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“The whole thing was a circus, so I played the clown”: Laurie Penny talks to Jonnie Marbles

Jonnie Marbles, who was imprisoned after attacking Rupert Murdoch with a foam pie, talks about his time inside.

Activist and comedian Jonnie Marbles was jailed for two weeks for attacking Rupert Murdoch with a foam pie. Millions around the world watched as the 26-year-old lobbed a plate of shaving foam at the ageing billionaire during the select committee hearing on July 17. I came to meet him on the day of his release from Wandsworth Prison, where he talked to me about activism, fatherhood, and what life's like on the inside.

Hi Jonnie. How was Prison?

Prison was less scary than you might imagine. The first day I was in there, still feeling quite nervous and not knowing where I was, I went back into my cell during the social hour to make a cigarette, and four people stood around the door looking out for the guards. I thought, oh no, here we go, and this small, beefy guy came right up to me, looked me in the eye, and said 'Are you Jonnie? Murdoch sent me.' And a tiny bit of my brain was convinced I was about to have my first prison fight. Then we both broke into these huge grins and shook hands, and he got me to sign my autograph on a copy of the Sun! I ended up in the same wing that Charlie Gilmour was on, and I understand that he made friends there as well.

So - why the pie?

Some people I met in in prison said I should have thrown a grenade instead, but I'm not a violent person. There's a tradition in comedy of throwing pies at people - it shows they're human, it shows they can be brought down to size. Rupert Murdoch is one of the reasons that democracy hasn't flourished in the way that it should in the Western world. I try not to hate people, but it's hard not to hate a man who does so many bad things. I talked to a few friends about it first, most of whom thought I was joking, but I was quite determined that, if the opportunity arose, I was going to put a pie in Rupert Murdoch's face.

You were attacked by Wendi Deng. Did she draw blood?

At the time I thought she'd missed, but the next day I looked in the mirror and realised there was a scratch right across my face. It was probably the adrenaline, and the sheer weirdness of the situation. Time slowed down, as it does at those moments. I felt scared, i knew it was something that was going to be a big deal one way or the other, and i just focused on getting it done. She stood up, and I just managed to get it onto his face, then she scratched me across the face, and - fair play to her - picked up the pie and threw it back at me. I have this really clear and vivid memory of looking into her eyes, and seeing something really deep and scary there. Love's always a good thing, no matter who it's between. But to portray her as a ninja or some sort of Asian tiger, like the press have been doing, strikes me as racist, and actually takes away from what she did, which was very brave, at the end of the day.

Some people say you interrupted the course of justice...

During Tom Watson's speech, I actually thought, "maybe I won't have to do this, he's bringing this man to such amazing account that i can just go home.' But during the rest of the hearing I started despairing, because no-one was asking the Murdochs anything incisive. If we'd had ten Tom Watsons sitting around that table i wouldn't have done what I did.

I think the reason that a lot of people were so negative is that they really thought they were watching a trial, a trial I had interrupted. But a select committee has so few powers. The judge at my appeal compared what I did to contempt of court, but if they had been in a court I wouldn't have done it, there'd have been no need. If we had any real justice in our society, the dock is exactly where the Murdochs would have been. Instead, it was a circus, so I played the clown.

You received a lot of criticism for your stunt. Were you surprised?

A lot of people think I did this for publicity, and maybe that's understandable -if I wasn't me, I'd probably think the same thing, but actually I hadn't thought about the aftermath. Over the two weeks while I waited for my court hearing, I basically stayed in hiding. The day afterwards I had to go out, so I put on a hoodie and shaved my beard off as an attempt not to get recognised - but funnily enough, I found I hadn't got any shaving foam left - I'd used it all on the pie!

I was shocked at some of the reaction in the media and on Twitter, and some of it really upset me, because clearly some people thought it was so wrong, and I've always respected other people's opinions. I did question what I'd done afterwards. But the fact that I've also had a huge number of positive reactions from people makes a difference. I can't name names, but some celebrities and MPs sent me notes to say well done.

You weren't expecting to be sent to prison, though.

When I heard the verdict, I was in shock - nobody had expected me to go to jail, but the judge in my case, Daphne Wickham, is known for being very hard on protesters of any kind. I kept a brave face while they took me down, but I did get very upset during the processing period, I actually did cry, because I started thinking about my son, and how upset he'd be, and how he was going to have to come back from the holiday we had been planning to take together. Luckily, one of the guards was very nice to me - he didn't seem to care what I'd done, just saw another human being in distress. People are awesome - people are the best thing there is in this world, and we should all care about each other more

So what was your routine like in prison?

I was taken straight to Wandsworth, where you're locked in for about 23 hours a day in a small shared cell, with a television, two bunkbeds, a little desk, and a toilet with a curtain that you pull across so the other person doesn't see you. Wandsworth is one of the worst prisons in the country. All I could do was sit and write to my friends. For the first few days inside I found myself trading tobacco for paper, and I very quickly had a bit of a racket going on!

Prison isn't like American TV dramas. You get given a rubbish red or blue t-shirt, a rubbish pair of jogging bottoms, a rubbish grey jumper, and a welcome pack with a plastic knife, spoon, cup, fork and bowl, one piece of writing paper, an envelope and a pen. Most of the food is so horrible that you end up throwing it away - they're given about two pounds per day to feed each prisoner.

The thing that really struck me about prison was how nobody cares about you. Your fellow prisoners care about you, but the institution doesn't care about you. I didn't get to make a phone call for six days, because the administration is incompetent, even though I needed to sort out childcare with my ex-wife. Apathy and incompetence is no way to punish people - it doesn't breed respect for the system, it just breeds contempt.

On my last day of prison, I went along to the church service, partly becuase it got me out of my cell for an hour - you quickly learn how important that is. So I sang along with the hymns, and then one of the ministers started talking about Rupert Murdoch, and how powerful God is, and how if you wrong him he'll humble you. The minister said, Murdoch is a man who kings and heads of state would bow down to, and then he was put in front of the committee, and a man came up and threw a pie in his face: praise be! I went up to the minister afterwards and said, "I hadn't realised i was doing the Lord's work.'

Your real name is Jonathan May-Bowles. Are you secretly posh?

My mum was a librarian and my dad was an accountant. I had a relatively normal middle-class upbringing in Windsor, and went to a grammar school. I became a father when I was seventeen, so I went straight to work for Ladbrokes for three years, which was a fascinating experience. I got involved in activism almost by accident in 2009, when I went on the Great Climate Swoop as a favour to a friend of my sister's - my sister is an amazing activist and a great inspiration to me. I just turned up, and suddenly I'm running through the woods being chased by horses, trying to improvise consensus decision-making with people I'd never met before. It was one of those moments where you know, instantly, that nothing's ever going to be the same again.

My family have been completely on side. My mum said the most wonderfully mum-ish thing in the world - she said, 'I don't think that was a wise thing to do, but it was very brave.' My girlfriend has been amazing. The next day, when I was dealing with all of the press in the world trying to get in touch, and Twitter, and all the criticism, she was the person who made me shut down the computer and go to be

Was it strange, being inside during the riots in London?

I was actually moved wings because of the riots, they needed space in E Wing. The response from prisoners was interesting - some of them were annoyed they couldn't be out there looting as well, and some of them were absolutely appalled. At least it meant that people suddenly wanted to watch the news. Before that, Come Dine With Me is what we were mainly watching. Endless, endless episodes of Come Dine With Me.

More and more young activists are being imprisoned, some of them for much longer stretches than you. Do you have any advice for them?

Firstly, you get used to prison very, very quickly. Try to find positive ways of using your time while you're in there. Don't just vegetate in front of the TV, no matter what everyone else is doing. Even if they're not giving you work programmes, you can write, you can read, you can talk to other people, you can meet some of the most fascinating and amazing people in there, whether or not they're good people. I don't think prison helps anyone - but activists need to not be scared of prison if we want to change the world.

Are you sorry?

No, not at all. If anything, I'm less sorry now than I was before prison.

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 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.