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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The SATs strike: why parents are taking their children out of school to protest against exams

Parents are keeping their children away from school to highlight the dangers of “over testing” young pupils.

My heart is beating fast and I feel sick. I force myself to eat some chocolate because someone said it might help. I take a deep breath and open the door…

The hall is silent except for the occasional cough and the shuffling of chairs. The stench of nervous sweat lingers in the air.

“Turn over your papers, you may begin.”

I look at the clock and I am filled with panic. I feel like I might pass out. I pick up my pen but my palms are so sweaty it is hard to grip it properly. I want to cry. I want to scream, and I really need the toilet.

This was how I felt before every GCSE exam I took. I was 16. This was also how I felt before taking my driving test, aged 22, and my journalism training (NCTJ) exams when I was 24.

Being tested makes most of us feel anxious. After all, we have just one chance to get stuff right. To remember everything we have learned in a short space of time. To recall facts and figures under pressure; to avoid failure.

Even the most academic of adults can find being in an exam situation stressful, so it’s not hard to imagine how a young child about to sit their Year 2 SATs must feel.

Today thousands of parents are keeping their kids off school in protest at these tough new national tests. They are risking fines, prosecution and possible jail time for breach of government rules. By yesterday morning, more than 37,000 people had signed a petition backing the Let Our Kids Be Kids campaign and I was one of them.

I have a daughter in reception class who will be just six years old when she sits her SATs. These little ones are barely out of pull-up pants and now they are expected to take formal exams! What next? Babies taught while they are in the womb? Toddlers sitting spelling tests?

Infants have fragile self-esteem. A blow to their confidence at such an impressionable age can affect them way into adulthood. We need to build them up not tear them down. We need to ensure they enjoy school, not dread it. Anxiety and fear are not conducive to learning. It is like throwing books at their heads as a way of teaching them to read. It will not work. They are not machines. They need to want to learn.

When did we stop treating children like children? Maybe David Cameron would be happier if we just stopped reproducing all together. After all, what use to the economy are these pesky kids with their tiny brains and individual emotional needs? Running around all happy and carefree, selfishly enjoying their childhood without any regard to government statistics or national targets.

Year 2 SATs, along with proposals for a longer school day and calls for baseline reception assessments (thankfully now dropped) are just further proof that the government do not have our children’s best interests at heart. It also shows a distinct lack of common sense. It doesn’t take a PhD in education to comprehend that a child is far more likely to thrive in a calm, supportive and enjoyable environment. Learning should be fun. The value in learning through play seems to be largely underestimated.

The UK already has a far lower school starting age than many other countries, and in my opinion, we are already forcing them into a formal learning environment way too soon.

With mental health illness rates among British children already on the rise, it is about time our kids were put first. The government needs to stop “throwing books at heads” and start listening to teachers and parents about what is best for the children.

Emily-Jane Clark is a freelance journalist, mother-of-two and creator of stolensleep.com, a humorous antithesis to baby advice.