural as birth.”

On my way out of the building, I think: I wouldn’t mind if my final resting place were Sue Black’s mortuary. I pull my coat around myself, happily, and walk out into the cold winter sunshine. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war

JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Welcome to the zoo: what it feels like to report a presidential campaign

Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault?

Here’s how you cover an American political convention: you get up inhumanly early to fire off your first emails, chugging down hotel coffee that tastes like burnt leather. Then you put on your least-squashed outfit and you drag yourself through crowds of sweating delegates to an event or a talk (or, if you’re unlucky, the treadless circus of the convention floor), and you watch and listen with your phone in your hand and one eye on social media until you run across something that you think might be worth writing about.

You email your editor from the phone to see if your sense is correct, and the idea is saleable. Meanwhile, you’ve started looking for somewhere to open your laptop and bang out your copy. You write it. You buy a coffee so they don’t kick you out of the café. You scramble for healthy wifi. You talk your way into the giant car park repurposed as a crèche for journalists outside the arena, where your organisation has a tiny table, and Google and Facebook have giant booths distributing free snacks, just to remind you who’s really in charge of the media.

Then you file your copy. You send the link out all over social media, because that’s part of your job, and you go in search of food with your eyes all glassy from screen glare, until you have to do it again. Whenever your editor goes to bed, you think about wrapping up and relocating to a bar where you can flirt with half of your attention while drinking beer and scrolling, constantly, through social media.

At some point around 4am, you clock off and spend an hour searching for a cab that you hope you’re going to be able to put against expenses, and you chat to the driver on your way to your overpriced, out-of-town hotel, too tired to register the shock of a conversation with an actual human being. Later on, in a hotel room that you can’t afford, you ask yourself: how does it feel to have made something that hates you?

In the two heat-drunk, deadline-crazed weeks that I spent at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, that line kept echoing in my mind. It’s spoken by an android to its creator in the Alex Garland film Ex Machina, but the 15,000 journalists, reporters, columnists, television crew members and media flunkies gathered to watch the biggest American political showdown of this half-decade could have asked ourselves the same question. Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault? And what can we do to stop it?

This is a story about stories, the people who tell them and the price we pay. In all the thousands of essays, reports, video diaries, interviews and listicles produced at and around the lumbering pageant of the US presidential race, one class of person is supposed to be almost invisible, and that is the people who do the work of production: the journalists. But what is happening in politics today, particularly in the United States, and particularly in this election, has everything to do with the media – the industry, yes, but also the people in it. If the media are the message, the message is anxious, incoherent and mired in a money crisis that it has no idea how to handle. Not unlike America, as it happens.

***

Just in case you’ve had the good fortune to have spent the past two years under a rock, let’s recap. These US conventions are the official nominating ceremonies for the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as four-day pageants at which lobbyists and media flunkies come to flirt and network and make whatever passes (in professional political terms) for friends. The candidate selection is merely the excuse for this shindig, and this time the fix was in before it had even begun.

The Democrats had chosen the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, representing the centre-liberal status quo with a corporate feminist twist and a side order of hawkish sabre-rattling. Her main challenger was the veteran socialist Bernie Sanders, who believes in wealth redistribution, free university education and social justice and gained an enormous following among young voters who have not yet accepted that they owe their votes to any candidate with a blue ribbon.

On the Republican side, a field of whey-faced religious extremists had been cleared for Donald Trump, the real-estate tycoon and reality-television star, who stands on a platform of imposing a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, building a border wall with Mexico and replacing the entire US electoral system with a giant statue of his gelatinous face, sculpted from misdirected class rage. This, more than anyone, was the man we had all come to see.

One of the liturgies of doctrinal Trumpism is that there is a thing called “the mainstream media”, which tries to control what “ordinary” people think, despite knowing next to nothing about their lives. The mainstream media are assumed to be homogeneous, cosmopolitan, well paid, based almost exclusively in New York and the Beltway of Washington, and liberal to its core. This is a more accurate description of Trump than it is of most US journalists I know.

Trump did not invent performative hostility towards the “mainstream media”. Every insurgent politician in recent years has taunted the press in public, while giving hacks hungry for copy exactly what they want: a story that draws in readers. And a great many journalists, at least those who have not yet given up on the notion of speaking truth to power, feel less comfortable when power tries to court us than we do when it pretends to hate us.

The ways in which we create and consume media today are not the same as they were even four years ago, during what was dubbed in the US as “the social media election”. Rapid changes in communications technology have reshaped the terrain more thoroughly than those employed to scry in the entrails of the internet for the future of human thought can anticipate. What is clear is that power flows to those who can understand and exploit the hysterical reality engine called the media – and that has always been the case.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swayed the nation with his deft use of radio – and so did Adolf Hitler. In the 1960s, John F Kennedy became the first “television president”, beating his opponent, Richard Nixon, in televised debates that radio listeners felt that Nixon had won. Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, perfected that position. Barack Obama is the first US president to understand and exploit the full potential of the internet, recognising that social media can be used to reshape the calcified structures of money and messaging that are still, across the West, called democracy.

This year, Donald Trump – a reality TV mogul before he is anything else – has taken control of the narrative, understanding, like Europe’s right-wing populist pundits, that it is possible to bypass facts altogether and hit the electorate in the incoherent space of pure emotion. What, at a time like this, does journalism mean? What does it mean to be a member of the press in an age when there is no longer a clear distinction between media and meatspace, between reality and television?

***

 American political conventions are not the staid, rainwashed yearly affairs that we are used to in Britain. Every four years, the Republican and Democratic Parties throw a festival for thousands of lawmakers, lawyers, reporters, lobbyists and the occasional actual voter on their break from handing around snacks at press parties. It lasts four days, because that’s how long it took originally to count up delegates from every state, and now the rest of the time is filled up with boozing, hobnobbing and wearing clothes that make everyone look like they’re live-action role-playing the most depressing parts of the mid-1980s. There are speeches, and more speeches, musical interludes by tame celebrities, blind children singing the national anthem, and quite a lot of God-bothering – and much of the main action doesn’t start until 4pm every day, in order to give people time to recover from the night before.

This would not work in Britain. America still takes itself too seriously to consider how crass this looks to an outside world that also has reason to fear a vicious, swollen toddler with alarming hair being given access to the US nuclear codes. This year, the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, came first, as befits the case for the prosecution of the political status quo. On the Saturday before it began, the airport was already lousy with journalists looking for Trump people to interview.

Armed police circled the terminal as a choir of children from local schools sang patriotic lullabies to soothe us into what would be a two-week fever dream of nativist fear-mongering and empty political pageantry. The candidates, remember, had already been decided by a grudging, deeply divided electorate. All that was left was ritual, and the dim, thrilling possibility that someone might do something off-message.

I bought the first coffee of the week and got in a cab to call my editor while my synapses soaked in diluted stimulants. The roads were jammed with thousands of hacks doing the same, some of whom already had deadlines to meet. Nothing had happened yet. That didn’t matter. We were here to create news, not report it.

“The threshold for news now is very low,” said Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times and an old friend from (where else?) the internet. “There are more of us running around and there’s less to do. A lot of us were bracing for something potentially as bad as the protests at the DNC [Democratic National Convention] in Chicago in 1968 . . . That’s always the conflicted part of the business. Chaos and mayhem make for selling newspapers, but if you live here in Cleveland, you want nothing to go wrong.”

Why did we come here? To see the show. We had heard that there would be protests, which always make good copy, and dissent on the convention floor. And we knew without doubt that there would be frothing cryptofascism, which makes better copy. The more Trump claims to hate the press, the more we fall over ourselves to give him the attention he craves. He is an insider trader in the attention economy.

I heard the word “zoo” repeatedly. The reporters had “come to see the zoo”. A zoo: where you pay to see dumb and dangerous beasts in cages, and then eat ice cream. Is that where we thought we were? There were wire fences around the convention zone and the people there knew that they were on show, putting on a spectacle for the liberal media that they claimed roundly to despise. Trump’s people made it clear that this convention was about showbiz, although the celebrity roll-call was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a man from a TV show called Duck Dynasty and a handful of C-list actors. The DNC had Snoop Dogg.

As delegates, lobbyists and reporters continued to flood into Cleveland, nothing – at least nothing resembling substantive news of any kind – continued to happen relentlessly. But we were all hoping for a moment of transcendence, a big breakthrough. A great observation or piece of writing that would make our editors proud and our landlords happy, back in the places we were from – sorry, the places we were based. None of the reporters, it seemed, was from anywhere. Instead, we were based in New York, or based in Washington, or based in a small village in Finland. We were transient half-people, scrapping for meaning and a living.

It quickly became apparent that the promised protests would not be occurring. We had prepared ourselves for open-carry gun marches and riots in the streets, and so had the police of every local district, who had been shipped in to bristle on every corner, but anyone with a sensible point to make had decided to stay at home. The gun protest turned out mainly to consist of a man with two guns, with dozens of reporters circling him like hungry vultures that had heard the dying screams of political discourse.

Mark Twain is apocryphally said to have observed that there were only three real American cities – New York, New Orleans and San Francisco – and everywhere else was Cleveland. The place did look like it had been hastily constructed out of plywood and the overwhelming impression was of being backstage on a giant movie set, which helped with the sense of unreality not one jot. Nor did the way that everyone in town seemed to spend between a third and half of their waking hours staring at a phone or a laptop screen. The screen-time/real-time distinction had disintegrated completely and we had all come a long way to be in the same place, looking at our phones.

Still hazy from jet lag, I dunked myself in a basement swimming pool; its acid-blue water was the temperature of fresh urine. I dried off in the bar, chlorine tightening my skin. Next to me on an unforgiving leather sofa, Adele M Stan, a reporter from the American Prospect, was wrapped in a shawl, checking her phone. This, she told me, was the strangest political convention of the seven that she had attended. Many of the major Republican political players, unwilling to yoke themselves to Trump’s toxic popularity, had decided to skip it, and so had most activists with any sense. Instead, the space around the stadium was a clear field for ranters, ravers and swivel-eyed performance artists masquerading as political actors – just like the stage.

For two weeks, in two cities, I met almost nobody who was local. The town centres had been cleared and scrubbed for the event, the local tramps and beggars ungently encouraged to move on. Often, even the waiting staff and Uber drivers had come from out of town. Many of the real citizens had left to rent out their homes on Airbnb. 

Everyone in the action zones seemed to be from somewhere else.

I know nobody from Cleveland and yet, within an hour of arriving, I had run into five people I know. They had come to get the story. It quickly became apparent that they had also come to get laid. I have never been so consistently hit on as I was in those first three days in Cleveland. Tinder was lit with people “in town for the week, trying this out for the first time”.

I ended up having some of my most honest conversations of the trip with other reporters on the instant dating app, where we seemed to feel more free to voice our political opinions. We would start off straight-up flirting, then ease into confidences about how bizarre the experience was and intimate existential panic about the nature of sanity, bracketed in plaintive requests for the sort of sex you have with strangers as the world is ending. I matched with two people from The Daily Show. The week was a stew of pre-fascist panic: mate or die.

***

On the walk down to the convention centre in Cleveland, the streets seemed empty except for stray reporters, security guards and a giant billboard howling: “Don’t believe the liberal media!” Overhead, a chartered plane flew the slogan “Hillary for Prison”. This line was available over the next few days on buttons, badges, T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, announcing to the world that the trolls had taken the wheel of political discourse. Hillary for Prison. Like much of what passes for political conversation in this election, it makes sense only if you say it in an American accent, and it’s not as funny as it seems.
Outside on the corner, two enterprising young men with button-down shirts and ice-white smiles that did not flicker were selling Clinton- and Trump-themed boxes of cereal for $40 each, because they had college debts that they couldn’t rely on the Democrats to cancel. I switched on the recorder, a decision I almost immediately regretted. The spiel they gave me was so polished that I was unsurprised, a quick Google search later, to find five articles about them already published.

There was still little to do but drink coffee, so a square mile of cleared city was full of reporters running around, wired and jumpy, wondering what we were missing. We were desperate for something, anything to kick off, not because we liked the idea of civil unrest but – hey, it had to be better than cluttering up the hotel lobby.

Speaking of hotel lobbies, one thing bears repeating: most of the reporters in Cleveland weren’t as fancy as we were making out. For every well-known news anchor and overpaid op-ed writer, there were dozens of production crew, staff bloggers and freelance reporters living from pay cheque to pay cheque. On Monday afternoon in the aptly named Public Square, I met up with five reporters whom I had known since we all got our start together covering Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They had driven down from New York and found a floor to crash on in the hope of making enough money covering the convention to pay for the trip. Back in 2011, it seemed that new media had the power to reframe democracy. Five years later, that turned out to be entirely true – but not in the way we expected.

We gathered to reminisce about that time, about the protests, the excitement, the arrests, the brief, gorgeous sense that a different world was possible. We’d also heard that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine would perform an impromptu concert in the square for the protesters, so we sat at a café table, waiting for that to begin. Rage had been all over Occupy like a rash and could be relied on to drum up some modest mayhem.

In the opposite corner, a few dozen young people were gathered around a speaker stage. We spent an hour checking social ­media with one eye, while catching up on what had happened in each other’s lives – who had got married, who had broken up, who’d been made redundant, who had got custody of the dog. We met covering Occupy Wall Street; now we are, apparently, the liberal media establishment. It took us an hour to realise that the people crowded around the small stage were not the warm-up for the protest. They were the protest. By that time, it was over.

***

I turned up to the Washington Post’s convention-viewing party with a gaggle of other young hacks, all of our well-honed powers of observation focused on predicting when the snack table would be restocked and how long we could stay before somebody noticed that we were freeloading freelancers who came here to pinch the wifi. The Washington Post, underwritten by Amazon money, took over a bar near the convention centre and offered on-site massages and craft beers. There were also speaking events throughout the day. Nick Pinto of the Village Voice was not the only one to notice that those who had sponsored the shindig, including representatives of Big Oil, got to put their point of view across unchallenged at these events. So much for liberal bias.

On the big screens behind the free bar, the convention speeches were playing, but almost nobody was watching. Nobody was watching as Willie Robertson, one of the stars of the Duck Dynasty TV show, took to the stage to curse out the “mainstream media”, which lived in a different world from “regular folks like us, who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living”. “It’s been a rough year for media experts,” he said. “It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long.”

At the Republican convention, I saw 15,000 reporters trying to find a new, original angle on the only story that mattered – that a dark mood of nationalist populism had taken hold in the world’s only superpower and whatever the outcome of this election, there will be suffering. There will be pain, distributed among millions. I saw the flags in the arena, the pomp and excess, the hundreds of fists raised. Country-rock music played throughout. It was like a nightmare marriage of Nuremberg in 1933 and the Eurovision Song Contest, and I knew that this story was not new.

***

Journalists have a way of acting as if we were not political animals with political appetites, as if we were spectators. There may have been a time, in a previous generation, when this was true, when commentators and editors got to play politics like it was a game. But times are changing and so is the industry, and we’ve got skin in this game. Nobody who expects to be personally unaffected by a Donald Trump presidency would, for instance, steal an entire jar of BuzzFeed-branded pens (including the jar), which is what I saw a young freelancer doing at the Washington Post party. By the end of the first week, we were all ready for a little bit of hope. But that wasn’t the story the Democrats were selling, given their reluctance to lie with such lucrative momentum as their rivals.

Philadelphia in late July was hotter than the underbelly of the sun and the air was soupy with moisture. This is not a place where Europeans should ever have settled, for a number of good reasons of which the weather is not the least. The heat sent everyone a bit loopy, as if we were walking through treacle in a dream. And, like in a dream, the narrative kept slipping out of focus. From the start, the messaging was all about the grand story of America, a nation that does not need to be made “great again” because it is already great, a nation that survives by hallucinating its own legend – but the gathered press could not help but share the sense of having been cheated. The awkward truth that Trump and his followers have tapped into is that there are millions of people for whom America is not, and never has been, all that great.

A few days before the speeches started, the crypto-justice trolls WikiLeaks dropped an enormous cache of emails from the Democratic National Committee’s server that had probably been hacked by Russian agents. These appeared to show, to the surprise of nobody, that the Democratic Party had been manoeuvring against Bernie Sanders from the start.

The convention opened with accusations of corruption and the announcement that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic chair, was resigning. That afternoon, hundreds of Sanders supporters braved the heat to stand outside City Hall to make their feelings known. The one thing I heard from everyone I interviewed – and the one point of agreement between the Bernie supporters and Trump’s people – was that the mainstream media were not to be trusted.

The overwhelming impression of being a reporter at the DNC was of being held hostage – literally, as well as figuratively. Everyone was too tired to move and certainly too tired to flirt. Where the Republican convention was a slosh of sexual energy, of directionless desire, the Democrats’ was all about desire deferred. I deleted Tinder from my phone to make more space for interviews.

The convention centre was miles out of town and getting in involved a system of passes and checkpoints so complicated that you would have been loath to go outside the media zone, even if it weren’t more than 30°C in the shade. The press was stashed in a system of speciously air-conditioned marquees outside the convention hall, with three stinking porta-potties to service thousands of reporters and no water available. Jerry Springer was there, and I had no idea why. Is he a Democrat? Or does he simply materialise wherever reality television meets Freudian psychodrama, wherever people try to pretend that working-class people screaming at each other is entertainment?

It was, more than anything, a physical slog. The tone was set by the way in which the perimeter had been given over to Uber, so that it was hard to get close without taking the on-demand car service. Entry to the security zone was through an oasis-like Uber tent, where you could pick up free water in exchange for your lingering discomfort with Silicon Valley economics. It’s like being in a rewrite of Children of Men for the gig economy. A new adventure in bleak.

Many of the reporters in attendance had just come from Cleveland and were already worn out from a week of frantic deadline-wrangling and late-night networking – not optional in an industry in which job security is based largely on personal connections. Here, the reporters were taken for granted and so was our good coverage. The understanding was that we would encourage our readers, implicitly or explicitly, to support the nominee because we had no other option. By the end of the second day, it wasn’t clear if we would even be allowed to leave without at least a tweet declaring ourselves #WithHer.

On day two, after the roll-call of states was read out and Clinton was officially nominated, some Sanders delegates – who had hoped for something more than the status quo with a feminist varnish – staged a walkout. The first I saw of this was movement in the media tent, that unmistakable herd motion of reporters who realise potential copy is happening near them, like chickens moving as one at the rattle of the seed trough.

Finally, something off-message was happening. After days of manoeuvring to ensure that no left-wing protesters got near the press, they came right to us. T-shirted delegates from Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee stood in the press tent with hand-drawn signs and sticky tape half hanging off their mouths. They had taped their mouths shut to symbolise their silencing by the Democratic committee but were having to untape themselves every few minutes to give interviews and, after the third or fourth time of doing this, the tape started to lose its stickiness. Those trapped outside chanted: “The whole world is watching!” For once, at least for those with a broadband connection, this was true.

They played us like Slick Willie plays the saxophone. It was masterful. We heat-exhausted copy-monkeys, strung out on hours of refreshing TweetDeck, found ourselves standing on tables, holding our phones aloft like protective amulets, trying to capture whatever it was that was happening, because something, for the first time in days, was definitely happening. Something unplanned. Something off-script.

The decision to occupy the media tent was borderline genius. It was one of the best-played protest moves I had ever seen, placing the dissenters instantly in front of the world’s cameras. Like the convention, it was staged not for those who were present but for readers and viewers elsewhere. The internet was the invisible current in the room. The rest of America and the rest of the world were not here, but we were haunted by them – by the sense that real life was going on just outside the room.

Yet, like in a horror movie from the scrag-end of the 1990s, it turned out that we were the ghosts all along. It turned out that we, the delegates, the lobbyists, the spectators and the precarious, anxious press corps, were the ones haunting the real world through the internet, trying to make sense of a story that had run far ahead of us, trying to form the narratives of which material life is made. We sneer at reality TV without understanding that we are active producers in the greatest reality show of all: US politics.

It was enough. I didn’t care enough about what Hillary Clinton had to say to drag myself through the sweltering nightmare of the convention centre for another minute, so my colleague and I fought our way to a cab and watched it on TV, at home. It turned out that Clinton had little to add to the story that America has been trying to tell about itself for decades, apart from a fantastic array of pantsuits and a series of promises that she will be under no obligation to keep.

With the world facing the alternative of Donald Trump, it is now on us – those who create and sustain the narratives of identity and change in the US and beyond – to make that sell, in order to avert disaster. We may not be the establishment but we find ourselves in a position of having to advocate for it, and to do so convincingly to those for whom the prospect of a woman president is not sufficient to inspire faith in a better future. That’s what the media are good for right now, in this fever dream of an election – and it might not be enough.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser