As the old year fades, it is customary that I find myself catching up with old colleagues for lunches in the few restaurants in Soho which have managed to see off the wrecking ball. These are the kind of lunches where we discuss how far the old trade has fallen and say things about the latest storm in a teacup that we would probably not say in public.
The conclusion reached at the end of the most recent such meeting was that while we have never had so many means at our disposal through which to pass on our opinions, we have never been so reluctant to make those opinions public. What brought this up is we were talking about the radio producer who didn’t want their name to go on what was a very good programme on Radio Four because it featured views that some of their mates wouldn’t like. Therefore, they preferred to avoid the blowback altogether by not having their name anywhere near it.
I want you to think about that for a moment. These were opinions that Radio Four were comfortable to allow a platform for and yet not opinions that a radio producer felt he could afford to have any of his friends know about for fear they would think he held those views himself. This is not an isolated incident. There’s never been a time in my experience when I’ve been aware of so many people biting their tongues as there are now. It has never been so easy to just open up a phone and start tapping out your “take” on everything from national politics to the latest activities of Lady Gaga and yet it has also never been so easy to think of reasons why it might not be a good idea to do it. There have never been so many people in the public square talking about diversity and tolerance and at the same time, there has never been so little actual diversity in the range of view we hear and never so little tolerance of views that happen to be different from one's own.
There has never been a time in my working life when I’ve so often heard fellow professionals – sophisticated individuals – reach for variations on the phrase “of course you can’t say this but…” as I do nowadays. That is not because anything they might say is particularly controversial but because they have learned that if they stray into any areas where the controversial subjects live, they will be “taken down”, to use the unlovely parlance of the digital mob, or “owned” by somebody who sees their path upwards through somebody else's denigration. This, mark my words, is all about ambition. When people announce that they are really offended by something, what they really mean is they wish to climb on to the prone body of some alleged victim of this offence in order to draw more attention to themselves. That’s how you become a hero today. You begin by casting yourself as a victim.
Too easily offended?
The most harmful section of the email that got William Sitwell fired from the Waitrose Food magazine was the bit where he said he would like to capture vegans and force feed them meat because this allowed his detractors to cast themselves as his victims. It allowed them to bleat that they were offended. They weren’t offended at all. They might have been miffed but they were unlikely to have been offended. If you join a minority by choice, one of the benefits of membership is people sneering at you. It’s why people dress up as Goths. They don't want to be accepted. I’m often irritated by things but I can’t remember the last time I was actually offended by anything. Other than the feeling I get when the driver of the car in front throws a used fast food container out of the car – which, let’s be honest, doesn’t happen all that often – I’m not even sure what offended means.
I can see why John Brown and Waitrose decided that they had to let Sitwell go but I honestly fear for us as a society if we’re no longer capable of treating a story like this according to its true merits. I’m sure Sitwell wouldn’t describe it in these terms but this really is “banter”, albeit the kind of banter that journalists indulge in when they’ve had a hard day biting their tongue and suddenly give in to the impulse to cut loose with what they really think. I don’t believe that most men talk the way that the defenders of Philip Green or Donald Trump pretend they talk, not even in the mythical locker room, but I do know that journalists send emails to each other in which they attack other people and groups behind their backs in the most withering terms just because they have the communication skills to do it and want to get it all out of their systems. I think the fact that this one found its way into the public space is entirely regrettable and I think it’s a sad day when one hack can’t vent to another without fearing that the latter will go crying to nurse.
Sitwell’s downfall came as a result of him replying to one of those letters from freelances which are now commonly referred to, presumably by people who’ve read too many books about how they do things behind the scenes in Hollywood, as “pitches”. We used to call them “suggestions” but that obviously didn’t sound Aaron Sorkin enough.
I’m glad I’ve avoided “pitches”, much as I am grateful for the fact that I’ve got through my career without ever wearing a laminate or dealing with HR. “Pitches” is one of those weasel words through which people try to turn an inky trade into something that sounds pleasingly multi-media. Bah. Pish. Tosh. Even people assuming not very exciting positions on magazines now announce that they’re “taking pitches” at this or that address which is rather like a grand Victorian lady announcing she will be “at home” between certain dates.
I never send anything that could be construed as a pitch because a) it’s undignified and b) I long ago learned that there is no point attempting to interest a publication in apples if what they’re buying are oranges. People within media organisations have a very close focus on the world as they see it and they are often completely incapable of seeing it as it appears from the outside. As an outsider, you can either attempt to get them to see it differently or you can find out how they’re seeing it and then see if you can provide anything of that kind. For instance, when contacted by a news producer who wants a comment on a story, I always ask them to tell me what they want me to say. Once I’ve heard that, I will tell them whether I’m prepared to say it. It’s a process that I find saves a lot of time and heartache all the way round.
If I have a piece I want to write, I sometimes just start writing it on my blog and on social media. I may find that somebody contacts me and asks me to write more about it. Or they don’t. It’s a lot less draining than trying to get the attention of some commissioning editor who’s preoccupied by this week’s problems and trying to get them to focus far in the future and come round to your way of thinking. It’s never going to happen.
It was 40 years ago today
Forty years ago this winter, I was unemployed, eking out a living by knocking out the odd piece for a free magazine given away at Virgin and by helping out with football at the school where my wife taught. Realising that I needed to set my sights a little higher, I called Fred Dellar, the man who had very kindly got me work on the NME and said, “Fred, is there any work around?” Fred told me that Nick Logan had just started a magazine called Smash Hits for a company called EMAP, it was doing very well and he would probably appreciate some help.
I rang Nick, who at the time was using two rooms in the office of an advertising agency, and he pretty much said could I come in the following day. I started off doing bits and pieces, then Nick gave me an actual job as assistant editor on the princely salary of £4,500 a year and I was off.
Ever since that day, I’ve had regular reason to say thank-you to Smash Hits, not just for giving me the start, but also for introducing me to many life-long friends, but also for ensuring that anywhere I go in the world, I am rarely more than a few feet away from a former reader and also for providing me with a couple of hundreds words to finish off this column. Happy birthday, the hits.