We talk to The Guardian's Editor at Large, Gary Younge, about the nature of political journalism.
Gary Younge, photographed by the author
You’ve worked with the Guardian since 1993; the first article of yours on their online archives is written from Soweto, South Africa – on the dawn of April 28th 1994. It documents the day of an ordinary South African family, who for the first time are about to vote for Nelson Mandela as their President. How do you remember the national mood?
In South Africa at the time? Well the national mood was quite balkanised because it depended on what part of the nation you were talking to. White South Africans, a lot of them, were very fearful. Amongst most black South Africans there was this kind of quiet dignity, and restrained hope. One of the things I remember about that day: journalistically people wanted everyone to be jumping up and down and screaming. And I was a very young journalist, I wasn’t even on the staff of the Guardian at the time, and the challenge of writing that story was (capturing) the very quiet, workaday pride and investment, almost like a job well done kind of thing. And one of my clearest memories from waking up in that house and then going to a vote with them, was the mist clearing in the morning. We’re walking to the polling station – and the mist is clearing, so all I can see are these shoes just walking – and otherwise it’s quite quiet. All of these people just walking to go and vote – and there was no hoopla.
And you know I’d seen stuff before, I was in the Soviet Union for one of their first democratic votes in ‘91 when I was studying; but I do remember thinking, I guess this is how history happens. Or one of the way history happens. It’s not always big fireworks, and sometimes it’s just people getting about their daily business.
In your preface to the autobiography of Malcolm X, you reference Sam Cooke’s Change is Gonna Come, I love that song, and what surprises me about it most is its contained nature – it’s full of certainty, and dignity – it doesn’t need to shout about it.
Yeah, there’s a lot of songs from that period, the 60’s and 70’s, which are all about “we’re going to get there”. I’m thinking of Ain’t No Stopping Us Now (McFadden and Whitehead).
It’s all about (how) we’re getting there, slowly does it, easy does it. And sometimes I think dignity can be overrated, sometimes you have to be undignified to make your point. But sometimes it goes undetected. And there’s something to it, in the human spirit that’s worth honouring.
What made you want to do this sort of work?
I was always interested in politics as a young child. And as I trained to be a translator and an interpreter – I realised that I didn’t really enjoy translating or interpreting, but what I did enjoy was language and the manipulation of language. And so those two things came together as journalism for me. And I didn’t know this at the time, what I liked doing was making arguments. But in time, what I liked doing was telling stories. Those two things aren’t antithetical – but there are two strands to my work: one is storytelling and one is argument making.
Since Soweto you’ve carved your primary niche in journalism as a political or socio-political journalist. What do you think the role of a political journalist actually is in society?
Well, it can change depending on what’s going on, I think. You know – if you’re in Chile in ’72 your role as a political journalist is different than if you’re in America in ’95, ’96, in the middle of a boom as opposed to a country in the middle of a coup.
I think what I’m given that other people don’t have is some access to people, some access to places. Not everyone can get to interview Jeremy Corbyn, not everyone can go to Muncy and write about that, and not everyone has the time to read up about all this stuff. (And I) put it together and give a sense of where we are, what I think is at stake – including telling people things that they don’t want to hear, like, Trump is quite popular right now with his base, or, Brexiteers have a point – or whatever it is. It’s not about telling people what they want to hear.
I do think there’s a particular thing in this moment for political journalists, which is that we are in a moment of extraordinary volatility in Britain with Brexit, minority government, Corbyn, Trump, the rise of both right-wing populism and left-wing militancy – and as journalists we are more effective at being descriptive than being predictive. Some political journalists, some, have seen their job as “I’m going to tell you what’s going to happen now” – well, we don’t know what’s going to happen now. And that’s fine, we can own that. This is what I see, and this is what I make of what I see, I can’t tell you what it’s going to do, because it’s too volatile.
That sounds quite similar to an economist in a way.
How d’you mean?
Well, they rather like predicting the future but they’re famously bad at it. They can just clip 50% of outcomes but they’re very good at describing.
And you can make a call I think about which one you’re going to do. So when people say “Who d’you think the Democrats are going to pick to run against Trump?” – I can say I don’t know. I can tell you what I see among Democrats when I’ve been there, and what I think they are looking for at the moment; but I’m not going to give you a name because that would just be cheap. I could say something and you could go away – you could be happy with that. And generally speaking, I’m not sure political journalists should be doing that anyway – but right now, they’ve proven themselves to be no good at it. And the reality is much more interesting than a future they can’t predict, so why don’t they concentrate on that.
Does this make reading a newspaper an exercise in interpretation rather than information gathering?
Well I think it always has been. Anything you read goes through a series of filters, through the writer, the editor. If I go to Muncy in Indiana – I’ve chosen to go there, there are any number of places in America I might go. My institution has chosen to fund me to go there. Then I’ve seen things through my eyes – and you’ve seen it through the filter of your eyes. If you read a piece by me now, your reception of that piece would be very different if you read it in 30 years time. I just did a piece about Britain’s imperial fantasies. Some people in Scotland read that very differently to people in England or Wales, and got very upset that I hadn’t made a distinction between Scotland and Britain.
But lots of people have been worried about whether this makes journalists intrinsically partisan. And to some, what they’re reading seems closer to propaganda and opinion than fact.
Right. Well I don’t think this makes you partisan, but I do think it makes you biased. I think everybody is biased, and the best way to engage with that is to own your biases. So… I don’t believe in objectivity. I understand it as a principle, but as a notion it suggests that I have no eyes. Or my eyes don’t belong to me. That I see everything and tell everything – and I don’t. I make choices. I make choices about what I think it’s important for you to know. And those choices aren’t simply an objective set – they are framed by the world in which we live. And the issue is whether you’re prepared to own your choices.
I think increasingly, particularly in a social media age, people have gotten used to getting the news they want. And not the news that exists. And most media organisations, almost by definition, have been part of an elite. You have to be quite wealthy to own a media organisation. And so in this particular moment of volatility, they’ve become quite unreliable conduits.
In the last 15 years, starting with the Iraq war which most of the media got horribly wrong, through the boom or the economic crisis - inequalities have grown massively and the distance between the kind of salary a journalist would earn and the kind of life that other people have, has changed massively. New technology has interrupted our ability to be the sole conduits (of news), it’s not surprising that some people have lost some trust in journalism.
I think your comment about being the sole conduit of journalism comes with a lot of benefits. I’m glad that people are their own master when they read news, instead of accepting what used to be THE news from THE BBC - or whatever it was, as solid fact. And it was never true to say that there was ever objectivity as such, but today that’s especially so. News has become a 24 hour series of events; Trump becomes president – is news. Whereas journalism is interpretation, context, analysis – and that’s personal.
Yeah, and – it relies on facts. Facts are the raw material.
Yes, they’re two sides of the same coin in some sense. You can’t have journalism without hard truth – but just taking events by themselves is a strangely pointless or hollow thing to read…
And you have to choose which facts you give. There’s a really good essay by E. H. Carr called The Historian and His Facts – which I really recommend to you, it’s about 30 pages in a book of essays called What is History? He talks about Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and he says Caesar crossed many streams, and many people crossed the Rubicon – so what made Caesar crossing the Rubicon a fact of history? Well, you have to unpack: because it was Caesar, because a gauntlet had been set down – it was this particular stream and this particular person at this particular moment that made that a fact of history. And that is an interpretation. You could have a reporter sitting by the Rubicon watching everybody crossing saying “Bob’s crossed, Jason’s crossed”, or one following Caesar saying “He’s crossed another stream, and another stream” – and that’s a marshalling of the facts. There are infinite facts, we marshal them, and getting your facts right is the basis for what we do.
We’ve mentioned Trump of course, and he’s possibly the most vocal in asserting that the media as a hostile force. The Donald calls them “fake” or “slime”, but Steve Bannon put this in interesting terms when he called them “the opposition party” of the administration. Are journalists today really that influential?
Evidently not. Most of the newspapers and TV were against Donald Trump, and he won. Most of them were against Brexit – no, no that’s not quite true, it was a bit more even than that. Most of them were against Jeremy Corbyn - he did better than they expected. So, in that sense, no. They don’t form a political party. But they do frame the parameters of what’s considered reasonable debate.
Now, that frame is a lot weaker than it used to be, but you hear people reciting scripts that they could only have got from the news. Things like “Oh, Corbyn. He’s too left wing” – well what is it that you don’t like about him? What is too left wing? And they say “I don’t know, really.” And it’s not that that’s an unreasonable point of view – it’s that it’s a received point of view. And we all do it.
Journalists have access to the cultural consciousness in that way, they’re there, they’re the people on the radio in the back of your mind…
And there are these moments of massive dislocation between the journalist’s common sense and the general common sense. So you go to a Corbyn rally, and find that the term ‘Corbynista’ makes no sense – people in there are achingly normal, boring almost. And they say things like “If there was someone better, obviously I’d vote for them, and yeah I quite like Blair. But I just think it’s time we stuck up more for poor people now.”
And you realise that there are ideological fissures, but also personal attachments. And what there has been is a massive dislocation between the establishment narrative and a popular narrative. Which is where a lot of this mistrust has come from. And it’s not only Trump. If you talked to lefties in the run up to the Iraq war – they’d say you just can’t trust the mainstream media. If you talked to Black Lives Matter they would say a very similar thing.
I’m not going to hold you to your specific word choice, but saying you don’t believe in objectivity as such – what sort of Truth do journalists tell?
I think I said there is such a thing as objectivity, as a principle, but that it doesn’t have a meaningful function in journalism. The truth you tell is the truth that you see. So, I went to Muncy and… I had to choose who to speak to, and I went back to the people I’d spoken to before and asked them how they thought (Trump) was doing, or why are people so angry - questions that I thought were pertinent.
So first of all: I had to listen, that was the first truth. I had to come away and make some sense of what that was, and then decide what I was going to foreground – that they think he’s done a good job, but they don’t really like him that much. I’m not going to claim that’s “The Truth”, because there’s a million and one republicans out there – and five others could have told me five different things. But it’s a faithful reflection of what I heard and saw, underpinned by my reading, my history of covering the subject – none of which is neutral, but all of which counts. And you have to stand back and see if it stands the test of time.
What sort of stories are you most interested in telling?
I’m most interested in the stories that aren’t being told. My book about all the kids who were shot dead in one day would be an example (Another Day in the Death of America). Or the series on knife crime. Stories that aren’t being told that have been folded into themes and memes that people think they understand. Everybody’s got an opinion about knife crime – but they’re not really following it.
The other major hallmark of your work, I think, has been your focus on race. And very recently in the documentary Angry, White and American you interviewed white supremacist leader Richard Spencer. Since then you’ve written about why you gave him the oxygen of an interview – a risk worth taking to expose him to proper scrutiny. Is this a distasteful job, but one that we need to do more of?
Well, I think we have to do it judiciously. We have to do it when it’s necessary, I don’t know if we have to do more of it. And when we do it, we have to do it right. So it’s about making a calculation: am I furthering their cause? There’s a moral and political responsibility, am I giving them space to spread their hate. Can I get what I want from them some other way? You don’t always have to engage people directly to get their point of view.
There are things I was scheduled to do that I didn’t for that film: interview the Klan, for example, because I thought they have roughly as many members as the Communist Party – why would I do that? And then the question of whether I’m doing it right: am I challenging them, or am I indulging them? I don’t think I did give (Spencer) a platform, giving him a mic or a lectern and saying – “go”. The more powerful these people get, the more dangerous it is to ignore them.
When he declared his pride in his ancestors’ slaveholding, amongst other things, you called time on the interview; and I could see a look of jubilation cross his face. Should you have finished debating him rather than walking away?
I wasn’t debating him, I was challenging him. I’m not going to have a discussion with somebody about whether I’m inferior to them, whether people who look like me have contributed to civilisation.
Here’s what I’d say about walking away as I absolutely do not have a single regret. The interview had gone on for about half an hour – and there’s nothing in the journalists’ code that says you have to carry on interviewing someone ad infinitum. Often I’ll say thank you, I’ve got all I need. And I explained why I was doing it. I didn’t stomp off, I said you know what – this isn’t working, I’ve got the wrong person.
My interview with him isn’t built on whether he came away feeling happy. If he thinks he came away feeling he got the better of me – good fucking luck to him. If you look at that you think he’s a cock – I think, and if you don’t – you’re a cock, so I don’t mind.
And finally, I say this without any antagonism to the question: it is less of a quandary to most black people I know (to see) why you would walk away from someone who is racially insulting you at a white supremacist conference, where people are armed. No black person has ever asked me, “Why did you walk away?” The alternative is I wait until he’s done. Well why would I do that?
So the response differed between your white and black audience?
Most people have approached it quite similarly – but the only people who have said “Why did you walk off, that was really unprofessional? You got too angry.” have been white. Whereas black people have said “I can’t believe you managed to keep your cool” – and they’re watching the same 3 minutes and seeing very different things, which comes back to one of your first points about the degree to which there was interpretation from the consumer.
Do you think that in Britain non-white people are well represented as voices in our media?
History of discrimination, the class nature of who’s admitted into the hallowed portal. My generation are the children of nurses, bus drivers, train drivers – looking at most national newspapers or TV places you’ll find very few children of nurses or bus drivers. How many people in these places are from Oxbridge? And then the personal circuits that often get people into journalism, “My dad knew this guy, so I called him and got work experience”. But clearly when there are structural efforts to shift that, it can be shifted.
After the riots in ’85, (The Guardian) spent a few years trying to work out a bursary scheme. I was in the second year of that scheme. That’s how I got to do a post-graduate diploma, how I got into journalism. The Chief Leader Writer (Randeep Ramesh) was the same year as me on the bursary scheme, so is the chief political correspondent (Anushka Asthana). That was a targeted effort to get more minorities into journalism, and so here we are. When those efforts are made, they can yield results – and they’re not made that often.
I believe you were the first black person to get the Laurence Stern fellowship – that’s incredible to me, what was the environment like at the Washington Post?
It was great. You see it’s not incredible to me. When I came in there were three black people in the newsroom, we were a very, very rare commodity. For my generation, there were quite a lot of things if you were going to do it – you were going to be the first. My wife, who I met at The Washington Post, commented that coming from America most of the firsts have been taken – there’s been a black woman astronaut in space. But (coming from Britain) you’re still breaking through these cracks.
So I had a lovely time at the Post, they treated me really well. I was suddenly in a place where there weren’t just two or three black people, and they really took us under their wing. I was brother Gary – and they looked out for me.
What advice would you give to aspiring young journalists from a diverse background?
Three things really. First of all, read. Read widely, read profusely. Read for enjoyment and for information. Secondly, write or shoot or record, whatever it is you do – do it, you get better by doing things not by worrying about doing things. And finally in the words of Steve Biko – write what you like.
One of my concerns for younger journalists, black journalists - or anybody who’s not from a mainstream background, is their fear that they will stick out. I hear quite often, “I don’t want to be seen as just a black journalist, to be pigeonholed” – but you don’t control how you’re seen; what you control is what you do. Pursue the things you enjoy, because they’re the things you’ll do best. And trust that you will bring your perspective with you. I’m not just a black journalist when I’m writing about race issues – I’m a black journalist when I’m writing about Muncy, about food, whatever.
All too often, what I see is people trying not to be too conspicuous. Too late, you’re already conspicuous – do what you gotta do.