Andrew Adonis. Photograph: Getty Images
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Beyond our Berlin Wall

The way to pull down social barriers in England is through reforming education — encouraging private schools to become more involved in the state sector by backing academies. That could also spread excellence.

Two of the greatest challenges in English education today are, first, not just to reduce the number of underperforming comprehensives but to eradicate them, and second, to forge a new settlement between state and private education.

I put these two challenges together because they go together. It is my view, after 20 years of engagement with schools of all types, that England will never have a world-class education system or a “one-nation” society until state and private schools are part of a shared, national endeavour to develop the talents of all young people to the full.

The two also go together, in that academies are at the heart of the solution to both challenges. It is academies that are systematically eradicating failing comprehensives. And academies – as independent state schools – are the vehicle by which private schools can become systematically engaged in establishing and running state-funded schools.

So, just as the challenge is simple – how to unite state schools and private schools in a common endeavour – I believe the solution is also simple. Every successful private school, and private school foundation, should sponsor an academy or academies. They should do this alongside their existing fee-paying school or schools, turning themselves into federations of private and state-funded independent schools and following the lead of a growing number of private schools and their foundations that have done precisely this and would not think of going back, including Dulwich, Wellington, the Haberdashers’, the Mercers’, the Girls’ Day School Trust, the City of London Corporation and the King Edward VI Foundation in Birmingham.

Simple does not mean easy, nor does it mean little. By sponsoring academies I don’t just mean advice and assistance, the loan of playing fields and the odd teacher or joint activity, which is generally what passes for “private state partnership”, however glorified for the Charity Commission. I mean the private school or foundation taking complete responsibility for the governance and leadership of an academy or academies and staking their reputation on their success, as they do on the success of their fee-paying schools.

The roots of the state-private divide are so deep that they reach to the very foundation of state education in England in the 19th century. Historians talk a lot about Gladstone’s Elementary Education Act of 1870, which essentially started state education. But equally significant were Gladstone’s Endowed Schools Acts 1869 and 1873, which turned the great public schools and many of the newer grammar schools previously run in a rackety way by Crown, church or local appointees, into a Victorian equivalent of today’s academies, with independent governing foundations to control their assets, management and leadership. This Victorian academy status greatly strengthened the private schools as institutions. Yet their fees, and the conservative use of their charitable assets by their new governing bodies, kept most of them largely closed to all except the upper and upper middle classes. And so they remained as the state secondary system developed in parallel, and separately, in the decades after the Balfour Education Act 1902.

There was a moment at the end of the Second World War when history might have taken a different turn. An official report, published in 1944 on the day Dwight Eisenhower reviewed his bridgehead in Normandy, said that the social division between private and state schools “made far more difficult the task of those who looked towards a breaking down of those harddrawn class distinctions within society”. Even Winston Churchill, visiting his alma mater Harrow, talked to the boys of “broadening the intake” and of the public schools becoming more and more based on aspiring youth “in every class of the nation”.

But it didn’t happen. Two generations later, the only significant changes to the private school system are that it is larger and richer, and its average educational attainment has risen to among the highest in the world.

The reason for the failure of postwar policy to overcome the private-state divide can be explained simply. Both sides of politics, and both sides of education, positively wanted the divide to continue. So, for differing reasons, they adopted a one-word policy in respect of private schools: isolation.

On the Labour side, ideological antipathy to fee-paying, and later also to selective, education bred often intense hostility. But the social and legal position of the private schools –plus, paradoxically, the personal educational preferences of Labour leaders from Attlee to Wilson and Callaghan – kept at bay any attack beyond the rhetorical, except for the withdrawal of state funding schemes for small numbers of pupils to attend private schools.

I treasure Roy Jenkins’s exchange with Harold Wilson when turning down Wilson’s offer to become education secretary in 1965. “Looking for an excuse [to decline the job],” he records in his memoirs, “I said that all three of our children were at fee-paying schools and that this surely was an obstacle to being minister of education in a Labour government. Wilson brushed this aside as being of no importance. ‘So were mine,’ he said.” Tony Blair was the first prime minister in history to send his children to state secondary schools.

On the Tory side, there was an equal and opposite isolationism. Most Tory ministers and MPs went to private schools and sent their children to them. They still do. So long as Labour kept the dogs off, they had no desire to court controversy by proposing any role in the state system for private schools and their foundations. Better to let sleeping dogs lie.

So much for the politicians. The leaders of state and private schools were – and many of them remain – similarly isolationist. It was an article of faith among the leaders of the comprehensive movement that private schools were not only socially divisive but also, in their educational practice, largely irrelevant. This is still a pronounced view, even among academy head teachers. They say, to paraphrase: “What can that lot who just spoon-feed the children of the rich ever know about education in Hackney and Knowsley?” As for the heads of the private schools, many of them have been only too eager to agree, especially when the suggestion is made that they might manage academies.

Pressed further, they often say it’s not about ordinary children v privileged children but about non-selective schools vselective schools, an argument made by Sir Eric Anderson when provost of Eton. I found this richly ironic, given that Eton until recently was basically an allability comprehensive for the rich and titled.
 

Writ large

Those on the left, and in the state sector, who see the private schools as an irrelevance need only look at their huge footprint in almost every national elite, from politics and business to the media, sport and the arts. The Cameron- Clegg coalition is an Eton-Westminster coalition. (Westminster School accounted for two of the five Lib Dem ministers in cabinet until Chris Huhne’s resignation, and the rest of the cabinet is practically a roll-call of the other leading private schools.)

To those in the private schools and their governing bodies who are reluctant to embrace academies, I appeal to their professionalism and their charitable missions. It was excusable to stand apart from state-funded education when the state did not want them engaged in the first place. But that is the isolationist politics of the past. With the academies programme, supported across the political divide, they have an opportunity to engage in state-funded education without compromising their independence, renewing for the 21st century their essential moral and charitable purposes.

Depressingly, the politics of private-state school reform is still too often seen in terms of cash transactions. On the left, the conventional wisdom is that charitable status gives an unfair subsidy to private schools which ought to be ended, while some private school leaders and governors, whenever it is suggested that they might sponsor academies or otherwise support state education in a non-tokenistic way, retort that their parents are already paying twice for education, through their taxes and their school fees, so why should they pay a third time over? Some say they would rather “give up” charitable status than be expected to do this.

Both these approaches are misconceived, for they fundamentally misunderstand the position of private schools as charities. “Charitable status” is not a badge that can be awarded or taken away from the assets of private schools by the Charity Commission for good or bad behaviour. Nor could the government do this, nor even parliament, unless charitable assets nationwide are to be held liable to random nationalisation. Rather, it is fundamental to their being, like blood in a mammal.

The assets of Eton, Westminster, Winchester and the rest are vested in their present trustees and managers on the understanding that they be deployed for charitable purposes. Private school charities can no more “give up” charitable status than they can have it stripped from them. If they do not wish to continue as charities, or if they are unwilling to perform genuine charitable endeavour, then their highly valuable charitable assets should be passed into hands willing to do so. If the governors of Westminster School, for instance, then want to set up a separate, non-charitable trust solely or very largely concerned with the education of those able to pay their fees of £31,000 a year, that is up to them.

The charitable purposes of these institutions could not be clearer. William of Wykeham established Winchester for the education mainly of poor scholars, and only a small number of “noble commoners”. Henry VI set up Eton for poor scholars. Charterhouse was established by Sir Thomas Sutton, the wealthiest commoner in England, for – yes, more poor scholars. Elizabeth I endowed Westminster School for the same purpose; to this day it is an integral part of Westminster Abbey. John Lyon set up Harrow in 1572 as a free grammar school for the education of boys of the parish of Harrow.
 

Conscience and duty

I could go on through the statutes, charters and founding deeds of hundreds of private schools. It shouldn’t take the Charity Commission to challenge private school foundations about their charitable mission. Their trustees and governors should look to them constantly as a matter of conscience and duty.

With each passing decade many of these schools have become more, not less exclusive, and for generations now few of them have done anything bold to reconnect with their charitable purpose. Most of them are seeking to provide a few more bursaries. Yet it is hard to argue that this is enough, when they could also be running academies whose central purpose is the mission for which their assets were intended in the first place.

As for the idea that these great schools and foundations are not capable of making a success of academies with a more challenging pupil intake, it is a comic proposition. The governing body of Eton is chaired by the former Conservative minister William Waldegrave. Its members include three professors, three knights, five PhDs and a Prussian princess. Westminster School’s governing body is chaired by the Dean of Westminster – John Hall, the former chief education officer of the Church of England who was the driving force behind the Church’s decision to set up more than 30 academies. His fellow governors include the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, three professors, two canons, two knights, one baron and one dame.

Almost every private school governing body in the country is a catalogue of the very great and the very good, locally or nationally, including business, religious and educational leaders.

The notion that these organisations, if they have the will to do so, cannot command the resources and the expertise needed to run a successful school or schools in less advantaged areas – if that were true, England would indeed be Greece, about to default on its whole society and not just its state borrowing.

However, there is no need to argue by assertion. The leaders are there. Dulwich is spon - soring an academy in Sheppey. Wellington is sponsoring an academy in Wiltshire. The King Edward VI Foundation is sponsoring an academy in Sheldon, east Birmingham. All these academies replace failing comprehensives. The Girls’ Day School Trust has converted two of its outstanding private schools, in Liverpool and Birkenhead, into state academies. And five substantial academy chains – built up by the Mercers’ Company, the Haberdashers’ Company, the Woodard Corporation, the United Church Schools Trust and the City of London Corporation – have grown out of the management of historic chains of private schools, leveraging this expertise and experience in education to service academies alongside. With vision and leadership, there could be hundreds more academies sponsored by private school foundations.

It would also be good to see successful independent day schools convert to become academies. It was one of my main objectives for the academies programme, as minister for schools, that it should be a vehicle for a modern version of the “direct grant” scheme, which until its abolition in the 1970s made it possible for leading independent grammar schools to be state funded without charging fees. I had in mind a simple model. The private school would become an academy, fully retaining its independent management and character but without fees for any pupils. It would exchange academically selective admission for all-ability admission, with a large catchment area and “banded” admissions so as to ensure a fully comprehensive ability range. There would also be a large sixth form, underpinning continued very strong academic performance.

A direct-grant sector on these lines is gathering scale. I encouraged and oversaw the transition of five historic fee-paying secondary schools to academy status (William Hulme’s Grammar School in Manchester, the Belvedere School in Liverpool, Birkenhead High School, and Colston’s Girls’ and Bristol Cathedral schools in Bristol). All five are still performing strongly as academies, while expanding their intake and greatly broadening their social range. The Cameron government has continued this policy. Liverpool College and the King’s School, Tynemouth – both highly successful independent day schools in localities that suffer from high levels of deprivation – have recently decided to become academies.

With government encouragement, there could soon be 50 or 60 more “direct grant” academies. Over time, these direct grant academies could sponsor new academies, replicating their ethos and success within the system.

I recently visited the Petchey Academy, one of the five such schools in Hackney, east London, sponsored by Jack Petchey, a great East End philanthropist. His academy isn’t just about examination results; it is about education for character, for community and for citizenship. This is done brilliantly, in one of London’s most deprived communities.

The staff were particularly keen that I should see debating teams from Years 10 and 11 debate before the whole of both year groups. The debaters were articulate and well prepared, just like the pupils in all those private school debating societies.

The motion they were debating was: “This House would abolish the private schools.” It was carried by two to one. All the old arguments were aired. Unfairness. Privilege. Elitism. Afterwards, I asked the girl who had led the charge whether she had ever visited a private school. “Of course not,” she said. “Why would they want to have anything to do with anyone from around here?”

Why indeed. It is time to bury the past and build a better future.

Andrew Adonis is a Labour peer and served as schools minister from 2005-2008. For a unique New Statesman reader offer on his new book, “Education, Education, Education” – just £8 (rrp £12.99), signed and with a personalised inscription – visit bitebackpublishing.com and enter the promotional code: NSEducation.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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Welcome to the zoo: what it feels like to report a presidential campaign

Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault?

Here’s how you cover an American political convention: you get up inhumanly early to fire off your first emails, chugging down hotel coffee that tastes like burnt leather. Then you put on your least-squashed outfit and you drag yourself through crowds of sweating delegates to an event or a talk (or, if you’re unlucky, the treadless circus of the convention floor), and you watch and listen with your phone in your hand and one eye on social media until you run across something that you think might be worth writing about.

You email your editor from the phone to see if your sense is correct, and the idea is saleable. Meanwhile, you’ve started looking for somewhere to open your laptop and bang out your copy. You write it. You buy a coffee so they don’t kick you out of the café. You scramble for healthy wifi. You talk your way into the giant car park repurposed as a crèche for journalists outside the arena, where your organisation has a tiny table, and Google and Facebook have giant booths distributing free snacks, just to remind you who’s really in charge of the media.

Then you file your copy. You send the link out all over social media, because that’s part of your job, and you go in search of food with your eyes all glassy from screen glare, until you have to do it again. Whenever your editor goes to bed, you think about wrapping up and relocating to a bar where you can flirt with half of your attention while drinking beer and scrolling, constantly, through social media.

At some point around 4am, you clock off and spend an hour searching for a cab that you hope you’re going to be able to put against expenses, and you chat to the driver on your way to your overpriced, out-of-town hotel, too tired to register the shock of a conversation with an actual human being. Later on, in a hotel room that you can’t afford, you ask yourself: how does it feel to have made something that hates you?

In the two heat-drunk, deadline-crazed weeks that I spent at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, that line kept echoing in my mind. It’s spoken by an android to its creator in the Alex Garland film Ex Machina, but the 15,000 journalists, reporters, columnists, television crew members and media flunkies gathered to watch the biggest American political showdown of this half-decade could have asked ourselves the same question. Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault? And what can we do to stop it?

This is a story about stories, the people who tell them and the price we pay. In all the thousands of essays, reports, video diaries, interviews and listicles produced at and around the lumbering pageant of the US presidential race, one class of person is supposed to be almost invisible, and that is the people who do the work of production: the journalists. But what is happening in politics today, particularly in the United States, and particularly in this election, has everything to do with the media – the industry, yes, but also the people in it. If the media are the message, the message is anxious, incoherent and mired in a money crisis that it has no idea how to handle. Not unlike America, as it happens.

***

Just in case you’ve had the good fortune to have spent the past two years under a rock, let’s recap. These US conventions are the official nominating ceremonies for the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as four-day pageants at which lobbyists and media flunkies come to flirt and network and make whatever passes (in professional political terms) for friends. The candidate selection is merely the excuse for this shindig, and this time the fix was in before it had even begun.

The Democrats had chosen the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, representing the centre-liberal status quo with a corporate feminist twist and a side order of hawkish sabre-rattling. Her main challenger was the veteran socialist Bernie Sanders, who believes in wealth redistribution, free university education and social justice and gained an enormous following among young voters who have not yet accepted that they owe their votes to any candidate with a blue ribbon.

On the Republican side, a field of whey-faced religious extremists had been cleared for Donald Trump, the real-estate tycoon and reality-television star, who stands on a platform of imposing a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, building a border wall with Mexico and replacing the entire US electoral system with a giant statue of his gelatinous face, sculpted from misdirected class rage. This, more than anyone, was the man we had all come to see.

One of the liturgies of doctrinal Trumpism is that there is a thing called “the mainstream media”, which tries to control what “ordinary” people think, despite knowing next to nothing about their lives. The mainstream media are assumed to be homogeneous, cosmopolitan, well paid, based almost exclusively in New York and the Beltway of Washington, and liberal to its core. This is a more accurate description of Trump than it is of most US journalists I know.

Trump did not invent performative hostility towards the “mainstream media”. Every insurgent politician in recent years has taunted the press in public, while giving hacks hungry for copy exactly what they want: a story that draws in readers. And a great many journalists, at least those who have not yet given up on the notion of speaking truth to power, feel less comfortable when power tries to court us than we do when it pretends to hate us.

The ways in which we create and consume media today are not the same as they were even four years ago, during what was dubbed in the US as “the social media election”. Rapid changes in communications technology have reshaped the terrain more thoroughly than those employed to scry in the entrails of the internet for the future of human thought can anticipate. What is clear is that power flows to those who can understand and exploit the hysterical reality engine called the media – and that has always been the case.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swayed the nation with his deft use of radio – and so did Adolf Hitler. In the 1960s, John F Kennedy became the first “television president”, beating his opponent, Richard Nixon, in televised debates that radio listeners felt that Nixon had won. Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, perfected that position. Barack Obama is the first US president to understand and exploit the full potential of the internet, recognising that social media can be used to reshape the calcified structures of money and messaging that are still, across the West, called democracy.

This year, Donald Trump – a reality TV mogul before he is anything else – has taken control of the narrative, understanding, like Europe’s right-wing populist pundits, that it is possible to bypass facts altogether and hit the electorate in the incoherent space of pure emotion. What, at a time like this, does journalism mean? What does it mean to be a member of the press in an age when there is no longer a clear distinction between media and meatspace, between reality and television?

***

 American political conventions are not the staid, rainwashed yearly affairs that we are used to in Britain. Every four years, the Republican and Democratic Parties throw a festival for thousands of lawmakers, lawyers, reporters, lobbyists and the occasional actual voter on their break from handing around snacks at press parties. It lasts four days, because that’s how long it took originally to count up delegates from every state, and now the rest of the time is filled up with boozing, hobnobbing and wearing clothes that make everyone look like they’re live-action role-playing the most depressing parts of the mid-1980s. There are speeches, and more speeches, musical interludes by tame celebrities, blind children singing the national anthem, and quite a lot of God-bothering – and much of the main action doesn’t start until 4pm every day, in order to give people time to recover from the night before.

This would not work in Britain. America still takes itself too seriously to consider how crass this looks to an outside world that also has reason to fear a vicious, swollen toddler with alarming hair being given access to the US nuclear codes. This year, the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, came first, as befits the case for the prosecution of the political status quo. On the Saturday before it began, the airport was already lousy with journalists looking for Trump people to interview.

Armed police circled the terminal as a choir of children from local schools sang patriotic lullabies to soothe us into what would be a two-week fever dream of nativist fear-mongering and empty political pageantry. The candidates, remember, had already been decided by a grudging, deeply divided electorate. All that was left was ritual, and the dim, thrilling possibility that someone might do something off-message.

I bought the first coffee of the week and got in a cab to call my editor while my synapses soaked in diluted stimulants. The roads were jammed with thousands of hacks doing the same, some of whom already had deadlines to meet. Nothing had happened yet. That didn’t matter. We were here to create news, not report it.

“The threshold for news now is very low,” said Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times and an old friend from (where else?) the internet. “There are more of us running around and there’s less to do. A lot of us were bracing for something potentially as bad as the protests at the DNC [Democratic National Convention] in Chicago in 1968 . . . That’s always the conflicted part of the business. Chaos and mayhem make for selling newspapers, but if you live here in Cleveland, you want nothing to go wrong.”

Why did we come here? To see the show. We had heard that there would be protests, which always make good copy, and dissent on the convention floor. And we knew without doubt that there would be frothing cryptofascism, which makes better copy. The more Trump claims to hate the press, the more we fall over ourselves to give him the attention he craves. He is an insider trader in the attention economy.

I heard the word “zoo” repeatedly. The reporters had “come to see the zoo”. A zoo: where you pay to see dumb and dangerous beasts in cages, and then eat ice cream. Is that where we thought we were? There were wire fences around the convention zone and the people there knew that they were on show, putting on a spectacle for the liberal media that they claimed roundly to despise. Trump’s people made it clear that this convention was about showbiz, although the celebrity roll-call was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a man from a TV show called Duck Dynasty and a handful of C-list actors. The DNC had Snoop Dogg.

As delegates, lobbyists and reporters continued to flood into Cleveland, nothing – at least nothing resembling substantive news of any kind – continued to happen relentlessly. But we were all hoping for a moment of transcendence, a big breakthrough. A great observation or piece of writing that would make our editors proud and our landlords happy, back in the places we were from – sorry, the places we were based. None of the reporters, it seemed, was from anywhere. Instead, we were based in New York, or based in Washington, or based in a small village in Finland. We were transient half-people, scrapping for meaning and a living.

It quickly became apparent that the promised protests would not be occurring. We had prepared ourselves for open-carry gun marches and riots in the streets, and so had the police of every local district, who had been shipped in to bristle on every corner, but anyone with a sensible point to make had decided to stay at home. The gun protest turned out mainly to consist of a man with two guns, with dozens of reporters circling him like hungry vultures that had heard the dying screams of political discourse.

Mark Twain is apocryphally said to have observed that there were only three real American cities – New York, New Orleans and San Francisco – and everywhere else was Cleveland. The place did look like it had been hastily constructed out of plywood and the overwhelming impression was of being backstage on a giant movie set, which helped with the sense of unreality not one jot. Nor did the way that everyone in town seemed to spend between a third and half of their waking hours staring at a phone or a laptop screen. The screen-time/real-time distinction had disintegrated completely and we had all come a long way to be in the same place, looking at our phones.

Still hazy from jet lag, I dunked myself in a basement swimming pool; its acid-blue water was the temperature of fresh urine. I dried off in the bar, chlorine tightening my skin. Next to me on an unforgiving leather sofa, Adele M Stan, a reporter from the American Prospect, was wrapped in a shawl, checking her phone. This, she told me, was the strangest political convention of the seven that she had attended. Many of the major Republican political players, unwilling to yoke themselves to Trump’s toxic popularity, had decided to skip it, and so had most activists with any sense. Instead, the space around the stadium was a clear field for ranters, ravers and swivel-eyed performance artists masquerading as political actors – just like the stage.

For two weeks, in two cities, I met almost nobody who was local. The town centres had been cleared and scrubbed for the event, the local tramps and beggars ungently encouraged to move on. Often, even the waiting staff and Uber drivers had come from out of town. Many of the real citizens had left to rent out their homes on Airbnb. 

Everyone in the action zones seemed to be from somewhere else.

I know nobody from Cleveland and yet, within an hour of arriving, I had run into five people I know. They had come to get the story. It quickly became apparent that they had also come to get laid. I have never been so consistently hit on as I was in those first three days in Cleveland. Tinder was lit with people “in town for the week, trying this out for the first time”.

I ended up having some of my most honest conversations of the trip with other reporters on the instant dating app, where we seemed to feel more free to voice our political opinions. We would start off straight-up flirting, then ease into confidences about how bizarre the experience was and intimate existential panic about the nature of sanity, bracketed in plaintive requests for the sort of sex you have with strangers as the world is ending. I matched with two people from The Daily Show. The week was a stew of pre-fascist panic: mate or die.

***

On the walk down to the convention centre in Cleveland, the streets seemed empty except for stray reporters, security guards and a giant billboard howling: “Don’t believe the liberal media!” Overhead, a chartered plane flew the slogan “Hillary for Prison”. This line was available over the next few days on buttons, badges, T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, announcing to the world that the trolls had taken the wheel of political discourse. Hillary for Prison. Like much of what passes for political conversation in this election, it makes sense only if you say it in an American accent, and it’s not as funny as it seems.
Outside on the corner, two enterprising young men with button-down shirts and ice-white smiles that did not flicker were selling Clinton- and Trump-themed boxes of cereal for $40 each, because they had college debts that they couldn’t rely on the Democrats to cancel. I switched on the recorder, a decision I almost immediately regretted. The spiel they gave me was so polished that I was unsurprised, a quick Google search later, to find five articles about them already published.

There was still little to do but drink coffee, so a square mile of cleared city was full of reporters running around, wired and jumpy, wondering what we were missing. We were desperate for something, anything to kick off, not because we liked the idea of civil unrest but – hey, it had to be better than cluttering up the hotel lobby.

Speaking of hotel lobbies, one thing bears repeating: most of the reporters in Cleveland weren’t as fancy as we were making out. For every well-known news anchor and overpaid op-ed writer, there were dozens of production crew, staff bloggers and freelance reporters living from pay cheque to pay cheque. On Monday afternoon in the aptly named Public Square, I met up with five reporters whom I had known since we all got our start together covering Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They had driven down from New York and found a floor to crash on in the hope of making enough money covering the convention to pay for the trip. Back in 2011, it seemed that new media had the power to reframe democracy. Five years later, that turned out to be entirely true – but not in the way we expected.

We gathered to reminisce about that time, about the protests, the excitement, the arrests, the brief, gorgeous sense that a different world was possible. We’d also heard that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine would perform an impromptu concert in the square for the protesters, so we sat at a café table, waiting for that to begin. Rage had been all over Occupy like a rash and could be relied on to drum up some modest mayhem.

In the opposite corner, a few dozen young people were gathered around a speaker stage. We spent an hour checking social ­media with one eye, while catching up on what had happened in each other’s lives – who had got married, who had broken up, who’d been made redundant, who had got custody of the dog. We met covering Occupy Wall Street; now we are, apparently, the liberal media establishment. It took us an hour to realise that the people crowded around the small stage were not the warm-up for the protest. They were the protest. By that time, it was over.

***

I turned up to the Washington Post’s convention-viewing party with a gaggle of other young hacks, all of our well-honed powers of observation focused on predicting when the snack table would be restocked and how long we could stay before somebody noticed that we were freeloading freelancers who came here to pinch the wifi. The Washington Post, underwritten by Amazon money, took over a bar near the convention centre and offered on-site massages and craft beers. There were also speaking events throughout the day. Nick Pinto of the Village Voice was not the only one to notice that those who had sponsored the shindig, including representatives of Big Oil, got to put their point of view across unchallenged at these events. So much for liberal bias.

On the big screens behind the free bar, the convention speeches were playing, but almost nobody was watching. Nobody was watching as Willie Robertson, one of the stars of the Duck Dynasty TV show, took to the stage to curse out the “mainstream media”, which lived in a different world from “regular folks like us, who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living”. “It’s been a rough year for media experts,” he said. “It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long.”

At the Republican convention, I saw 15,000 reporters trying to find a new, original angle on the only story that mattered – that a dark mood of nationalist populism had taken hold in the world’s only superpower and whatever the outcome of this election, there will be suffering. There will be pain, distributed among millions. I saw the flags in the arena, the pomp and excess, the hundreds of fists raised. Country-rock music played throughout. It was like a nightmare marriage of Nuremberg in 1933 and the Eurovision Song Contest, and I knew that this story was not new.

***

Journalists have a way of acting as if we were not political animals with political appetites, as if we were spectators. There may have been a time, in a previous generation, when this was true, when commentators and editors got to play politics like it was a game. But times are changing and so is the industry, and we’ve got skin in this game. Nobody who expects to be personally unaffected by a Donald Trump presidency would, for instance, steal an entire jar of BuzzFeed-branded pens (including the jar), which is what I saw a young freelancer doing at the Washington Post party. By the end of the first week, we were all ready for a little bit of hope. But that wasn’t the story the Democrats were selling, given their reluctance to lie with such lucrative momentum as their rivals.

Philadelphia in late July was hotter than the underbelly of the sun and the air was soupy with moisture. This is not a place where Europeans should ever have settled, for a number of good reasons of which the weather is not the least. The heat sent everyone a bit loopy, as if we were walking through treacle in a dream. And, like in a dream, the narrative kept slipping out of focus. From the start, the messaging was all about the grand story of America, a nation that does not need to be made “great again” because it is already great, a nation that survives by hallucinating its own legend – but the gathered press could not help but share the sense of having been cheated. The awkward truth that Trump and his followers have tapped into is that there are millions of people for whom America is not, and never has been, all that great.

A few days before the speeches started, the crypto-justice trolls WikiLeaks dropped an enormous cache of emails from the Democratic National Committee’s server that had probably been hacked by Russian agents. These appeared to show, to the surprise of nobody, that the Democratic Party had been manoeuvring against Bernie Sanders from the start.

The convention opened with accusations of corruption and the announcement that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic chair, was resigning. That afternoon, hundreds of Sanders supporters braved the heat to stand outside City Hall to make their feelings known. The one thing I heard from everyone I interviewed – and the one point of agreement between the Bernie supporters and Trump’s people – was that the mainstream media were not to be trusted.

The overwhelming impression of being a reporter at the DNC was of being held hostage – literally, as well as figuratively. Everyone was too tired to move and certainly too tired to flirt. Where the Republican convention was a slosh of sexual energy, of directionless desire, the Democrats’ was all about desire deferred. I deleted Tinder from my phone to make more space for interviews.

The convention centre was miles out of town and getting in involved a system of passes and checkpoints so complicated that you would have been loath to go outside the media zone, even if it weren’t more than 30°C in the shade. The press was stashed in a system of speciously air-conditioned marquees outside the convention hall, with three stinking porta-potties to service thousands of reporters and no water available. Jerry Springer was there, and I had no idea why. Is he a Democrat? Or does he simply materialise wherever reality television meets Freudian psychodrama, wherever people try to pretend that working-class people screaming at each other is entertainment?

It was, more than anything, a physical slog. The tone was set by the way in which the perimeter had been given over to Uber, so that it was hard to get close without taking the on-demand car service. Entry to the security zone was through an oasis-like Uber tent, where you could pick up free water in exchange for your lingering discomfort with Silicon Valley economics. It’s like being in a rewrite of Children of Men for the gig economy. A new adventure in bleak.

Many of the reporters in attendance had just come from Cleveland and were already worn out from a week of frantic deadline-wrangling and late-night networking – not optional in an industry in which job security is based largely on personal connections. Here, the reporters were taken for granted and so was our good coverage. The understanding was that we would encourage our readers, implicitly or explicitly, to support the nominee because we had no other option. By the end of the second day, it wasn’t clear if we would even be allowed to leave without at least a tweet declaring ourselves #WithHer.

On day two, after the roll-call of states was read out and Clinton was officially nominated, some Sanders delegates – who had hoped for something more than the status quo with a feminist varnish – staged a walkout. The first I saw of this was movement in the media tent, that unmistakable herd motion of reporters who realise potential copy is happening near them, like chickens moving as one at the rattle of the seed trough.

Finally, something off-message was happening. After days of manoeuvring to ensure that no left-wing protesters got near the press, they came right to us. T-shirted delegates from Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee stood in the press tent with hand-drawn signs and sticky tape half hanging off their mouths. They had taped their mouths shut to symbolise their silencing by the Democratic committee but were having to untape themselves every few minutes to give interviews and, after the third or fourth time of doing this, the tape started to lose its stickiness. Those trapped outside chanted: “The whole world is watching!” For once, at least for those with a broadband connection, this was true.

They played us like Slick Willie plays the saxophone. It was masterful. We heat-exhausted copy-monkeys, strung out on hours of refreshing TweetDeck, found ourselves standing on tables, holding our phones aloft like protective amulets, trying to capture whatever it was that was happening, because something, for the first time in days, was definitely happening. Something unplanned. Something off-script.

The decision to occupy the media tent was borderline genius. It was one of the best-played protest moves I had ever seen, placing the dissenters instantly in front of the world’s cameras. Like the convention, it was staged not for those who were present but for readers and viewers elsewhere. The internet was the invisible current in the room. The rest of America and the rest of the world were not here, but we were haunted by them – by the sense that real life was going on just outside the room.

Yet, like in a horror movie from the scrag-end of the 1990s, it turned out that we were the ghosts all along. It turned out that we, the delegates, the lobbyists, the spectators and the precarious, anxious press corps, were the ones haunting the real world through the internet, trying to make sense of a story that had run far ahead of us, trying to form the narratives of which material life is made. We sneer at reality TV without understanding that we are active producers in the greatest reality show of all: US politics.

It was enough. I didn’t care enough about what Hillary Clinton had to say to drag myself through the sweltering nightmare of the convention centre for another minute, so my colleague and I fought our way to a cab and watched it on TV, at home. It turned out that Clinton had little to add to the story that America has been trying to tell about itself for decades, apart from a fantastic array of pantsuits and a series of promises that she will be under no obligation to keep.

With the world facing the alternative of Donald Trump, it is now on us – those who create and sustain the narratives of identity and change in the US and beyond – to make that sell, in order to avert disaster. We may not be the establishment but we find ourselves in a position of having to advocate for it, and to do so convincingly to those for whom the prospect of a woman president is not sufficient to inspire faith in a better future. That’s what the media are good for right now, in this fever dream of an election – and it might not be enough.

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

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