Let the poor people speak, that never have spoken yet


Some years ago, I was sent by the Observer to report on a disturbance inside a London prison. In those days the Home Office was tighter than a clam, and it seemed to me that my best bet was to turn up early in the morning and interview prisoners who had just been released.

A young man in jeans, clutching two carrier bags, stepped through the gate and took a deep lungful of the chill morning air. We had just started a friendly talk when a green Morris Traveller pulled up and a middle-aged man in a tweed jacket climbed out and hurried towards us.

"And who might you be?" he demanded of me. When I explained, he flew into a rage. "You have no right to talk to this man. He is coming to my hostel, and I don't want him talking to any reporters." I said that, as of ten minutes ago, this was a free man, and if he wished to talk to me then that was his right and his business.

This enraged Tweed Jacket yet further. What was my paper? Did my editor know I was harassing newly released prisoners? He would phone and complain. He then seized the wretched young man by the arm and yanked him towards the car. The ex-prisoner shrugged. What could he do? The hostel bed was the only place he had to sleep that night. It was run by an after- care service, which also found jobs for ex-prisoners. If he talked to me, he might jeopardise his whole future.

I often write about "clients" of the welfare state and the many agencies that service it. And almost as often I run into similar paternalistic attitudes. There is a class of professionals who believe they "own" the people they are paid to help. They "protect" their clients by answering for them and taking decisions on their behalf.

The journalist, as far as they are concerned, is a mendacious creature out to hoodwink, twist and distort. The Visigoths were more welcome at the gates of Rome than a reporter who shows up hoping to talk to their precious clients.

I sometimes think I should tape-record my usual spiel, which is to explain that I want to talk to real people about real problems rather than have their views interpreted by middle-class mediators. But as the press gets ever less trusted, the ride gets rougher. I was writing a piece about a bleak inner-city estate in the North in which people had been dumped after the war. The jobs had gone, the jerry-built housing was crumbling, and crime and vandalism had destroyed whatever community spirit there had once been.

Someone told me about a class for teenage mothers. I thought they would make good witnesses to the quality of life on the estate. But first I had to get past the gatekeeper, the woman in charge of the class. I performed my party piece, and met with pursed lips. I promised total anonymity. I asked to speak to the class, so that the mothers themselves could decide if they would trust me. No, the gatekeeper would ask them on my behalf. Inevitably, given how she would have framed the question, I was later told triumphantly that no one wished to be interviewed by a "journalist" - and she managed to make the word sound positively indecent.

I have also had to fight past protective walls to meet drug addicts, welfare recipients, social work clients, hostel residents and a host of other groups under the thumb of the nannying classes.

My own frustration apart, middle-class paternalism towards the socially excluded has two serious consequences. The first is that what afflicts people on the margins of society perhaps more than anything else is their silence. Never having acquired the skill to express themselves, they are the mute recipients of poor housing, rotten job opportunities, sub-standard health services and education. They tolerate what the middle classes would never put up with for one minute. For generations they have felt that it is not their place to make a fuss. "It's not for the likes of us" is the saddest refrain in British life. The welfare state, far from making the poor more self-confident and articulate, created a dependence on professionals. This, I suspect, does more to keep the underclass at the bottom of the pile than does reliance on financial handouts.

Sometimes, a newspaper article can have a helpful impact. My piece on the inner-city estate, for example, was picked up by a government minister and provided local community leaders with ammunition in their battle to improve life for the residents.

The second consequence is the damage done to the free flow of information and (ultimately) to democracy. The most reliable witnesses to the condition of Britain are its people. Our press is metropolitan and centralised. Who's in, who's out at Westminster, in the arts, in the world of fashion, in the media itself assumes bosom-bursting importance; what happens in the distant real world passes almost without notice.

A Scandinavian journalist once said: "Press freedom in Britain is the freedom to hold ill-informed opinions." It has got worse, with a surfeit of columnists feeding from the same scraps. The only way to give readers the chance to form opinions based on facts rather than on prejudices is for reporters to interview people, ears open, notebook in hand.

If their efforts are constantly thwarted by protective professionals, the supply of first-hand evidence will dry up completely. I suspect many journalists are put off by the hassle. Poking around society in the pre-welfare state era, George Orwell had problems, but not this particular one.

Once you get past the gatekeepers, people are usually eager to talk. Communication is therapy; it is also power. Why should it be denied to the least advantaged people by the nannying tendency? Nothing could be better calculated to keep them in their places.

The author writes for the "Telegraph" magazine

This article first appeared in the 02 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, How the doves turned hawkish