If this is journalism, it deserves to die

What is journalism actually for? According to the late humorist Finley Peter Dunne:

Th newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.

More recently, the American Press Institute explained:

The purpose of journalism is… to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.

Journalism’s job is to tell the truth when other people try to obscure it. As George Orwell didn’t write (it’s widely attributed to him, but there’s no evidence that he ever wrote it):

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.

So what should we make of the Shropshire Star’s coverage of the MP, Daniel Kawczynski, and his online comments about the Marshall Plan?

If you aren’t familiar with the story, Kawczynski is an anti-EU backbencher. He posted to Twitter:

Britain helped to liberate half of Europe. She mortgaged herself up to eye balls in process. No Marshall Plan for us only for Germany.

That is untrue. The largest recipient of funds from the Marshall Plan was, er, Great Britain. We got 26% of the aid compared to 11% for Germany.

The internet was quick to correct the MP, but his local paper chose to describe the story as a “row” where “critics” were “questioning the MP’s apparent claim.” Here’s how it sold the story on Twitter.

Daniel Kawczynski hit back at critics saying: “Those affiliated to Europe in this country hate any challenge to their point of view.”

That’s not the story. This is the story:

Daniel Kawczynski lied.

The linked article, by the paper’s senior reporter, gave the MP the opportunity to double down on his nonsense. It has since been edited after a “row” where “critics” pointed out that the paper was missing a fairly obvious point: the MP lied. It wasn’t an opinion. It wasn’t a different interpretation. It was a bare-faced, flat-out, easily checkable lie. Rather than say that, the paper went with a diversionary quote from the lying liar who lied, presenting the patently untrue claim as if it were just one side of a debate.

This matters, as FT contributor David Allen Green explains.

Politics in the UK – and USA and no doubt elsewhere – is in a poor shape.

And one reason for this is the casual dishonesty of politicians and their supporters, and the unwillingness or inability of the media to check the falsehoods of politicians and their supporters.

…A politician lies, people shrug, the political caravan moves on.

The political lie serves its quick and cynical purpose, and is soon just forgotten.

This particular example is over Brexit, of course, but the issue is endemic. It’s in the columnists who don’t declare conflicts of interest when they write about particular groups and who repeatedly lie in the service of a personal agenda. It’s in the churnalism that regurgitates press releases, prizing “truthiness” over actual truth. It’s in the collapse of fact checking and the “clicks first, check later” culture that makes so much modern journalism worthless. It’s the repositioning of news media as a branch of showbusiness.

We’re regularly told of a crisis in journalism, the ongoing difficulty in getting people to pay for news. But the sad truth is that some news simply isn’t worth paying for. As I’ve written before, bullshit is not a precious and rare commodity.

Journalism’s job is to ask questions; as the viral quote puts it, to “look out the fucking window” when somebody claims its raining. Journalism that doesn’t check facts, that enables liars to double down on falsehoods, is journalism that fails its readers. Journalism that doesn’t do its job is journalism that isn’t worth saving.

How about we try making the world better for men too?

As ever, the Daily Mash does a great job of skewering a news story: this time, the ridiculous outrage over a Gillette ad.

A RAZOR blade company has expressed surprise that its latest advert has pissed off a lot of dickheads.

In a stunning development, the company’s latest campaign – which calls on the #MeToo movement to tell men to be ‘the best they can be’ by not being dreadful – resulted in a totally unexpected backlash from spluttering idiots.

The most spluttering of the idiots are so-called men’s rights activists, who continually campaign for men’s right to suffer disproportionately from mental health issues and to die younger than women. They don’t quite put it that way, of course, but that’s ultimately what resisting change to ideas of masculinity means.

The point that’s being spectacularly missed in angry rants kicking back against the idea of toxic masculinity is that the concerns are about the “toxic” bit, not the “masculinity” bit. It’s like responding furiously to an article about acid rain by saying #notallrain and suggesting that snowflakes want to ban all precipitation.

Gaby Hinsliff, writing in the Guardian, sums it up very well:

Feminism has endlessly opened up horizons for girls, giving them permission to be anything they want to be. They are bombarded with messages about how it’s fine to be both smart and pretty, encouraged to visualise themselves in male-dominated careers and to push the boundaries of behaviour considered “acceptable” for women. That paves the way for girls who never fitted the pink princess stereotype to be far more comfortable in their skins.

But expectations of boys have remained more rigid, to the detriment both of those who don’t fit the macho stereotype and of those who will grow up to be the victims of insecure male rage. “Let boys be boys” is an excellent principle. But only if we recognise the full range of things boys are capable of being, when we let them.

I’m reading The Guilty Feminist just now. It’s a great example of pop-feminism publishing: affirming, angry in places and often very funny. The message is a simple one: don’t let other people limit who you are and who you can be.

The male equivalent of that isn’t men’s rights activists bleating about how liberals and feminists and LGBTQ people have ruined their world and demanding we stay in 1953 forever. It’s accepting that masculinity is just as broad a church as femininity. It’s making room for all kinds of men, and all kinds of expression. It’s about freeing men from suffocating stereotypes that tell them who they are and who they have to be, or have to pretend to be.

It’s about ensuring our sons and our brothers get to be the best possible versions of themselves.

What the world needs in 2019

I’ve posted before that we’re lucky to be alive right now: for most of us the world is a better place than it’s ever been. But it also feels very divided, and some of the world’s worst people are deliberately fuelling those divisions. Sometimes it’s malicious – it’s a lot easier to push through a repellent agenda if the people who would normally stop you are fighting each other instead – and sometimes it’s much more banal, such as the way significant parts of the media have normalised extreme views because outrage gets clicks.

Never mind ABBA, or Oasis. The only comeback I want to see in 2019 is the return of empathy.

Happy New Year. I hope your 2019 is healthy, happy and cares about everybody.

Goodbye, The Pie

We said goodbye to The Pie today. She was 13.

Megan – immediately dubbed The Pie by my wife – was born in 2005 and we got her in early 2006. We were young marrieds, starting a new life in suburbia. For a couple of years it was just the three of us: me, my wife and The Pie, a whole future ahead of us.

Megan was the perfect dog, funny and never fierce, the world’s worst guard dog and our best friend. She became our kids’ best friend too, and was there for them when I was no longer able to be.

Today, as the vet prepared to put her to sleep, we were able to kiss her and rub her tummy and tell her what she always knew but didn’t hear enough: she wasn’t just a good girl. She was the best girl.

Some friendships aren’t forever

Cerian Jenkins is one of my favourite writers, both in her day job as a columnist for DIVA magazine and as a blogger. In The [Other] C Word she’s been blogging about her experiences of cancer treatment, both in terms of the physical effects and the wider impacts on her life.

This post, on friendship, is typically astute. Big life events can have a seismic effect on your friendships, and many of those relationships don’t survive.

In shining a harsh light on the fundamental foundations of relationships I had, up until now, probably taken for granted as unshakeable, I have been granted a rare insight into which special friendships I should invest much of my time and effort into nurturing and which friendships I should accept were not what I had perceived them to be pre-diagnosis.  It allowed me to build upon old connections, and even to create brand spanking new ones.

As Jenkins noted on Twitter, the response to her blog demonstrated that it’s not just the big C: people undergoing gender transition, divorce, becoming parents, experiencing other major life changes or just going travelling have encountered similar changes. I wrote about my own experiences of absent friends earlier this year:

And like every other big step I’ve had to take, I had to do it solo. No wingman to give me confidence. No voice offering assurance that I can do this. No shoulder to cry on when the sheer enormity of it all seems too much.

But Jenkins, like me, has found positive effects too.

…you will be amazed by how right you were about a handful of brilliantly supportive friends, as well as completely blown away by people you would never have expected coming out of the woodwork and proving themselves to be invaluable pillars of strength. I know I have been.

Nowadays, when I look at my wonderfully eclectic group of friends, I am acutely aware of the truth in the words ‘quality over quantity’.  I feel infinitely lucky to know that there are people in my life who will be with me through thick and thin, in sickness and in health; and that they will always be able to rely on me doing the same for them. In truth, I wouldn’t be standing today, let alone still smiling, without them.

Not everybody in your life is going to be there forever. Sometimes friendships will fade; sometimes they end much more abruptly and in ways that may upset you. But rather than mourn the death of friendships that are beyond repair, it’s much better to work on the new friendships you’re making – and if you’re not making them, to put yourself in situations where you can make connections with new people.

Many of those connections will be strictly temporary; some might not last beyond a single day.

But some of them will blossom.

Some of them may turn out to be the most important connections you’ve ever made.

Will those connections last forever? Nobody knows. They might screw it up, or you might.

But equally, they might not, and you might not.

And even if there is a screw-up in your far future, the friends you have now can have a phenomenal effect on your life right now.

With very few exceptions, the people who matter most to me now – the people who pick me up when I’m feeling down, who get me out of my comfort zones and who make me feel the sheer joy of being alive – are people I didn’t know two years ago, or didn’t know as well as I do now. I am a better person, and live a happier life, partly because of people who weren’t in that life just a short time ago.

I love Jenkins’ conclusion.

In the end, the important thing is to be generally kind and to nurture understanding of yourself and those around you, whatever role they choose to play (or not play) in your life.

The most wonderful times of the year

It’s my birthday today.

I know I had a birthday last month, but like all good queens I’ve got two: my birthday and the day I became Carrie. Legally speaking, that change happened on this day last year.

I usually post a round-up just before Christmas, and last year’s one just happened to be the day my name changed – although I didn’t know that at the time, because the documents are sent to you by snail mail. As I said last year, it was going to be a big Christmas for me:

It’s the first Christmas as a separated parent; the first Christmas in many years where I’ll wake up alone; the first Christmas where I won’t be doing bedtime stories for overexcited and highly sugared kids.

The first Christmas for Carrie.

This Christmas is much the same, although I’m a divorced parent rather than a separated one now. Where last year was quite sad for me, I’m feeling quite festive this time around. Not least because I fully intend to celebrate my second birthday this year, so by the time you read this I’ll probably be in the pub.

I keep a diary, and looking back on 2018 it’s hard to believe it’s just been a year. This is the year I began living full time as me, so it’s been a year of firsts, good and bad: first gig as me, first day out as me, first time travelling as me, first time attending college as me, first of many times being misgendered on air, first time experiencing the dubious joys of electrolysis, first time being filmed as me, first time being a wedding guest as me, first time being abused in the street for being me, and so on.

What jumps out at me isn’t the trans thing or the ongoing drudgery of dealing with a desperately underfunded NHS. It’s that again and again I’ve been writing about having joyful experiences with good people.

It’s interesting to compare my real-life experiences of living as a trans woman with the way people like me are written about in newspapers and online. In the real world I’ve made stacks of women friends and been treated with kindness and inclusivity. In the media I’ve been the subject of a moral panic just as toxic and malicious as the one over gay people in the 1980s. I’ve stopped buying all kinds of publications because of it, choosing to spend my money on more deserving causes instead, but it’s hard to ignore: every day my news app gives me yet another white, middle-class, cisgender English journalist telling me I’m a monster, a predator. By far the hardest thing about being trans in 2018 has been having to endure this bullshit.

It will pass, eventually. But it’s done incredible damage to one of the most vulnerable groups of people.

Enough of that. Let’s stick to the good bits. This has been a year of big laughs and big ideas, of drag queens and dancefloors, of big wheels and big emotions and of stupid jokes and pointy guitars. It’s been a year of adventures and experiences, of pride and of positivity, a year of gigs and of giggles and of comfort zones being dynamited. More than anything, it’s been a year of fears faced up to and good friends found.

This time last year I was very sad. This year, I’m excited. 2019 is going to be great.

Thanks for reading. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and a joyful, prosperous and healthy New Year.

The stories we share

My friend Chris Phin has blogged about what he calls a really simple idea:

Everyone around you, indeed, everyone all over the world, has a story that brought them to today, to this minute, this second, that is as rich and internally consistent as yours.

That reminds me of my beloved This Is Water, in which David Foster Wallace notes that as you don’t know what people’s stories are, you might as well assume the best of people: you’ll never know one way or the other, so you might as well go for human warmth and empathy. You’ll have a much better life if you do.

(If you missed it, I wrote about this last Christmas in a post covering all kinds of things including how I stopped being a snob about Christmas lights on strangers’ houses.)

We humans are a storytelling species. This, in Time magazine, caught my eye:

Now, a new study in Nature Communications, helps explain why: storytelling is a powerful means of fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms, and it pays valuable dividends to the storytellers themselves, improving their chances of being chosen as social partners, receiving community support and even having healthy offspring.

It’s a really interesting study: researchers studied “forager cultures” and found that their tales “carried lessons about social cooperation, empathy and justice, and many taught sexual equality too.” It’s a small study, but I love the fact that it found “storytellers were chosen over people who had equally good reputations for hunting, fishing and foraging — which at least suggests that human beings may sometimes prize hearing an especially good story over eating an especially good meal.” I bet the storytellers were offered exposure rather than any payment, though.

Not everybody wants to share their stories, or read others’. I think in particular there’s a generational issue, where some people who grew up before the internet don’t understand why on Earth anybody would send their darkest thoughts into the public sphere. But for those of us who grew up with social media, or were introduced to it fairly early on, it’s perfectly natural.

As the late Douglas Adams so excellently put it:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

My very first article, some 20 years ago now, was about the then-new phenomenon of “journalling”: people posting about their lives online. It seemed strange then; today, it’s normal. And I think that can be powerful.

As Chris says:

I’m currently – today – feeling hopeful. Because around me, in the friends I have in cyber- and meatspace, and the media I chose to be exposed to, I see people much more willing to be emotionally vulnerable and honest. To allow people, in other words, to read that story inside each of us, and not to be afraid to show the world that we’re not the 2D cardboard cut-out people we usually feel we have to present as.

There are many problems with social media, but it has many positives too. Reading other people’s stories has helped me make sense of my own, has provided support when I really needed it, has helped me see beyond my bubble.

Chris again:

I’m seeing people using social media to articulate and own their issues, their problems and their insecurities – their stories. They’re prepared to show the workings-out of how you become a good and kind and whole person, rather than persisting in the fiction that they’re already complete, autonomous adults. And that’s marvellous, I think; I have become closer to friends who have embraced their chaos and their fuckups, and I believe people have been drawn closer to me when I’ve purposefully dismantled the façade I so carefully built from my teens on.

Storytelling is valuable to the storytellers as well as to the readers or listeners. I’ve been quite open on this blog, possibly more than some people would like, but I find the process of writing my thoughts down and putting them out there is useful. And I’ve had many real-world conversations with people about things I first talked about here. Sometimes all you need is a little “liked” icon to tell you that somebody found what you wrote useful, or interesting, or valuable, or funny.

Like Chris, I built a facade in my teens. And like Chris, I find I’m much happier having dismantled it. Being open online is part of that. It means I’m showing my authentic self: an imperfect human who’s trying to be better.

“The body blow of wishing”

 

I really like Kirsty Strickland, one of Scots media’s more interesting columnists: she’s funny on Twitter, incisive on politics and occasionally devastating on Medium.

Here, she writes about how grief is part of Christmas for so many people.

Because for all the joy that Christmas can bring, its braying decadence and opulence can also provoke harsher, sharper feelings — separately and intertwined with one another — like the scalding heat of freezing fingers.

One of those is certainly grief. It’s a place where your happy memories and treasured times with a departed loved one collide with the body blow of wishing beyond anything else that they were still here.

I love the imagery in her post, grief as a wound that “will fade over time to a silvery scar.” She’s writing about death and loss here, but of course death isn’t the only kind of loss. Some of us will be experiencing Christmas alone after years of family life, or with parents who no longer remember who we are, or with diagnoses predicting horrors in the days and months to come.

Our streets will be still on Christmas Day and all the ordinariness of life will grind to a halt. This gives us time to think and to remember; to rejoice and, yes even to grieve.

As Strickland notes, if you’re struggling and need somebody to talk to then the Samaritans are available 24/7 by calling 116 123 or emailing jo@samaritans.org.

Finding the good things you weren’t looking for

 

I’ve been writing a lot about “discovery” recently, the way in which apps attempt to find things you might like based on what you’ve liked before. But the best discovery is when you find things that aren’t just based on your purchase history or listening history.

For example, over the last couple of days I’ve discovered all kinds of fun things: the beautiful glass jewellery of Rachel Elliott, the gorgeous voice of Courtney Lynn, the hip-hop artist Becca Starr and the stunning folk/rock of Annie Booth.

I came across all of these things by accident. Elliot was selling her stuff in a one-off market in the downstairs of a pub; Lynn just happened to be playing in a bar chosen at random for a quick Sunday drink; Starr was performing in a venue where some of my friends hang out and Booth was played on a radio show I don’t usually listen to.

It’s a great demonstration of why it’s important to explore, whether that’s physically – going to places you don’t usually go – or in a less physical sense, by being open to new things or experiences.

There’s a word for encountering great things without going looking for them: serendipity, which means happy accidents: when things occur entirely by chance in a happy or beneficial way. Some of my very favourite things in the whole world came to me through serendipity. I don’t believe in destiny, the idea that everything we do is somehow pre-ordained. But I do believe in serendipity, that some of the word’s greatest joys come when you aren’t looking for them.

I love the origins of words, and this one’s particularly great. It was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 in his Three Princes of Serendip, a fairy tale where the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

I wasn’t planning to look into the origin of it; I just wanted to see if there was a better definition. So the delight I have in that little nugget of information is serendipitous too.