Beauty and post-postbag journalism

What online writer doesn't bait readers to get their hits fix?

Yes, this is about That Journalist. I don’t even need to mention her name; you almost certainly know who it is, unless you’ve been lucky enough to avoid Twitter all week, don’t read the Daily Mail and don’t watch This Morning. In which case: God bless you. Go outside and frolic in the daffodils. This is for the rest of us, who have had to wade through the porridge-thick mass of comment and countercomment that has been social media over the past few days.

So That Journalist wrote an article in which she said being beautiful led to problems. People disputed whether she was beautiful, or deluded, or whatever. It became what people call a Twitterstorm, though I tend to imagine that word spoken aloud as one might say "hit parade" or "wireless"; even though it is a relatively new word, it seems dusty, obsolete and confused already. Since then, you haven’t been able to move for comment about it all. Was she a helpless victim? Was she a knowing participant? Were the Twitter masses worse than her? And so on, and so on.

We all do it, in one way or another. I would so love this blogpost to go viral, although it won’t (although if you’d like to retweet it, or share it, then please do, I wouldn’t say no, that’d be great). I’d love to be trending on Twitter. Wouldn’t you? If not, you’re probably not cut out to be a writer. But writers (or those of us who consider ourselves writers, even though our readers, and our tax returns, may disagree) do. Most of us write because we crave validation, or attention. "Read this!" we scream. "Read this and agree with it!" But mostly, we just want you to read this. Read this now.

There was a pre-digital time when people didn’t know whether columnists were popular or unpopular. You could get a reasonable idea as to whether people liked them by judging from the postbag – though that’s a pretty blunt instrument for working out whether someone’s writing stuff that the readers are engaging with. You might not get letters for the hundreds of people nodding along in agreement, but you will for one person getting the wrong end of the stick, or getting angry with what you’ve said.  

The more outrageous and controversial the opinions the columnist decided to have that particular week, the bigger the response (good and bad) might be from your beloved readers and subscribers. It could be tempting, then, for writers to come up with surprising, alternative or abrasive opinions, just to stir things up a bit more than they otherwise might have. It’s the whole point to create a debate, but it’s tempting to create a more vigorous debate, to make your work more noticeable.

Most of us who’ve written for dead-tree publications (as well as online) will have felt that temptation, but now with the internet there’s a much easier way to find out: just look at the numbers. The stats won’t tell you whether the readers were amused, appalled or dismayed when they read what they read, but they will tell you whether they were there or not in the first place: and that’s important for revenue. Traffic is money.

If you write something horrifically provocative, but which hauls in a million angry sightseers, you and your publication have a very nice day. You don’t need necessarily to retain these folk, because as I explained the other day, operations such as Mail Online (for example) are vast enterprises designed to attract as much traffic and revenue as possible – but their visits add a welcome boost to your stats.

It’s not true to say that Twitter mobs are single-handedly fuelling certain newspapers’ websites, but they are a jolly handy thing to have, if you can taunt them into clicking. It’s not the fault of the internet itself for being used in this way, since it can mobilise people into marvellous acts of generosity and humanity, but the technology we have means it’s possible to bait folk in a way it simply wasn’t before. Now you aren’t just targeting your hardcore readers: you can tempt anyone you like to read what you want.

It is a genuine sadness to me, a fading remnant of the days of ink, that articles are perhaps more often written for the reaction they will generate, rather than any intrinsic value they might have. Can I say I haven’t done it myself? Of course not; I play the game as well, although I hope that the things I’m sincere about make more impact than the things I’m less sincere about. But that’s all it is, a hope.

So I don’t blame That Journalist for writing That Article. I’d love to be on This Morning and meet Philip and Holly, and talk about my experiences. I’d love to have all eyes looking at me. Of course I’d love to have it happen for some great triumph of prose or investigative journalism rather than just some maggot-dangling linkbait, but I think most of us will take what we can get. 

"Read this and agree with it!". Samantha Brick on Mail Online
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell.