When oil mixes with water: hydraulic drilling for fossil fuels is both opening up and changing the landscape around the world. Photograph: Enrique Marcarian/Reuters
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Fracking: the new gold rush

Can shale gas and fracking solve our energy crisis?

It’s a cold but sunny January day in Brighton, and Anna Dart looks like death. Equipped with a black shroud, white skull face and tinfoil scythe, she is leading the Sussex Extreme Energy Resistance protest outside HSBC in North Street. HSBC provides banking services to the “greedy corporate” entity (Dart’s words) Cuadrilla; in pursuit of Mammon, this energy firm is going to poison the water and our food, Dart says. To reinforce the point, her fellow protesters are dressed in toxic hazard suits and are handing out leaflets that warn of the “devastating” impact Cuadrilla’s fracking will have on England. Fracking is the process by which hydraulic fracturing of shale rock produces gas and oil.

Fracking is the new GM. As with genetic modification of crops, the issues are so complex that people are generally going with their gut. And their gut tells them that it’s a bad idea to break up the ground beneath our feet just so that we can get at more gas for generating electricity.

In case you needed more proof that Cuad - rilla is an evil empire, consider this. Less than a week after the Brighton protest, at a fracking site in Lancashire, Francis Egan tried to steal my pencil. Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, wanted to draw me a graph of how the amount of gas that comes out of a well varies over time. I lent him the pencil, and a piece of paper. When we finished talking, he tucked the pencil – my best pencil, I might add – into his organiser. Not content with a plan to set Lancashire on fire with its own gas, not content to bring earthquake-related misery to Britain, the company has appointed a stationery thief as its CEO.

“I’m going to use that,” I tell him. “I’m going to tell the world you stole my pencil.”

Simon, the PR man, looks slightly worried. I can’t trust Simon either. I had coffee with three local activists earlier. Not only did they give a pantomime hiss when I said I was going to meet Egan, they said that PPS Group, the firm in charge of Cuadrilla’s PR (strap - line: “working in the tougher areas of communication”), has a history of dubious behaviour. When it comes to fracking, rumour, half-truth and paranoia are rife.

The devil wears Camper. To match the casual shoes, Egan is in blue jeans, a dark crewneck top and a black leather jacket. Inside the blue “meeting room” Portakabin at the Anna’s Road drilling site just outside Lytham, it is casual Friday. As he talks, he tugs frustratedly at his curly white hair. “All your questions have been about problems,” he says, putting down his Morrisons egg and cress sandwich and rocking back in his chair. “Not one has been about how we can make the most out of this.”

“This” is the shale gas bonanza. In September 2011, Cuadrilla announced that there is 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas trapped in the UK’s Bowland Shale, kilometres beneath the surface of Lancashire, just waiting to be brought to the surface and burned. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) asked its rock scientists – the British Geological Survey (BGS) – to rush out an independent estimate. The BGS said there was perhaps five or six trillion cubic feet.

The BGS has since revised its “back of a fag packet” calculations (in the words of Professor Michael Stephenson, head of energy services at the BGS) and DECC is about to release a fresh estimate. Stephenson won’t tell me what it is, and Egan doesn’t know. “I suspect it’s going to be higher than 200 trillion cubic feet,” Egan says. “I’m fairly confident our number was conservative.”

As it turns out, Egan might be right. In early February the Times reported that it had seen leaked figures from the BGS: the new estimate is reportedly between 1,300 and 1,700 trillion cubic feet. That’s a lot of gas, even assuming (as the BGS does) that we’ll get only 10 per cent of it out of the ground. By way of comparison, the world’s largest oilfield, the South Pars/North Dome field beneath Iran and Qatar, contains 1,235 trillion cubic feet of gas. Currently, North Sea production is at roughly 1.3 trillion cubic feet per year, so the Bowland Shale could possibly see us through the next century.

So, what are we going to do with it? One argument is that we should leave it in the ground for the climate’s sake. We are supposed to be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. But let’s face it, no one is building nuclear reactors, nor has there been sufficient investment in green technologies to allow them to take the strain. It’s inevitable that we are going to keep burning gas for the foreseeable future. At least gas is cleaner than coal. And given that we import 1.8 trillion cubic feet of gas a year, often from autocratic states, if we’ve got our own, why not burn it?

We have only to look across the Atlantic to see the benefits. Gas from geological deposits of shale has revolutionised the US energy market. An abundance of shale gas has turned the US from a gas-importing nation into one that could soon be exporting the stuff. That’s partly because there is so much of it that the price has dropped through the floor; it’s becoming hard to make a profit as a fracking company just in the US.

The hub for this 21st-century gold rush is Texas, where a deposit known as the Barnett Shale could yield landowners as much as 30 trillion cubic feet of gas. “The Barnett Shale is pretty much the same as what we have in the north of England,” Stephenson says. “It’s the same age, and the same kind of rock.”

So, the theory goes, it probably has a lot of gas in it. Not that it’s straightforward to get at. The gas is trapped within the structure of the rocks at depths of up to five kilometres. You can drill down to the shale to open up a pipeline, but it’s not like opening a bottle of fizzy drink; the methane doesn’t suddenly flood upwards. That’s why you have to frack.

Fracking involves pumping a drill hole full of “fracturing fluid”, a mix of water, sand and chemicals that breaks up the rock to release gas. The gas flows into the pipe bore and rises to the surface, where it is collected into onsite tanks. Inevitably, it’s not that simple. You might have some gas, but you’ve also got millions of gallons of contaminated water coming up with it. When the Environment Agency analysed the “flowback” from one of Cuadrilla’s wells, it compared the contamination with permissible contamination levels of water from the mains. Arsenic was up to 20 times over the limit. There was 90 times the acceptable level of radioactive materials, 1,438 times the permissible lead levels and 2,297 times as much bromide as is allowed.

“It’s non-hazardous,” Egan says, straightfaced. “It’s not going to be a danger to anyone’s health.” He is pulling at those curls again. To be fair, that’s the Environment Agency’s assessment, too, because they classify flowback not as mains water, but as industrial waste. And compared to some industrial waste it is non-hazardous.

“The flowback is toxic; there’s no doubting that,” says Joseph Dutton, an energy policy researcher at the University of Leicester. “But then so is raw sewage. So is wastewater from food processing plants. The fact is, the technology exists to handle and clean it.”

It’s contradictions such as “non-hazardous” toxic waste that have created such a furore around fracking. Most of us live as if the gas we burn for electricity, heating and hot water comes from the fossil-fuel fairy. We don’t want to be confronted with the unsavoury facts about how it is produced. But we live in a new era: this extraction, if allowed, is going to take place in this country.

The Anna’s Road site lies a kilometre from one of Lytham’s largest housing estates. Ignoring the complexities and contradictions of our fossil-fuel addiction is a luxury that the residents of Lancashire no longer have. Their first concern is the ground beneath their feet. On 1 April 2011, Cuadrilla’s fracking operation caused an earthquake in the Blackpool area. Cuadrilla prefers the term “seismic event”, but let’s not argue over words just now. There was a second, smaller quake on 27 May. The BGS performed a study and said the epicentres were 500 metres from Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall well at Weeton, just outside Blackpool. Cuadrilla eventually conceded that the events were probably caused by its fracking and downed tools while the government commissioned a report into the risks.

The quakes were tiny: magnitude 2.3 and 1.5. “There have been several quakes bigger than that since – and no one reported them,” says Richard Davies of Durham University’s Energy Institute. Unless you live in Leicestershire, for instance, you probably don’t know that the Loughborough area has already suffered three similar quakes this year, with crockery-rattling magnitudes 2.4, 1.5 and 2.9. These were naturally occurring seismic events, probably caused by ground shifting around the county’s warren of mines.

“If we wanted to stop fracking on the basis of seismicity, we’d have to stop a lot of other things, too,” Davies says. “Mining and drawing geothermal energy, for instance. Compared with everything else, seismicity is fairly unimportant in fracking.”

Egan is realistic. He has finished his sandwich and has moved on to a tub of ready-cut melon. He peels back the film, stabs a piece – rather malevolently – and thrusts it into his mouth. “The seismic thing is a useful stick to beat the industry with,” he says. “It’s important that it doesn’t happen again.”

This makes a pleasing, if ironic, contrast with the local activists’ viewpoint. Pam is almost praying for another earthquake. “If it happens again it’ll be all over for Cuadrilla,” she says. There’s a lot of spark to Residents Action on Fylde Fracking (RAFF). Though all the RAFF committee members are retired, there is no lack of fight. “We’re so up for this,” says Ian, sipping a latte. Pam tells me about their exploits in lobbying the county council and organising packed information evenings at local village halls. Ian interrupts the flow of fighting talk to comment on the coffee shop’s background music. “Ooh, Chet Baker,” he says. “I love this.” So does Pam; she has the album, she says. I’m having coffee with the activist wing of Saga.

They’ve been dismissed as “nimby bumpties”, the “aboriginals of Lancashire” and “crazy tree-huggers”, but they are not cowed by the name-calling. They see themselves as well-informed citizens exercising their democratic right to question the actions of their local representatives. And they get results. Through their efforts (and, they would politely insist, the effort of many others), Lancashire County Council has told the government it wants “industry-specific regulation” of fracking, with frequent on-site inspections, rigorously enforced regulations and “considerable sanctions” for any breach of the rules. “We consider that a triumph,” Ian says.

So they should: the UK Energy Research Centre says there is “fierce public opposition” to fracking. Egan denies this; most people, he says, haven’t made up their mind. That may be because, for most people, it doesn’t matter what they think. For the people of Lancashire, though, it most certainly does.

Lancashire is sitting on what Egan calls “one of the largest gas discoveries ever made anywhere”. It is at this point that he starts telling me off for focusing on the negatives of getting gas out of the ground. So I ask him what’s in it for the people of Lancashire. His reply is a simple “Jobs, I hope”, and hardly rings with confidence. Especially given the wording of some of Cuadrilla’s planning applications: “Locally, the benefits of such a hydrocarbon exploration project are small.” Should the exploration be successful, “the employment of a small number of local people, depending upon the size of production operation, may result”.

“I don’t agree with that,” he says. The CEO is six months in post and clearly thinks he knows better than the people who drew up the firm’s planning applications. Egan notes my surprise and embarks on a motivational lecture. “I think Lancashire needs to be much more proactive,” he says. In his view, it’s not Cuadrilla’s job to make this work for Lanca - shire. “This isn’t Cuadrilla’s gas. This is the country’s gas. UK plc and Lancashire plc should be looking at this and saying, ‘How do we make the most out of this resource?’ Not: ‘Is Cuadrilla going to create jobs for us?’

“This is an opportunity for Lancashire. We can facilitate it. It needs some kind of co-ordination or drive, but if you look at Aberdeen or Houston, it isn’t, ‘What is this they’re doing to us?’”

Calming down a little, Egan explains that, if they want them, the people of Lancashire can have jobs as plumbers, electricians, engineers, accountants, architects and truck drivers. “Drilling is just high-class labouring,” he says, waving at the world outside the Portakabin. “These are basically construction sites.” Indeed. And, as with construction sites, things sometimes go wrong. My tour ends with us standing on a squash-court-sized bed of concrete in front of a neat, round, waterfilled hole. “This is where we’re going to drill next,” says Bob, the site manager. I casually point to the capped-off hole next to it.

“Is that the hole where you lost some stuff?” I ask. Bob nods. There is the briefest of pained winces as he remembers the equipment that dropped off the drilling rig. They could have carried on, he reckons, but the orders from on high were to fill and close the hole.

So far, Cuadrilla has drilled four holes in Lancashire and abandoned two. The other abandoned hole is at Preese Hall, where the “seismic event” deformed the well’s concrete casing. Though it didn’t break, and Cuadrilla re-cemented the deformed section, this is the nightmare scenario – a well that breaks, leaving fracking fluid or methane to find its way into aquifers and, eventually, the food chain. In the United States, there are claims that fracking has caused methane to leak into the water supply: the internet is awash with footage of people igniting their tap water with a cigarette lighter. The Fylde coast depends on tourism and agriculture, and the local people are justifiably concerned that their land and water sources remain uncontaminated. They want the government to protect them. So far, however, the government is not on their side.

In all the furore over fracking, the UK government might just be the least rational, most entrenched activist of all. It has chained itself to the idea that fracking is a route to lower gas prices. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Tory energy minister John Hayes have all talked of shale gas reducing household energy bills. Matt Ridley, the techno-optimist scientist and author, and Lord Browne, the former chairman of BP and the Cabinet Office lead non-executive (who coincidentally is also the chair of directors of Cuadrilla), have made similar claims. The only dissenting voice in the government comes from Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, who has made more effort than most to keep the enthusiasm under control.

This notion seems to have arisen from a naive application of US shale gas economics to the UK. UK shale gas will be sold into a gas market that is connected to the European market and the one for liquefied natural gas coming out of Africa. “It’s going to be a drop in a bucket,” says Jim Watson, director of research at the UK Energy Research Centre. “You’d have to discover huge amounts to have an effect on the global price.” That’s because, in order to get the best price for it, the gas goes into the central pool rather than being piped straight into a power station.

Cuadrilla reckons that its shale gas could “eventually” meet a quarter of UK demand – because it doesn’t know when production will start, or how it will scale up, it’s impossible to be more specific – but admits that’s not going to make a big difference.

“I don’t think we ever said it would be enough to change the gas price,” Egan says. In many ways, it doesn’t matter. The message is out there: cheaper gas through fracking is already a familiar energy trope that will help win public support.

The other issue is regulation. Having commissioned the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to compile a report on the risks of fracking, the government chose to ignore the main call from these bodies: for strong regulation before fracking proceeds.

The UK’s oil and gas regulations are not sufficient to cover fracking operations and there is little to no inspection regime in place. Residents Action on Fylde Fracking made a Freedom of Information request to the Health and Safety Executive in June last year and discovered that it had made just two visits to inspect Cuadrilla’s sites. Mark Miller, who directs the company’s operations in Lanca - shire, told the group that the HSE was inspecting for worker safety only – that hard hats and high-vis vests were worn; well integrity was not on the agenda.

“No one has ever checked the cement bonds of any of the four wells,” Pam says.

This comes as no surprise to Dutton. The Royal Society report highlighted well integ - rity as the most likely point of failure and recommended that the inspection regime for checking the wells be made the “highest priority”. But, Dutton says, DECC and HSE simply don’t have the resources to develop and implement a regulatory framework. “For me, that’s exactly what the environmental groups should be going on about,” he says.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of UK fracking is that so many educated people think the safety issues will take care of themselves. “We’ve got such good regulation in this country; it’s pretty unlikely we’d have a problem,” Stephenson says. The Commons select committee on climate change, which the Tory MP Tim Yeo chairs, shares his confidence. “We believe it is possible to construct a regulatory framework which will make fracking environmentally safe,” Yeo told me. “We’re quite good at that in this country.”

This national pride in Great British Regulation would be a lot easier to swallow if it wasn’t being raised at a time when we’ve discovered that up to 1,200 people may have been killed at the Stafford Hospital, and that thousands of supermarket beef dishes are composed largely of horse meat.

The age of austerity has cut the funding of supervisory bodies to the bone – bad news for those concerned about fracking regulation. The HSE’s inspectors for gas and oil installations are set up for the offshore industry and are based in Scotland, and have no funding or expertise to carry out onshore inspections. “They told me they don’t have the petrol money for making random visits to Lancashire,” says Mike Hill, a chartered engineer and Lytham resident who has spent years working in the oil and gas industry. “If you know no one is checking – and with fracking we do know no one is checking – the temptation to cut costs is too big to resist.”

Hill has delivered talks at academic conferences on shale gas, and he also advises Pam, Ian and Anna. He refuses to join RAFF – he’s not anti-fracking, he says, just pro-regulation. Of course the industry cuts corners where it can, he tells me. It’s not evil, exactly; it’s just that the safest way of doing things sometimes costs more money than companies with profit-hungry shareholders are willing to spend – especially when there’s no risk of being found out.

Francis Egan assures me that Cuadrilla has nothing to hide and no interest in cutting corners. “The HSE can come any time they like,” he says. “All that stuff you read about? We’re not doing any of it.” Cuadrilla will get one of its fracking sites up and running and people will finally see the truth, he reckons. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s what it looks like,’ and over time it will just become accepted.” He is convinced that fracking is seen as a danger because it’s new; that’s why coal is more accepted, even though it’s dirtier. It’s better the devil you know.

Michael Brooks is the author of “The Secret Anarchy of Science” (Profile Books, £8.99)

Update: 26 March. An earlier version of this piece stated that Mike Hill was retained as a technical advisor by Lancashire County Council. In fact, he acted as a "technical advisor" (unpaid) to the Fylde Council Task and Finish Group, who were looking into Cuadrilla's activities. He is no longer in that role.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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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