Liz Jones and Me

Juliet Jacques explores the complexities of "confessional" journalism.

Liz Jones and I have so much in common, chiefly that we have both documented our lives for national newspapers – her for the Mail, me for the Guardian. Our styles are quite different, though, at least gauging from reactions on social media. My sporadic blogs elicit few shares or comments, whereas it seems that every Sunday, the Twitter commentariat is livid about Jones’s latest missive at Mail Online (and trying to express their outrage without linking to it and so boosting its advertising revenue). Several controversies stick in my mind, particularly those where Jones revealed particularly intimate details about her life, or when she misjudged the tone in first-person reports on individual or international tragedies. 

Although Liz Jones and I came to it via different backgrounds (she wrote on fashion, editing the Sunday Times Style section and Marie Claire, whilst I covered experimental film and literature for magazines you’ve never read), we are both "confessional" journalists. She has been far more successful than me, or anyone else in Britain – if you look up "confessional journalism" online, Jones crops up repeatedly amongst the first few hits – so naturally I wanted to talk to her about the peculiar ethical dilemmas of the form.

Confessional journalists usually aim to offer insight into emblematic but individual experiences, sometimes pressured by editors to entertain or provoke (a strange contract, parodied here, brilliantly, by Chris Morris). It relies on the writer being honest, and being perceived as such: the second that the reader thinks s/he is embellishing, or inventing, the edifice collapses. People defending Jones point out that few others are as open; certainly, I can’t imagine another journalist who would admit to stealing a lover’s sperm in an attempt to become pregnant. When I read it, convinced by its level of detail, I considered the zero sum game of trying to shock: if Jones wanted to continue driving traffic to Mail Online like this, she would have to keep topping this anecdote, without stretching her (unusually elastic) boundaries of credulity past breaking point.

Combine this pressure to document unimaginable experiences, then, with the realisation that you have put yourself in a position where everything that happens to you is potential copy and things become weird, psychologically. What can or should you withhold? What can or should you do if your life just doesn’t generate sufficiently interesting moments?

I agreed to write about transsexual living without knowing exactly what it would entail, and at points I found myself wishing that my gender would complicate my life more than it did. I had fleeting thoughts about putting myself in situations that might be more difficult than the safer ones I’d sought, hoping to expose more about contemporary prejudice – and generate more dramatic copy. Soon, I realised what a disgustingly privileged attitude this was, before reading about transsexual blogger Mike Penner/Christine Daniels of the LA Times and seeing the tragic consequences (explained here) of publicly detailing a life that became too painful to live, let alone share.

One of my favourite discussions around the ethics of contriving situations in order to write about them came in Jonathan Coe’s biography of English avant-garde author B. S. Johnson, who asserted that a novel’s content should always be drawn from its creator’s own life: "Telling stories is telling lies" was Johnson’s mantra. In Trawl, one of his best works, the narrator’s stream of consciousness describes life on a shipping trawler. Johnson worked as a teacher, but spent three weeks on the Northern Jewel to gather material. He was upset that its crew dubbed him “the pleasure-tripper” but it’s unsurprising that he found such resentment – delving into your own neuroses is one thing, using those around you in a narrative over which only you have control is another.

Jones has attracted far more opprobrium than Johnson, or me. She has had a bullet through her letterbox, having aggrieved the people of Exmoor, was unable to sign with any High Street bank (or even a private one without a confidentiality agreement) and barred from her local pet shop. Journalism necessarily draws on the fabric of everyday lives – usually other people’s – but traditionally, this means public figures, with a tacit, often problematic understanding that occupying such roles subjects them to such scrutiny, fairly or unfairly. 

It’s hard to say where the line between public and non-public figures sits, but wherever it is, "confessionalism" frequently pulls people across it, without their consent. In hindsight, I was lucky not to alienate anyone important to me, particularly the NHS services facilitating my sex reassignment treatment – another structural problem that I didn’t really consider when I fell into the act of first-person writing.

No wonder, then, that Jones told The Observer’s Rachel Cooke that “I wouldn’t recommend [confessional journalism] to anyone”. I often feel the same way, so I’m intrigued about where our conversation might go. Then, swiftly, the email comes: Liz has other commitments and will not be able to talk to me. Perhaps it’s for the best, as we’d both be more aware than most that each may not write positively about the other. 

If I’ve learned one thing from "confessional" journalism, it’s that sharing your issues with an audience, imagined or real, is easy, as long as you constantly consider your position on its moral challenges (or just disregard them). Forming nourishing relationships with individual people, face to face, is far harder, and as I spend yet another evening alone, looking wistfully at the lists of Twitter followers and Facebook friends who’ve come to me via my writing, I wonder whether I’ve confessed too little, or too much.

No. Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad