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Laurie Penny on the death of More magazine: a price worth paying for a better media

Do we need to mourn every lost job without further comment, even in an industry that’s becoming toxic?

More is no more. For 25 years, the magazine specialised in the sort of wacky diet advice and anatomically implausible sex position tips that occasionally allowed you to re-use the same root vegetables. But it announced last week that it would be suspending publication because of what its chief executive described as ‘challenging economic conditions’ and the rest of us like to call ‘the internet’.

More isn’t the first such title to close its doors. Just17, Sugar and many others have also gone the way of the Rodrigues day gecko in the past few years. The lady-media industrial complex is changing forever - and with it, the way we write and speak about women’s experience is changing, too.

Reactions to the demise of this vaguely-beloved title have been mixed. The Vagenda team, of this parish, were attacked for celebrating the end of More on their Twitter feed. Rhiannon and Holly, whose stated mission is to challenge the organised, monetised misogyny of ‘women’s’ magazines, were accused of failing to show sympathy for the journalists losing their jobs. They later retracted the tweet and apologised for any offence caused - but the issues raised are, to mind, a little more complex than that. Job losses are always unfortunate, but does that mean we need to mourn every lost job without further comment, even in an industry that’s becoming toxic?

As writers and journalists, even more than any other creative work, our understanding of labour rights has to be precisely situated - because we are engaged in cultural production, and sometimes that cultural production can be harmful, and we know it. It’s rather like the tense discussion that comes up in activist circles whenever the police go on strike. Is every job worth fighting for? What about when the people working in those jobs are paid to prop up state power and pick on young people, poor people, black people and activists? Are we really going to stand on a picket line with cops when those same cops might well be smashing up our own pickets the next day?

In the case of More, it’s even more complicated. Journalists who produce sexist content designed to sell women products they don’t need to fix physical deficiencies they don’t have are engaging in an exploitative mode of production for pay, for sure. But writers are always more at risk of producing bad content when we have bad bosses, when we have editors and managers who exploit us, or encourage us to exploit ourselves in our turn.

Labour and gender issues intersect in media more than many other industries, and pay and representation aren’t just perennial problems in women’s journalism - they change its nature. They mean that in order to make a living, female journalists can find ourselves forced into precisely the kind of exploitative cultural production we most despise. Even if what we truly care about most is fashion and fucking, we will find ourselves dismissed for writing about those things. Our efforts are rewarded with scorn and professional ghettoisation. If you want to liberate the means of cultural production, you have to acknowledge that there's not a small risk that that process of liberation will leave many of us penniless, if we aren't already.

The women who churn out those endless pieces on how to get a ‘bikini body’ aren’t dumb, or taken in by the weary rhetoric, any more than you or me. I’m good friends with a number of them, and it’s far from an easy job: even if it weren’t actually pretty hard to write about a hundred slightly different shades of nail polish without your brain melting and flowing out of your ears like this season’s oyster grey*, there’s always been a price to pay in terms of being taken seriously. One day you’re writing about A-line skirts because that’s what you care about and you’ve a gas bill to pay, and the next day you’re stuck writing about A-line skirts for ever, because women who care about hemlines can’t possibly also know about climate change or stock market futures.

The class and gender issues behind this have been brewing for years. In a media industry staggering under the one-two punch of the internet and the recession, women are the last hired and the first fired. Certainly we are the very last to be promoted or fairly paid, as too many angry private rants from my contemporaries have lately reminded me.

Unless you already work in media, you’d probably be stunned to learn the real salaries paid to even well-known women working in traditionally male outlets - particularly if they are young, non-white, or both. I could list several female writers whose names, if you’re a follower of my work or my Twitter feed, you will certainly recognise, who are living hand to mouth, struggling to make rent, bullied into working unpaid overtime with no prospect of promotion by bosses who are almost exclusively male.

The traditional press - the tech and political and cultural press, which has its own money and platform problems right now - still remains a man’s world, struggling with the violence of a cornered creature to stay relevant and in charge. That’s before we even get on to issues of gender representation, on which the stats speak for themselves: in a recent analysis of nine British newspapers, 78 per cent of the content was written by men.

Women’s magazines are not wholly evil. If they were, it’d be easy to dismiss them outright. What makes them so goddamn compelling is the sense that they are for us, that they are written by and for women without the mediation of men.

Another word for this is ‘trash’. We are encouraged to think, and to talk about, issues that mainly interest women as ‘trash’, as cheap and awful gossip, as well as the only really reliable employment for a woman who wants to write for a living. Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth that women who read and write for these magazines understand that they’re being manipulated:

Most commentators, like this Private Eye satirist, ridicule women’s magazines’ “trivial” concerns and their editorial tone: “Women’s magazine triteness . . . combines knowing chatter about blowjobs with deep reservoirs of sentimentality.” Women too believe that they transmit the worst aspects of the beauty myth. Readers themselves are often ambivalent about the pleasure mixed up with anxiety that they provide. “I buy them,” a young woman told me, “as a form of self-abuse. They give me a weird mixture of anticipation and dread, a sort of stirred- up euphoria. . .

We accept that manipulation because the glossies kid us into feeling part of a private sisterhood, a breathe-easy world of womanity whose content appears undetermined by men, where writers we’ve never met really do want to advise us and help us to be the best selves we can possibly be - fun, fearless females.

Today, though, we no longer have to rely on women’s magazines for that secret sensibility that costs so much of our pride to access. Thanks to the internet, we no longer have to guess what other women and girls might be thinking about sex and social justice and the cutest top to wear on the day you take your boss’ corner office. We can find out, in detail, on endless forums, without the explicit mediation of advertisers and editors with one eye on their bottom line. We can find it all out, and more.**

Of course, it’s not as though the internet is free from commercial influence. This isn’t about network good, hard copy bad. If I want to make, for example, a private post on my Facebook wall about how I can fit into my ‘skinny’ jeans for the first time in months, I’ll have to do so next to a banner advertising “one simple trick to a flat belly”, unless I download specific software to block those ads. Nor can I be sure that the blogger advising me, in the breathy tones of a fantasy best friend, to ditch my date and curl up with some starchy snacks and a japanese sex toy isn’t being sponsored by the makers of the Hitachi Magic Wand. Although if she is, I want her job.

Online intimacies are not always what they seem. They can be monetised just like everything else. One only has to look at a website like XOJane, which consciously positions itself as the future of ladymedia, as opposed to media which women merely create and consume. XOJane is all about the whispered confession, the dirty secret, and it’s one of many such sites that routinely underpays its contributors, or solicits content for free in exchange for publicity the satisfaction of a platform, which you cannot eat, and believe me I’ve tried. It Happened To Me: I opened my heart to the world for bus change. Speaking about women’s intimate experience will always be important, because the personal is political - but as in meatspace, so in cyberspace, the political is forced to collapse into the personal to the point at which it can be streamlined and sold off for money, and not much money at that. We will henceforth refer to this process as XOJanification.

Nevertheless, the network still does what the dead-tree press attempted to do for women far better, and far more honestly. The mainstream media hasn’t found and attempted to make money off, for example, the endless tumblrs comparing and sharing women’s real lived experience of sex, power and violence, or the co-created projects bringing together pictures of how breasts and bottoms and bellies actually look. There aren’t many ways to financially exploit women from queer, politically non-standard, working-class and ethnic minority backgrounds talking about what it’s really like to be female outside the ‘aspirational’ fantasy of magazine-land, because advertisers remain uninterested in speaking to those people. But we’re talking about it anyway, and we’re changing what women’s collective writing means in the process, and many of us, yes, are turning that impulse into paid work.

Jobs for women writers aren’t disappearing - they’re just diversifying, becoming more individually determined as the network demands more content that is not determined by what editors think will sell.*** It’s not always glamorous, or marketable, or even fucking grammatically coherent, although it can be all those things. But it’s compelling, and it’s growing year-on-year in a way that the old media stooges haven’t even grasped yet. Big business finally woke up to fan fiction with Fifty Shades of Grey - but only in the most superficial of fashions, failing to really plumb the murky depths of Harry Potter porn forums and alternate-universe co-writing kink projects, where suspicious lumps of sexual and literary innovation float to the surface of an endless well of pixellated filth. If the real marker of equality is that women of mediocre or dubious talent have as much chance of success and employment as mediocre men, then the internet might be more of a leveller than we anticipated.

It can also be a frightening place to be a woman. In 2011 I wrote that an opinion is the short skirt of the internet, in that having one makes you fair game for any amount of ugly sexist abuse - but part of the violence of that backlash has come about precisely because the internet allows women to express and educate ourselves without men’s mediation in a way that simply wasn’t possible before, and some guys just can’t handle it. The difference is stark. Online, 33 per cent of opinion articles are written by women, as opposed to 20 per cent of print-based opinion pieces, according to the Poynter institute. It’s not equality, but it’s a 65 per cent improvement on the dead-tree press.

The modes of cultural production to which women’s work and experience are relegated remain toxic, but the internet is shaking it all up. We’re not done yet, and we may never be done. But digital writing is making the old lady-media industrial complex increasingly irrelevant, opening up opportunities for women and minorities to create and influence discourse. It’s a good thing. It’s one of the few things that makes me hopeful for my industry. And incidentally, it’s the reason I’m a writer. For me, and for many, many other women journalists, writers and readers, the implosion of a few antediluvian glossy mags is a price worth paying.

*Those of you who were paying attention will notice that this is, in fact, one of this season’s most popular nail colours, and it legitimately looks awesome.

**Further evidence of just how ridiculous the internet makes the old ladymag formulas look can be found at cosmarxpolitan.tumblr.com. Best line: "Shocking truth: is constant unceasing class warfare ruining YOUR skin?"

***Not that I’m knocking editors as a species; they do a vital job, and one of them worked with me on this. But it’s worth noting that after a lag-time, the best commissioning editors now understand that curating content for the web is a brand new task, with a different breed of reader; if you’ve been following the evolution of the New Statesman website over the past three years, you’ll see what I mean.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.