Columnism, complicity and crisis

by James Butler

8 January 2013

The crisis is real, and it’s here to stay. Julian Sayarer rightly points out that courses in journalism have seen a substantial rise in intake since the global financial crisis of 2008. Some few of the new young guns in journalism have even managed to parlay their youth and industry into a platform from which to speak about the peculiar effects of austerity on the young. It’s true that the roll-call of these issues (rent, unemployment, precarity, unpaid labour) make regular appearances whenever a young writer is given some column inches to play with. That should be so: any politically-aware columnist would be rightly called blinkered if they ignored them. If there is space for critique here – and there is – then it can’t be limited to the vague sense that these are people who’ve made a career off the back of other people’s political activity, or that there is no point in producing political comment. The wider questions are these: how does a newspaper benefit from young, ‘radical’ star columnists? What is the political complexion of this work? Why do they think they’re doing it, and what’s changed in the last few years to make them so visible?

First off, follow the money: newspaper publishing still hasn’t found a solution to the problem of the internet. Group M predicts a 9% decline in newspaper advertising revenues in 2013 – falling below the £1bn mark for the first time, and standing at less than half of its 2005 value of £2.5bn. Circulation figures are grim: ABC numbers for the Guardian, Independent and Times stand at half of what they were a decade ago. Web advertising doesn’t seem to offer effective monetisation; paywalls isolate a paper from a digital public. In straitened times, it’s easy to see why young writers start to seem more attractive – the lean and hungry come cheap, the precarious are editorially pliable, and lesser-spotted left politics might even be bankable, as long as they stay just within the bounds of acceptability.

If, despite the Guardian’s financial skulduggery, or the Independent’s influx of Russian oligarch largesse, it’s still difficult to plug the digital hole, then this might explain the changing makeup of journalism. Comment – even the informed kind – comes relatively cheap, and cheaper still if it’s young. Commission a comment journalist, and you have 800 words more-or-less on cue. Investigative work costs more, and has fewer guaranteed returns. With the spectre of state regulation over editors’ shoulders, prohibitive libel costs, and tight margins, it’s hard not to see a gloomy future for genuinely investigative work in the press, even as its few recent successes show how direly it’s needed.

The columnist problem isn’t new: in 1968, not long before her leap into armed struggle, Ulrike Meinhof wrote a short piece decrying ‘Columnism’ – the attitude toward and function of ‘star’ newspaper columnists. It is a spectacular indictment of the role of the left-wing columnist as ‘a fraud for the readers, self-deception, a personality cult.’ Meinhof’s broadside was occasioned by the refusal of her employers, the left-wing magazine konkret, to give over space to a collective of extra-parliamentary left-wing writers. The paper’s business model, as well as its preferred form of political discourse, was dependent on the individual columnist; the ‘aura of outrage’ without the implications of putting theory into practice.

Times have changed – we’re no longer in the era of Ulrike Meinhof, nor even Nellie Bly – but the critique remains a powerful one. The political pluralism of the UK press is rather more constrained than it was, with relatively unremarkable, mild socialism enough to carve out a territory as a left-wing firebrand. Column lengths grow precipitously shorter, as room to explore or think on a page disappears in favour of a quick recitation of common truisms. Still, the essence of Meinhof’s criticism holds true: the apparent freedom of a columnist obscures a certain complicity more generally true of editors and publishers, all the more insidious because it passes without comment. But if comment journalism has proliferated to an extent that Meinhof could not have foreseen, it has done so with a stunning narrowing of horizons and evenness of texture: comment journalism now also marks out the acceptable bounds of public opinion.

No-one thinks we can do without a media, in the broadest sense: a communicative medium that allows for criticism, exploration, reflection, and reaches an audience beyond the narrow confines of one’s immediate circle. If we regard that as a necessity, then yes, our criticism should be stringent: yes, some young columnists take up an unreflective position of generational strife, and yes, this analysis is at best a small fraction of the picture, at worst simply misleading or politically inept. But this can only be an inroad to a more general critique of a media unwilling to pay for and accommodate serious reflection; and of a left chary of engagement with a mass audience. If we are to turn our guns on the various youthful vacuities who occupy the comment-sphere with the latest churned-up boilerplate, then our fire should be all the more steadily trained on the clueless editors, and senior columnists who are singularly detached from anything resembling political reality, and who, after all, earn salaries an order of magnitude larger than their younger counterparts.

This is only the beginning of such a critique: a real thinking-through of the current state of media would involve tackling head-on the overwhelming personalisation of politics, the absence of any grasp of history or economics, the reliance on press releases and sketchy research; equally, the new working condition of the continuous news-cycle, the editorial structure of the newspaper itself, the abuse of free labour and precarious employment.

There is hope here: Private Eye’s current 25-year circulation high suggests an appetite for serious investigative legwork, for instance. If new media is a crisis for the old forms of publication, it needn’t be so for the forms of investigation and analysis that made them so vital in the first place. Any hope for political change will not be led from the columnist’s perch, but this is no reason to see media production as necessarily removed from political work. So, yes, I hope we see more people writing about unpaid internships – maybe, this time, with some capacity to join the dots with workfare schemes, benefit caps, the restructuring of the low-wage service sector economy – but more importantly than that, I hope that they band together and demand payment for it.


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