More magazine. Photo: Getty
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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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Owen Smith interview: “I’m pretty red”

The Labour leadership challenger is struggling to win over a left suspicious of his past. 

The south Wales valleys embody the history of the labour movement: its victories, its defeats, its heroes, its villains. It was this resonant location that Owen Smith chose for his speech on the morning of 22 August. Labour Party members had that day begun voting on whether the 46-year-old Pontypridd MP should replace Jeremy Corbyn as their leader.

“Our history, our party was literally hewed from the hillsides around where we sit today,” Smith told a small audience at the Ely Valley Miners Welfare Club in Tonyrefail, a short distance from his home. The Welshman cited the Taff Vale judgment of 1901, which ruled that trade unions could be sued for losses caused by industrial action. It was this decision that spurred on the establishment of a Labour Party in parliament to repeal the law (as it would do in 1906 in alliance with the Liberal government).

Smith spoke later of marching with miners from the Maerdy Colliery as a 14-year-old, on the day they returned to work at the end of the 1984-85 strike. “I saw that they were utterly unbowed,” he recalled. “But they were ultimately defeated.”

Such moments, he concluded, proved the need for Labour to win power and to maintain “a powerful voice in parliament” – something he believes Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of providing. On 28 June, less than a year after Corbyn’s landslide victory, 172 MPs (81 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party) endorsed a no-confidence motion in him. Sixty-five shadow ministers, including Smith (who was then the shadow work and pensions secretary), resigned from the front bench.

Yet though Smith enjoys the overwhelming backing of the PLP, few believe he will prevail among members. He achieved only 53 constituency nominations, against the leader’s 285. On social media, where internal party contests are increasingly decided, Smith’s reach is minuscule compared to that of Corbyn (who has 795,000 Facebook fans to his 14,000).

The day before Smith spoke in south Wales, he won the endorsement of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and Labour’s most senior elected politician. He was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband have trumpeted his cause. Yet Smith-supporting MPs fear that such declarations count for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

Corbyn’s allies and foes alike are already preparing for the aftermath of the leader’s anticipated victory. The former warn that rebel MPs put themselves at risk of deselection by members. In response, some have threatened privately to form a parliamentary breakaway group and bid for the status of the official opposition.

Smith, unsurprisingly, insists that he can win. “I think the CLP [Constituency Labour Party] nominations don’t truly reflect the views in CLPs,” he told me when we spoke after his 20-minute address. The challenger, dressed in his favoured combination of dark suit and open-necked white shirt, welcomed the black coffee proffered by his aide. “They reflect the fact that some of the people who are new members and are supportive of Jeremy were very organised . . .

“Anybody who knows the Labour Party knows that selections are very often won by the sleepers: the people who don’t go to CLP meetings and don’t necessarily shout from the rooftops.” Smith’s hopes rest on those who share Oscar Wilde’s view: “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many spare evenings.”

Cartoon: George Leigh

Smith first publicly revealed his leadership ambitions in an interview with me back in January. “It would be an incredible honour and privilege,” he said. I wrote then of a widespread view among Labour MPs that the next leader “will at least need to be from the party’s soft left to be acceptable to the party membership”. When the rebellion against Corbyn came, it was this consideration that proved decisive. Smith was embraced as a Miliband-esque socialist and a parliamentary “clean skin”, untainted by the New Labour years, having been elected in 2010. By contrast, his initial rival, Angela Eagle, had been an MP since 1992 and voted for the Iraq War.

However, Smith proved to have a more ambiguous past than some of his backers anticipated. Corbyn’s supporters swiftly unearthed a series of interviews from 2006 in which their opponent made a notably centrist pitch. Smith, then a by-election candidate in Blaenau Gwent, south Wales, defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq War), supported private-sector involvement in the National Health Service and praised city academies. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online.

Since then, he has struggled to reconcile these positions with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent.

“To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing’,” Smith told me. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be. My views haven’t really changed at all, I’m someone who has been on the left of the party.

“My dad [the Welsh historian Dai Smith] is someone who’s been on the left of the Labour movement all his life. I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

Yet a former shadow cabinet colleague told me that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings: “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

What Smith believes in most, some say, is himself. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, described him as “one of the most ambitious career politicians I’ve met”. Others have dismissed him as a “Big Pharma lobbyist” because of his past as head of policy and government relations for Pfizer.

“I’m not ashamed that I had a life outside politics before I became an MP,” Smith told me. “Yes, I worked for Pfizer and I also worked as a BBC journalist and as an adviser to the last Labour government on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“People don’t want career politicians – they want men and women who have had experience of working in business and in the different sectors that make up our economy. Critics may use it against me, but my time in business has helped me understand what’s wrong with it and how we can make it work better.”

Corbyn’s supporters, however, allege that Smith’s left-wing pledges would not withstand contact with centrist colleagues. The degree to which the challenger has rebutted this charge shows that he recognises its potency.

He has offered to make Corbyn party president or chair if he wins, to allow Corbyn to act as “a guardian of Labour’s values”. In his speech, Smith vowed to increase member influence by making conference votes binding on the leadership.

Throughout the 1980s, another soft-left Welshman, Neil Kinnock, struggled to assert authority as the hard left retained control of vital bodies. Smith’s proposals risk replicating this conflict. But he told me that he would respect Labour’s conference even if it endorsed stances such as Trident abolition (Smith joined CND as a teenager but later renounced unilateralism). “I do think in order to reassure members that, under my leadership, we would listen hard to them and act in accordance with their views, conference does need to become sovereign once more,” he said.

Tony Benn’s dream of internal democracy appeared to be within reach. I asked Smith whether he would support other reforms such as a reduced MP nomination threshold for leadership candidates (Corbyn allies have proposed a cut from 15 per cent to 5 per cent). “All of these things can be debated,” he told me. “I’m not sure it should be 5 per cent: I need to look at it when we get closer to it. But I am convinced that the left needs to be able to put up candidates in this contest, I’ve always felt that.”

Smith’s assertion is contradicted by a colleague who described him as having been “furious”, “apoplectic” when Corbyn made the ballot last year (he supported Andy Burnham’s campaign).

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Smith is less equiovcal over the mandatory reselection of MPs. “That would be a really retrograde step for the party,” he told me. “It would be an uncomradely way for us to do business.” He is critical of the Corbyn-aligned group Momentum, some of whose members are spearheading deselection efforts. “I fear an attitude within Momentum that they are a separate organisation and they shouldn’t be,” he told me. “It’s hard to argue that they’re loyal and supportive if they’re organising a bloomin’ great really in the same town at the same time in competition to the Labour Party” (the group will hold its own four-day conference alongside Labour’s in Liverpool).

Some of those close to Corbyn, such as John McDonnell, have unhesitatingly described themselves as Marxists (in 2006, the shadow chancellor named Marx, Lenin and Trotsky as his “most significant” intellectual influences). I asked Smith whether he believed Labour could encompass such views. “Yes, I think we’ve always been a broad church and there have always been people who’ve come from that tradition,” he replied. “There are two broad traditions: the extra-parliamentary tradition, that has always seen parliament as a compromise and parliamentary socialism as a compromise, from [the trade unionist and theorist] Noah Ablett here in south Wales with The Miners’ Next Step through to Ed Miliband’s dad [Ralph, a Marxist historian] ... and the mainstream social democratic tradition that I came from.”

He added: “We’ve had this battle in the Labour Party over the ages, haven’t we? Except now I think it’s more serious because there is a very real danger, with Labour at such a low ebb and politics fragmented more broadly, and so many more parties and so many options for people and such a lesser tribal attachment to the Labour Party, that we can’t afford those fractures.

"If we splinter, there’s lot of other places for people to put their vote.”

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Though they will not say so publicly, some of Smith’s supporters believe Labour would remain unelectable under his leadership. A former shadow cabinet minister told me that he was offering a “warmed-up Ed Milibandism, which was rejected by the voters”. Smith naturally contests this analysis. “I don’t think that we lost the last election because we were too left-wing,” he said. “The proof is that the Tories have engaged in all sorts of these policies ... Theresa May’s opening speech upon becoming leader was to talk about social injustice, economic insecurity, lack of security in the workplace. Labour values, Labour words in a Tory mouth, evidence that the broad story we’re telling about Britain is right.”

Smith said that, unlike Corbyn, he would resign if he became leader and lost a confidence vote by MPs. “Yes - I would [resign]. We are a party that believes in parliamentary democracy and, as such, it is only right that the leader commands the support of his or her colleagues in the Commons.”

Should Corbyn win the contest, as expected, Smith will not return to the shadow cabinet but act as “a loyal backbencher”.  He pledges to resist any breakaway: “I'm Labour, I've always been Labour and I will never stop being Labour," he said. 

Speaking of his fear that Corbyn would seek to remain leader even if the party lost the next general election, he said: “I’m deeply worried about it. I think he’s determined to hang on come hell or high water. And what does that say about him? ... I think he is more concerned with his version of the Labour Party being sustained and being victorious than he is with the Labour Party being victorious in elections. I think he is actually prepared to sacrifice unity and victory - two great words that have traditionally been emblazoned on Labour banners through the ages - in order to secure control of the party.”

The trouble for Owen Smith is that, for all his combative talk and appeal to the left, he is trapped between his past pragmatism and his present radicalism. 

Tony Benn, Corbyn’s late mentor, divided politicians into “signposts” and “weathercocks”: those who shape opinion and those who are shaped by it. He would have branded Smith a “weathercock”. Even if he wins, Smith risks being remembered not as a politician who resolved his party’s contradictions, but as one who embodied them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser