If one of your friends publishes an article on the website of a national magazine that is not to your taste, what would you expect to happen?
In my world I’d have a large or small falling out in the comments, or possibly over a pint of beer in the pub, and remain friends, or perhaps not.
I will explain that a bit later. Firstly, though, a bit of background on the dramatis personae for those who are not students of left-wing political mud-wrestling. Skip this next section if you know the territory.
[Update Sat 23/7/2011 AM: I have received a comment from the Deputy Editor of the New Statesman explaining their editorial policy for bloggers, which is included at the end of the body of this article.]
The ‘Anti-Cuts’ movement are the people who are protesting the ‘Cuts’, a coalition (‘movement’) of anybody who wants to be involved – which is therefore slightly difficult to control. The best known group amongst them are UK Uncut, who do PR stunts such as occupying Fortnum and Mason, and your local bank.
Black Bloc violence (which UK Uncut spokespeople on television try to set at a distance, but will not condemn) is a tactic where some members of the movement smash things up to blow off steam and challenge capitalism. These can easily be people who are ‘peaceful’ at other times. Naturally, some people do more ‘Black Bloc’-ing than others.
At the core of the ‘movement’ there are a number of people associated with various far-left ‘revolutionary’ groupings, and attempts to use the anticuts protests as a vehicle for building the influence of their own political movements. If you think of the SWP, the Militant Tendency (as was), and similar splinter groups and their various ‘projects’, ‘campaigns’ and ‘fronts’, you are in roughly the correct territory.
Charlie Gilmour is the cheeky anti-cuts chappie who swung on the flag on the cenotaph, and has just been locked up for 16 months. He is the son of journalist Polly Sampson, and has been adopted by her husband David Gilmour, previously of Pink Floyd. He was imprisoned for ‘violent disorder’ following events at an anti-tuition fees demonstration in December 2010.
Laurie Penny is a blogger and former Morning Star columnist, turned New Statesman/Independent contributor, with a highly innovative line in political rhetoric. She also has a habit of occasionally opening fire from the hip without stopping to reflect.
Laurie has worked herself into a position where she is seen as both an activist within the movement, and as an interpreter of the movement to those outside, and to the media.
This last brings some interesting tensions and conflicts of interest between, one the one hand, trustworthy reporting and, on the other, bigging-up the ‘movement’.
The hearing where Charlie Gilmour was sentenced was last Friday, 15 July 2011.
Then on Saturday 16th at 15.17pm, the New Statesman published a vigorous article under Laurie’s byline:
The link above is to a later, tamed, version of the piece.
A remarkable article, not least for its vituperation and introduction of personal anecdote, but also for getting some quite creative phrases onto the website of the New Statesman:
‘spoilt, selfish, drug-addled neo-aristocratic nihilist with daddy issues’
There’s more, but I didn’t save the article when I read it. If anyone has preserved the original, which I read but did not save, I’d welcome a copy.
“Epic dickwaddery”, at least, is unique amongst those articles currently indexed by Google News:
By 5pm on Sunday 17th, the piece had been – as I say – ‘tamed’, and replaced with a much toned-down version. ‘Utter prats’, ‘monumental bender’, and ‘prize dickhead’ have survived the post-publication scrub-up, but regrettably that is all.
However, fortunately for transparency (and the rest of us), in this case the ‘editing mechanism’ is fully on display.
One of the bloggers within the anticuts movement, Jacob Bard-Rosenburg (Facebook, Blog), who is studying for an MA in “Cultural and Critical Studies” at Birkbeck College, published a ’Note’ on his Facebook page at 3.05am on Sunday morning in response, entitled ‘Defending Charlie Gilmour from Laurie Penny‘.
In the comments thread associated with the post, Penny was critiqued by the comrades like a mutation of mistlethrushes mobbing a magpie.
Laurie Penny contributed to the comments thread on Bard-Rosenberg’s post on Sunday over a period of hours between 11am to 5pm. By then she had agreed to re-edit the New Statesman article, and succeeded in persuading the New Statesman Duty Editor to make some changes.
The redacted version of “Does Charlie Gilmour really deserve a 16-month sentence?” now on the New Statesman website carries a disclaimer by the Editor indicating that “This post was updated by Laurie Penny at 5.05pm on Sunday, 17 July”:
The thread shows the process of Penny being convinced / bullied into changing her article. At the end of this article, I’ve posted more complete extracts from the comments thread, but here are a few extracts to show the process of “crowd-sourced” editing, and how Laurie Penny’s position changed:
11.05am: “I thought it was a bit harsh”
12.12pm: “I agree that the piece was overly spiteful, and as soon as I make it to a proper PC with internet access I’ll be sending the new draft.”
12.14pm: “Essentially, on rereading, the piece isn’t inaccurate, it’s just unkind- and there’s no reason to be unkind.”
2.42pm: “I’m not going to be coralled into changing the whole line or taking the piece down”
4.09pm: “I’m still working on getting it changed or removed and will keep you all updated.”
5.24pm: “Right, well, the post is now updated as far as I could persuade the editor on duty- see what you think.”
To me this suggests that Laurie Penny has placed herself in an unsustainable position as both activist and interpreter.
In the past the New Statesman has been very reluctant to make post-publication changes.
The most recent time of which I’m aware of the New Statesman removing content from its website was in an altercation with businessman Nadhmi Auchi concerning a blog post by Martin Bright, back in 2008.
Given that Auchi had previously had reportage and analysis removed from the websites of most of Britain’s quality national newspapers, and that a follow-through of the legal threat would have inflicted severe – perhaps existential – damage on the New Statesman, I can understand that decision.
Bright has commented on the case elliptically after a subsequent move to the Spectator. If you want to read the substance of the story, you have to go to a speech by Norman Lamb MP in a debate on Libel Reform organised by Denis McShane MP in 2008.
Bard-Rosenberg went back and deleted about 60 comments from the Facebook thread (see below), because the ‘Liberal trolls’ making the comments apparently weren’t revolutionary enough:
Tuesday 19th July, 3:07pm Jacob Bard-Rosenberg
Seriously, all shut the fuck up. This is tedious beyond belief. Halim and Lisa, please go and be liberal elsewhere. It is quite clear that you are only commenting on this thread to troll revolutionaries (Anarchists/Marxists etc.) Everyone else, if they carry on trolling please don’t feed them.
Everybody – all of them – Rosenberg, Penny, the whole damned lot, seem to be completely oblivious to the notion that changing your articles after publication just because your ‘friends’ aren’t happy isn’t exactly acceptable, and may even deserve the journalistic equivalent of a Darwin Award. It is far better simply to go for a cup of tea before pushing the ‘publish’ key.
Laurie Penny says (read the comments below) that she is a ‘fucking good writer’. I’ll give her that she writes well, though so did Agatha Christie, but ‘fucking good writers’ are not necessarily ‘fucking good journalists’ or reporters.
I’d say that the New Statesman needs to apply the same sort of subediting / mentoring to Laurie that Simon Kelner at the Independent signally failed to impose on Johann Hari. If she has any sense, she’ll demand it.
And I’ll leave gently aside how the original piece made it through the editing process of a 98-year old magazine which sells itself as:
“Britain’s leading, best written and most authoritative weekly political, cultural and current affairs magazine.”
Postscript: Statement from New Statesman
I showed the text of this article to Jon Bernstein, the Deputy Editor of the New Statesman, and he kindly sent me an official comment from the New Statesman:
“The piece in question was a blog post featuring Laurie Penny’s personal opinion on Charlie Gilmour’s sentencing. The duty editor’s job is to check it for factual and grammatical accuracy, but not to interfere unnecessarily in the way personal sentiments are expressed unless these contravene editorial guidelines. Laurie Penny later informed the duty editor she wanted to retract a few phrases which she felt crossed the line into personal attack. When the piece was updated, a note was added at the bottom to reflect that fact.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The remainder of this article consists of supporting information.
Exhibit 1 – Crowd-Sourced Editing of New Statesman
These are some extracts from the Facebook comments thread. I’ve only quoted around 10% of a comments thread which ran to over 13,000 words.
Saturday 17th July, 3.05am: Jacob Bard-Rosenberg, on Facebook:
Yesterday, Laurie Penny published a piece about the sentencing of Charlie Gilmour on the New Statesman website (http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/laurie-penny/2011/07/charlie-gilmourmonths-tabloid), which was chiefly a character assassination. Gilmour is accused by Penny (a journalist who considers herself not only part of the movement but the authentic voice of his generation) of being a “spoilt, selfish, drug-addled neo-aristocratic nihilist with daddy issues”, a “posh tosser”, a “massive prat”, and a “messed-up young idiot”, not to mention her implication that he has an alcohol problem.
And so to the comments:
Sunday 17th July, 11.05am: Laurie Penny:
It’s not about ‘good protester, bad protester’ Jacob the point is that Charlie isn’t a protester at all. He’s a messed up kid who has been punished too harshly. In fact, I’m anxious to make that point clearer, and I’m doing a second draft because on reading back, I thought it was a bit harsh.
Sunday 17th July, 11.07am: Richard Brodie:
Laurie – Charlie is/was a protesters. Here’s the statement from Cambridge Defend Education, the protest group Charlie was a part of in November-December: http://www.defendeducation.co.uk/gilmour-gets-sixteen-mulcaire-gets-six
Sunday 17th July, 11.12am: Laurie Penny:
I’m sorry Jacob, but if you’re going to talk about writing irrelevant character assasinations based on personal interactions to up your own blog hits, I don’t think it’s my blog you need to be looking at.
Sunday 17th July, 11.49am: Laurie Penny:
Of course it’s political Rona, and I’ve said so. But there’s a difference between solidarity and saying things that you know aren’t true to maintain the image of a cause. As a movement we need to be truthful and honest as well as robust. I take on board your point that personal attacks hurt, and I will be tonight the piece down, but I’m not prepared simply to say ‘charlie is one of us so we protect him’ and erase the real harm he has caused the movement. It smacks of censorship and is unhelpful.
Sunday 17th July, 12.04pm: Jacob Bard-Rosenberg
Laurie, this has nothing to do with me; it is about what /you/ have done, and /your/ piece. You ought to have an understanding that the New Statesman is not a good place to have discussions about the most minor internal politics of the movement. You also ought to understand that there is a difference between defending people from the rest of the movement and defending people from the evils of state administration. Anyway, I have said enough. From where I stand you can either take the piece down immediately and offer an apology to Charlie, or you can maintain a position that I consider utterly abhorrent.
Sunday 17th July, 12.12pm: Laurie Penny
I agree that the piece was overly spiteful, and as soon as I make it to a proper PC with internet access I’ll be sending the new draft. I accept that, and I didn’t mean to cause extra fuss.
There is a fine line between solidarity and untruthfulness. And I am not producing missives from the party, I’m putting my own opinion out there based on what I know and what I saw. My opinion is that Charlie is a stupid prat with a lot of problems who let himself and a lot of others down, but that he doesn’t deserve to go to prison, that his sentencing is political. That’s what I’ve said in the piece and it’s what I’ll continue to say.
Sunday 17th July, 12.14pm: Laurie Penny
Laurie Penny Essentially, on rereading, the piece isn’t inaccurate, it’s just unkind- and there’s no reason to be unkind.
Sunday 17th July, 12.17pm: Michael Chessum
It was definitely an error to put this stuff up on NS. The line the article takes isn’t totally horrific from an objective point of view: i.e. the narrative that “he’s an idiot but he doesn’t deserve this” is quite commonplace and not very remarkable. (Though the use of language is definitely just silly at times).
The details of the interactions between you and Charlie in the article are things that you would only have knowledge of by being inside the UCL occupation: putting them in the public domain is a case of opportunistic eavesdropping.
In other words, the central antagonism is between being a columnist of-and-for the movement, and being a mainstream journo. This episode is a lesson in where that line is.
That said, I still have respect for a lot of the stuff you write, Laurie. Don’t give it up.
Sunday 17th July, 1.01pm Jon Moses:
I think it’s right to question whether the NS is the best forum for anecdotes about Charlie, at the same time I’m not convinced facebook notes is the best forum to raise these issues either. We can all do better than this in the way we treat each other.
Sunday 17th July, 1.08pm Jacob Bard-Rosenberg
Jon Moses, what would be better – I have used fb here because I don’t think this is great material to put on a blog.
Sunday 17th July: 2:06pm Laurie Penny:
I think the piece was too harsh, and have changed it accordingly – that part of the criticism, I accept. What I don’t accept is that we shouldn’t say ‘charlie is a dickhead’ in public. I’m in the business of journalism, not pro-movement propaganda, sorry.
Sunday 17th July: 2:42pm Laurie Penny:
Over the next few years, as more direct action is needed, there are going to be a lot of things I’m going to have to risk my reputation defending, and I’ll do so gladly. And not calling out idiocy when I see it will damage any efforts I intend to make to defend a principle.
Oh, and lastly, please don’t talk to me about how I’m doing all this to get money or fame or gain capital or to be the voice of a generation. I’m a fucking good writer and I could have made a career in fluffy cultural crit if I liked- instead I have risked my reputation, my health and my personal safety time and time and time again to defend you all, against all professional advice I was receiving, I’ve sacrificed a huge fucking amount for you lot, not just because you’re my friends, but because I believe what you’re doing is fundamentally just, and right, and true.
Sunday 17th July: 2.56pm Laurie Penny:
The whole point of the piece was to make it clear that the sentencing was harsh, political and unfair, however twattishly Charlie acted. And that’s the impact it’s had, not ‘feeding into the right wing narrative’. I’m not ever going to make a useless ad hominem attack again, I shall serve as I’d like to be served, but really, be fair.
Sunday 17th July: 3:48pm Richard Drayton
I wish everyone would back off from these ad feminam attacks on LP. She made a serious error and we have taken
her to task on this. She admits there is a problem and is thinking it all through now. There really is no need to attack her as being a
“corporate journalist”, its both unfair and unproductive.
She is on our side. Yes she is at a dangerous crossroads as a journalist: does she take the road which leads to Polly Toynbee or heaven-forfend Julie Burchill, a kind of Polly Filla of the left who drifts into company with the right, or does she take the road in which she keeps company with Seumas Milne and Gary Younge? It is our role to welcome and encourage her on the latter path.
Sunday 17th July: 4.09pm Laurie Penny
New Statesman are currently not happy with changing the draft, so I think the best I can do is issue a full apology on my Penny Red blog. I’m still working on getting it changed or removed and will keep you all updated.
Sunday 17th July: 5.24pm Laurie Penny
Right, well, the post is now updated as far as I could persuade the editor on duty- see what you think. I’ve taken out the pointless attacks because they were nasty. I’m going to apologise again on Twitter. And that’s all I can do.
Tuesday 19th July, 3:07pm Jacob Bard-Rosenberg
Jacob Bard-Rosenberg Seriously, all shut the fuck up. This is tedious beyond belief. Halim and Lisa, please go and be liberal elsewhere. It is quite clear that you are only commenting on this thread to troll revolutionaries (Anarchists/Marxists etc.). Everyone else, if they carry on trolling please don’t feed them.
Tuesday 19th July, 3:46pm Jacob Bard-Rosenberg
Jacob Bard-Rosenberg I’ve deleted a bunch of posts here. Please can we prevent me having to do the same again.
Exhibit 2 – The Whole Damned Enchilada
I’ve embedded a PDF of the whole thing at the end of the post. I considered editing out names etc, but the thread is on very public display on Facebook, has received almost 100 ‘Likes’, and has been blogged at Posterous in some detail already, so I haven’t done so.
You’ll need to zoom in to read it, or read it on Scribd. You won’t regret the time.
And while you read it, remember, you have a duty to the Proletariat of the future post-Revolutionary Britain to take it seriously.
Apologies to Anna Raccoon who is just back from hospital, for causing her (she alleges) more stitches by sending her this PDF than the 32 she just received at the Bordeaux Hospital for her tumour.