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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle