That battered old courtesan of a press

Tim Robbins asks why the modern media serve no better function than shameless courtesans to the powe

Full disclosure: I am an actor and I have no right to express my opinion in any forum other than a make-up chair. I have in the past, it is true, foolishly raised questions about my country's rush to war and I have since been humbled by the wisdom and vision of the neoconservatives who have realised such vibrant democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But still, because I am famous, and because it has been some time since I have embraced the adrenalin rush of self-importance, I have taken the invitation of another self-promoting dilettante to spew my observations at the reluctant and powerless reader. Here's the thing: I love journalism. It is in my opinion the most noble profession, other than being a firefighter or police officer or soldier or schoolteacher. Oh, or a doctor. Or a nurse. Or a paramedic. Oh, or a pilot who can land a plane in the Hudson River.

But while these professions save lives on a daily basis, the journalist is entrusted with an obligation just as essential: the responsibility of keeping a free society alive. By challenging authority, by demanding truth from those that would obfuscate, by exposing corruption in the halls of power, journalists act as the protectors of liberty, the guardians against autocracy. Some even take their responsibility to heroic levels by risking their life and livelihood in pursuit of truth and in defence of liberty.

We have seen recently how journalists' commitment to their profession can make the difference in a society that teeters between dictatorship and democracy. Telling the truth in a volatile time can empower the powerless and facilitate a fundamental shift in consciousness.

I want to believe that every journalist working these days holds these truths to be self-evident, but I'm not sure. Rare was the brave descendant of Woodward and Bernstein who challenged the pro-war narrative spun by the powerful after the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Instead, electronic media spokesmodels led the way. They didn't aspire to the investigative scoops of I F Stone or George Seldes, or the brave integrity of Edward R Murrow, or any of the other 20th-century journalists who viewed their job as a vital component of the democratic process. They simply had to apply make-up and read their lines. Those in print journalism who wouldn't reprint Pentagon press releases as front-page news were labelled unpatriotic, agenda-laden radicals and summarily intimidated into submission - if not expunged from the system. Those still left with a job got the message: if you want to think for yourself, don't expect to be paid for it. Good luck with the mortgage payments, Mr or Ms Truth-Teller.

(An email to my son's generation: the free press is an essential check to the abuse of the power of the government. Or in a tweet: when the assholes lie, the press has to call their shit.)

At this point, I must remind you once again that I am only an actor, and my opinion could very well be unreasonably idealistic. I don't live in the real world - I live in a celebrity bubble - so in practical matters I defer to better minds that understand how the world works and what the true purpose of journalism is.

As I said, I love journalists. Oh, for that All the President's Men (in Black) II script to arrive on my desk! A great blockbuster that upholds the freedom of the press - with action sequences!

But alas, the 1970s are dead in Hollywood and these are not good times for those who labour with their fingers at keyboards. Journalists with jobs these days are a dwindling number, and it must be with some embarrassment and fear that these workers arrive at the office these days. I want to believe that the fire still burns inside them, that they possess an undaunted and irreversible power. But can they get their story through?
Considering that no one in the upper echelons of the press lost their job for getting the facts so monumentally wrong in the lead-up to wars that resulted in such a cost in lives and a depletion of the American treasury, we shouldn't be surprised at the poor quality of reporting on the rise of the "Tea Party", or the outbreak of revolutions in the Middle East, or the Julian Assange affair. (Here is where the actor gets unfortunately belligerent in remembrance of the 18th-century saloons that forged our democracy.)

Like an old battered courtesan with a romantic memory of her virtue, those left within the media elite with a shred of dignity must have had a moment of relief when Barack Obama was elected. Change was the order of the day. Gone were the days of embarrassing complicity with the government, of sitting on your conscience and looking the other way while your pimp lied to you and looted your treasure. Here was a moment to reclaim yourself, your virtue.

Rock star in the spotlight

But in the compromised trollop, craven nature triumphed over her illusory heart of gold. It has been pretty obvious for the past two years to anyone not in a coma that the Tea Party movement was a well-funded, right-wing political insurgency. Yet the mistress reported her pimp's story of a legitimate "grass-roots movement". The spokesmodels and print journalist neocons repeated the legitimacy of this movement ad nauseam for two years until the anaesthetised American public once again bought the product being sold them. They voted against their best interests - believing they were embracing Tom Paine whilst being raped by King George.

It's no wonder that these severely compromised gossips/publicists reacted so vehemently to WikiLeaks's Assange. Here was someone outside the cathouse with a rock star's spotlight on him, scooping them all, reminding them of what a journalist should be doing for a living, and in doing so shining a light on their subser­vience to their corporate paymasters.

(Conspiracy alert: It is ridiculous to assert that there is "control" over information in a "free" society. Those multinationals that have news divisions maintain them as a service to the democracy. They are "free" to report anything they like. Also, full disclosure II: anything positive I say about Assange has nothing to do with the truth and everything to do with my own craven, whorish nature. I've been told I look like him and as an actor I will do anything and say anything to star in that movie.)

That said: a man that presents truth among liars does not seem to fare well. Any admission by "journalists" that Assange might have relevant information necessary to a democracy's survival might suggest that they have been sleeping on the job, and that they serve no function other than courtesan to the powerful.

To add embarrassment to humiliation, those same courtesans had to watch while Assange's exercise in press freedom, which they had attempted to discredit, helped to lead to an explosion of protests in the Middle East calling for democratic reform. The embarrassed courtesans duly hemmed and hawed, spewing disinformation about Muslim Brotherhoods and terrorist connections to the voices calling out to the world from Cairo in Tahrir Square.

But as these kept ladies tried to misinform the world, the will of the Egyptian people won the day. Suddenly the Egyptian voice spoke more truth through Twitter than through our cathouses of information - and a paradigm shifted. While a fever of democracy spread, they stumbled over themselves trying to catch up, like an embarrassed and shamed collaborator trying to explain that it was his complicity to dictatorship which led to democracy.

Meanwhile, the US attorney general, Eric Holder, doing his best impression of his Bush-era predecessor John Ashcroft, spoke of the terrorist crimes of Assange. In an irony that could only be truly appreciated by the ghosts of the original National Lampoon editor Doug Kenney and writer Michael O'Donoghue, the courtesan reporters and spokesmodels delighted in portraying Assange as an erratic and unhinged individual.

(And here is where the actor goes too far and remembers his love of Bertolt Brecht and his punk-rock roots . . .) And so the wanton wench who has been sharing her bed with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney et al, who got knocked up with and gave birth to their bastard war, now stands in judgement of legitimate democratic movements and demonises one of the last truth-tellers as a rapist, without waiting for the due process of a trial.

Then, as is wont to happen in a society that worships distraction when thoughts of revolution abroad and press freedom at home start to disturb our sense of equilibrium, along comes an actor in meltdown and we are blissfully brought into the pornography again.

Our airwaves have been liberated by Charlie Sheen - say hallelujah! We blissfully stare at the car wreck of the unstable celebrity and are absolved of our responsibility to think about the world, or our involvement with it.

Here's an interesting angle: compare the hours of press coverage of Sheen ranting about his situation with the reportage of any of his father Martin's principled protests in the past 30 years. It's not even close, folks.

A reasoned, intelligent, religious activist and actor is virtually ignored, while his unhinged and chemically imbalanced son is given endless hours of press coverage and the rope with which to hang himself. We want our actors to be innocuous representations of our foolish, self-destructive inclinations, not our moral centres or reminders of our own humanity. For that, we look to our politicians and our pundits.

Doomsday ignoramus

And now, today, we are faced with a world crisis. As a nuclear power plant threatens to melt down in Japan and the world worries about radiation spreading through the atmosphere, we have not a thought for the words of the father Sheen or Bruce Springsteen, or Sting, or Jackson Browne, and all those "self-important celebrities" who called for attention to the dangers of nuclear power in the 1980s.

Oh yes, they were naive dupes of left-wing doomsday ignoramuses. They did not understand the complex science that guaranteed the safety of nuclear power plants; they were alarmists, extremists, fools. The public listened instead to the kings, the reasoning individuals and well-paid scientists who assured us that there was absolute safety and security in the man-made systems that protected us. These pragmatists understood the benefits of the nuclear industry and belittled the misinformed and ignorant musicians and artists of the world.

And as the crisis unfolded in Japan, these promoters and advertisers of the guilt-free nuclear dream sat in their studies in Georgetown undisturbed by the media. No one asked them to express any defence of their previous beliefs of safe nuclear energy, which they have spread like a virus since the 1960s.

As a moronic, narcissistic actor, I am reluctant to call on my knowledge of Shakespeare to blame the responsible king and spare the truth-telling fool. I realise that my opinions are seriously misguided, and anyway, isn't it the artists that have created the problem? Their free-natured approach to expressing the human condition has led to the destruction of our moral and economic stability, if not the tsunami itself. Artists who embrace activism serve a function in society that is just as embarrassing as those intrepid journalists who seek to illuminate the truth in these volatile times.

As long as we limit the voice and influence of these fools, our kings can rant naked in the storm and be considered reasoned, articulate leaders. And that's a rewrite that will please. It may not be a good play - but business can proceed as usual. Spare us the words of those who will not profit from ignorance or complicity. Give us Lear without guilt. Give us our uncomplicated drama, for the good of all of those who seek a simplified view of the world.

And for God's sake, let's keep our actors embarrassed and humiliated.

Tim Robbins is an Oscar-winning actor, a musician and artistic director of the Actors' Gang, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

MARTIN O’NEILL
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The new young fogeys

Today’s teens and twentysomethings seem reluctant to get drunk, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Is abstinence the new form of youth rebellion?

In a University College London lecture theatre, all eyes are on an elaborate Dutch apple cake. Those at the back have stood up to get a better look. This, a chorus of oohs and aahs informs me, is a baked good at its most thrilling.

In case you were wondering, UCL hasn’t rented out a room to the Women’s Institute. All thirty or so cake enthusiasts here are undergraduates, aged between 18 and 21. At the third meeting this academic year of UCL’s baking society, the focus has shifted to a Tupperware container full of peanut butter cookies. One by one, the students are delivering a brief spiel about what they have baked and why.

Sarah, a 19-year-old human sciences undergraduate, and Georgina, aged 20, who is studying maths and physics, help run the baking society. They tell me that the group, which was set up in 2012, is more popular than ever. At the most recent freshers’ fair, more than 750 students signed up. To put the number in perspective: that is roughly 15 per cent of the entire first-year population. The society’s events range from Great British Bake Off-inspired challenges to “bring your own cake” gatherings, such as today’s. A “cake crawl”, I am told, is in the pipeline. You know, like a pub crawl . . . but with cake? Georgina says that this is the first year the students’ union has advertised specifically non-drinking events.

From the cupcake boom to the chart-topping eminence of the bow-tie-wearing, banjo-plucking bores Mumford & Sons, the past decade of youth culture has been permeated by wholesomeness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this movement is more than just aesthetic. Not only are teenage pregnancies at their lowest level since records began in the 1960s, but drug-taking, binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections among young people have also taken significant dives. Drug use among the under-25s has fallen by a quarter over the past ten years and heavy drinking – measured by how much a person drinks in an average week – is down by 15 per cent. Cigarettes are also losing their appeal, with under-25 smokers down by 10 per cent since 2001. Idealistic baby boomers had weed and acid. Disaffected and hedonistic Generation X-ers had Ecstasy and cocaine. Today’s youth (which straddles Generations Y and Z) have cake. So, what shaped this demographic that, fairly or otherwise, could be called “Generation Zzzz”?

“We’re a lot more cynical than other generations,” says Lucy, a 21-year-old pharmacy student who bakes a mean Welsh cake. “We were told that if we went to a good uni and got a good job, we’d be fine. But now we’re all so scared we’re going to be worse off than our parents that we’re thinking, ‘Is that how we should be spending our time?’”

“That” is binge drinking. Fittingly, Lucy’s dad – she tells me – was an anarchist with a Mohawk who, back home in the Welsh valleys, was known to the police. She talks with deserved pride about how he joined the Conservative Party just to make trouble and sip champagne courtesy of his enemies. Lucy, though decidedly Mohawk-free, is just as politically aware as her father. She is concerned that she will soon graduate into a “real world” that is particularly hard on women.

“Women used to be a lot more reliant on men,” she says, “but it’s all on our shoulders now. One wage isn’t enough to support a family any more. Even two wages struggle.”

***

It seems no coincidence that the downturn in drink and drugs has happened at the same time as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Could growing anxiety about the future, combined with a dip in disposable income, be taming the under-25s?

“I don’t know many people who choose drugs and alcohol over work,” says Tristan, a second-year natural scientist. He is one of about three men at the meeting and it is clear that even though baking has transcended age it has yet to transcend gender to the same extent. He is softly spoken and it is hard to hear him above a room full of sugar-addled youths. “I’ve been out once, maybe, in the past month,” he says.

“I actually thought binge drinking was quite a big deal for our generation,” says Tegan, a 19-year-old first-year linguistics undergraduate, “but personally I’m not into that. I’ve only been here three weeks and I can barely keep up with the workload.”

Tegan may consider her drinking habits unusual for someone her age but statistically they aren’t. Over a quarter of the under-25s are teetotal. Neither Tegan nor Lucy is dull. They are smart, witty and engaging. They are also enthusiastic and seemingly quite focused on work. It is this “get involved” attitude, perhaps, that distinguishes their generation from others.

In Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the 1990s, a lot of the humour stems from the relationship between the shallow and fashion-obsessed PR agent Edina Monsoon and her shockingly straitlaced teenage daughter, Saffie. Although Saffie belongs to Generation X, she is its antithesis: she is hard-working, moral, politically engaged, anti-drugs and prudishly anti-sex. By the standards of the 1990s, she is a hilarious anomaly. Had Ab Fab been written in the past couple of years, her character perhaps would have been considered too normal. Even her nerdy round glasses and frumpy knitted sweaters would have been considered pretty fashionable by today’s geek-chic standards.

Back in the UCL lecture theatre, four young women are “geeking out”. Between mouthfuls of cake, they are discussing, with palpable excitement, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp in Italy. “They play Quidditch and everything – there’s even a Sorting Hat,” says the tall, blonde student who is leading the conversation.

“This is for children, right?” I butt in.

“No!” she says. “The minimum age is actually 15.”

A kids’ book about wizards isn’t the only unlikely source of entertainment for this group of undergraduates. The consensus among all the students I speak to is that baking has become so popular with their demographic because of The Great British Bake Off. Who knew that Mary Berry’s chintzy cardigans and Sue Perkins’s endless puns were so appealing to the young?

Are the social and economic strains on young people today driving them towards escapism at its most gentle? Animal onesies, adult ball pools (one opened in west London last year) and that much-derided cereal café in Shoreditch, in the East End, all seem to make up a gigantic soft-play area for a generation immobilised by anxiety.

Emma, a 24-year-old graduate with whom I chatted on email, agrees. “It feels like everyone is more stressed and nervous,” she says. “It seems a particularly telling sign of the times that adult colouring-in books and little, cutesy books on mindfulness are such a massive thing right now. There are rows upon rows of bookshelves dedicated solely to all that . . . stuff.” Emma would know – she works for Waterstones.

From adult colouring books to knitting (UCL also has a knitting society, as do Bristol, Durham, Manchester and many more universities), it is hard to tell whether the tsunami of tweeness that has engulfed middle-class youth culture in the past few years is a symptom or a cause of the shrinking interest in drugs, alcohol, smoking and other “risk-taking” behaviours.

***

Christine Griffin is Professor of Social Psychology at Bath University. For the past ten years, she has been involved in research projects on alcohol consumption among 18-to-25-year-olds. She cites the recession as a possible cause of alcohol’s declining appeal, but notes that it is only part of the story. “There seems to be some sort of polarisation going on,” Griffin says. “Some young people are actually drinking more, while others are drinking less or abstaining.

“There are several different things going on but it’s clear that the culture of 18-to-25-year-olds going out to get really drunk hasn’t gone away. That’s still a pervasive social norm, even if more young people are drinking less or abstaining.”

Griffin suggests that while frequent, sustained drinking among young people is in decline, binge drinking is still happening – in short bursts.

“There are still a lot of people going to music festivals, where a huge amount of drinking and drug use goes on in a fairly unregulated way,” she says. It is possible that music festivals and holidays abroad (of the kind depicted in Channel 4 programmes such as What Happens in Kavos, in which British teenagers leave Greek islands drenched in booze and other bodily fluids) are seen as opportunities to make a complete escape from everyday life. An entire year’s worth of drinking, drug-taking and sex can be condensed into a week, or even a weekend, before young people return to a life centred around hard work.

Richard De Visser, a reader in psychology at Sussex University, also lists the economy as a possible cause for the supposed tameness of the under-25s. Like Griffin, however, he believes that the development is too complex to be pinned purely on a lack of disposable income. Both Griffin and De Visser mention that, as Britain has become more ethnically diverse, people who do not drink for religious or cultural reasons – Muslims, for instance – have become more visible. This visibility, De Visser suggests, is breaking down taboos and allowing non-mainstream behaviours, such as not drinking, to become more socially accepted.

“There’s just more variety,” he says. “My eldest son, who’s about to turn 14, has conversations – about sexuality, for example – that I never would’ve had at his age. I think there’s more awareness of alcohol-related problems and addiction, too.”

De Visser also mentions the importance of self-image and reputation to many of the young non-drinkers to whom he has spoken. These factors, he argues, are likely to be more important to people than the long-term effects of heavy drinking. “One girl I interviewed said she wouldn’t want to meet the drunk version of herself.”

Jess, a self-described “granny”, is similarly wary of alcohol. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who works in marketing, makes a bold claim for someone her age. “I’ve never really been drunk,” she says. “I’ve just never really been bothered with alcohol or drugs.” Ironically, someone of her generation, according to ONS statistics, is far more likely to be teetotal than a real granny at any point in her life. Jess says she enjoys socialising but her nights out with close friends are rather tame – more likely to involve dinner and one quick drink than several tequila shots and a traffic cone.

It is possible, she suggests, that her lack of interest in binge drinking, or even getting a little tipsy, has something to do with her work ethic. “There’s a lot more competition now,” she says. “I don’t have a degree and I’m conscious of the need to be on top of my game to compete with people who do. There’s a shortage of jobs even for people who do have degrees.”

Furthermore, Jess says that many of her interactions with friends involve social media. One theory put forward to explain Generation Zzzz is that pubs are losing business to Facebook and Twitter as more and more socialising happens online. Why tell someone in person that you “like” their baby, or cat, or new job (probably over an expensive pint), when you can do so from your sofa, at the click of a button?

Hannah, aged 22, isn’t so sure. She recently started her own social media and communications business and believes that money, or the lack of it, is why her peers are staying in. “Going out is so expensive,” she says, “especially at university. You can’t spend out on alcohol, then expect to pay rent and fees.” Like Jess (and as you would probably expect of a 22-year-old who runs a business), Hannah has a strong work ethic. She also has no particular interest in getting wasted. “I’ve always wanted my own business, so for me everything else was just a distraction,” she says. “Our generation is aware it’s going to be a bit harder for us, and if you want to support yourself you have to work for it.” She also suggests that, these days, people around her age have more entrepreneurial role models.

I wonder if Hannah, as a young businesswoman, has been inspired by the nascent strand of free-market, “lean in” feminism. Although the women’s movement used to align itself more with socialism (and still does, from time to time), it is possible that a 21st-century wave of disciples of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is forswearing booze, drugs and any remote risk of getting pregnant, in order to get ahead in business.

But more about sex. Do the apparently lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies suggest that young people are having less of it? In the age of Tinder, when hooking up with a stranger can be as easy as ordering a pizza, this seems unlikely. Joe Head is a youth worker who has been advising 12-to-21-year-olds in the Leighton Buzzard area of Bedfordshire on sexual health (among other things) for 15 years. Within this period, Head says, the government has put substantial resources into tackling drug use and teen pregnancy. Much of this is the result of the Blair government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of 2003, which was directed at improving the health and well-being of children and young adults.

“ECM gave social services a clearer framework to access funds for specific work around sexual health and safety,” he says. “It also became a lot easier to access immediate information on drugs, alcohol and sexual health via the internet.”

***

Head also mentions government-funded education services such as Frank – the cleverly branded “down with the kids” anti-drugs programme responsible for those “Talk to Frank” television adverts. (Remember the one showing bags of cocaine being removed from a dead dog and voiced by David Mitchell?)

But Head believes that the ways in which some statistics are gathered may account for the apparent drop in STIs. He refers to a particular campaign from about five years ago in which young people were asked to take a test for chlamydia, whether they were sexually active or not. “A lot of young people I worked with said they did multiple chlamydia tests throughout the month,” he says. The implication is that various agencies were competing for the best results in order to prove that their education programmes had been effective.

However, regardless of whether govern­ment agencies have been gaming the STI statistics, sex education has improved significantly over the past decade. Luke, a 22-year-old hospital worker (and self-described “boring bastard”), says that sex education at school played a “massive part” in his safety-conscious attitude. “My mother was always very open [about sex], as was my father,” he says. “I remember talking to my dad at 16 about my first serious girlfriend – I had already had sex with her by this point – and him giving me the advice, ‘Don’t get her pregnant. Just stick to fingering.’” I suspect that not all parents of millennials are as frank as Luke’s, but teenagers having sex is no longer taboo.

Luke’s attitude towards drugs encapsulates the Generation Zzzz ethos beautifully: although he has taken MDMA, he “researched” it beforehand. It is this lack of spontaneity that has shaped a generation of young fogeys. This cohort of grannies and boring bastards, of perpetual renters and jobseekers in an economy wrecked by less cautious generations, is one that has been tamed by anxiety and fear.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war