Paul Mason answers a few of my essay related questions!

23rd January 2013 

I was recently fortunate enough to be able to ask Newsnight journalist Paul Mason a few questions in regards to an essay I was writing as part of my degree. He very kindly wrote way more than I anticipated, all of which is invaluable if you’re at all interested in any type of journalist career. 

My question asking skills are pretty awful. So apologies for the lack of creativity.

I popped three questions in an email, they were:

  1. How do you feel social networking sites (such as Twitter) have changed the way you go about journalism ?
  2. What would you say are the best ways of engaging a reader in a subject they may not be interested in?
  3. Why do you use history in many of your articles?

Paul’s answers…

1) Social networks have changed the world for journalists, but Twitter is by far and away the biggest change. First, because I – and others I know – use it as a primary news source. If you follow other journalists you can see events happening in realtime – such as during the fall of Gaddafi. Sometimes those journalists will try to correlate each other’s facts, or shout out for help – as for example when someone in Libya tweeted “they’re using sniper rifles, anybody tell us the range” and within minutes people were able to look up the kind of rifles sold (by a British firm) and the max range (1000m).
 
Second, because it exposes spin based on false information and destroys it, holding the perpetrators to ridicule. Third because it places you under pressure – from your peers and from the audience. Fourth because it allows you to disseminate an instant link to your work. So if I do a blog on the BBC website, or an article in a paper, I can send the bitl.y link to my 60k followers. If it gets retweeted by someone big – as my “Twenty Reasons” blog did in February 2011, by @glinner among others – it can go viral.
 
I would finally say that the generally networked society is changing the audience’s perceptions fast. People are constantly filtering information – and they are begining to treat journalists like music fans treat artists: I like him, not her etc. People feel they have a right to information, and will sometimes even question the running order and editorial treatment of the daily current affairs programme like Newsnight. And because I am the only high-profile reporter on the show with Twitter, they will attack me even for things I had nothing to do with!
 
2) That’s easy. Focus on the specific, the human, the personal. Use suspense, the delayed-drop. And the sub-editor’s job is to avoid putting people off before it’s about enticing them in. So if you look at, eg this:
 
 
Simmering Anger in Seville – but what about? The band musicians don’t look angry. And then it’s sold on my on my picture byline. Finally you get to read something and it’s completely not about anger: 
 
“The Spanish version of the soprano cornet is tiny: it curls like a golden snail in the hand of the player. There is only one valve, and it is tweaked, like a tap, so that the melody it produces swoops and squeals.”
 
I am quite pleased with this article, because it exemplifies the way I write. It will seem old hat in 10 year’s time – but it’s learned from Orwell, from the New Journalism (Wolfe, Talese, Terry Southern (!) Hunter S Thompson etc) by pure trial and error imitation. And of course then putting yourself in a situation that the reader could never be in. Or is not likely to be in.
 
3) The heart of TV journalism is narrative. The famous slogan of the US show 60 minutes was “Tell Me A Story”. And I, and the people who can regularly knock out decent TV reportage, spend a lot of time studying and discussing narrative structure – so reading Robert McKee’s “Story” (I’ve been on his course of the same name). 
 
What I think I am doing is *reportage* and there is a lost art of doing this, which relies on recognising you are writing *literary non-fiction*. I do it in the articles and in the VTs, though VT is teamwork and you end up in huge arguments with your producer, who drives the edit. I’ve read a lot of Chinese reportage – there were maybe 10 or 20 people doing in China in the 1930s what only Orwell or Hemingway were doing here.
 
So as to the use of history – one of the main aims of journalism has to be to get the reader to say: heck I didn;t know that! That totally changes my view of the world. Now while this can be done through a scoop of revelation, it’s also possible to achieve through what we call “a scoop of understanding”. History can provide both: and I’d remind you that in the digital age there is ever more “history” being produced – photos and records digitised, names crosscheckable etc.
 
For me however there is also a political motive. In the past 20 years the neo-liberal economic project tried to destroy various categories in history, above all the “class struggle”. Why do I know about The Silver Lake? Because I’ve studied German music in the 1920s and 30s. Why did I relate it to the experience in Greece? because I genuinely did sit there and have a moment of revelation while speaking to the forlorn anarchists and leftists who seemed to be revelling in despair. My brain made the connection. Having done that I remembered that the Silver Lake had been shouted offstage in 1933 by fascists, just as the play Corpus Christi was – but then I had to speed-order a book called Kurt Weill on Stage to find a decent description of what happened.
 
And this is probably another clue to why history is so powerful in current affairs writing: it is knowledge that can’t be Googled.
 
As to history in VTs, again, the moving image is incredibly powerful – and at the BBC I have access to brilliant archive material. Generally 30 seconds of black and white archive can enhance understanding in any ideas or analytical piece, and I probably have to ration it otherwise I would use it all the time!
 
Thanks again, Paul!

Poverty in the UK: Families suffer as cuts to Council Tax benefit begin to bite

7th May 2013

They are defined by the right-wing press as ‘benefit scroungers.’ What was once a safety net is now tainted with unfair and unjust stigma. Benefit cheats are paraded as the government’s headline reason to cut benefits and reform welfare. The Chancellor, George Osborne uses repetitive rhetoric labeling them ‘skivers and not strivers’. The government act as if a life relying on the state is one chosen for its luxuries. Research shows that the word ‘scrounger’ has been used increasingly over the past few years which only encourages public perception that the majority of claimants are not worthy of the benefits. The graph below illustrates the number of times the word “scrounger” has been used in UK newspapers since 1994:

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The Government states that cuts to welfare are necessary in order to reduce the country’s deficit. That austerity is the way forward to avoid another financial disaster. Stories of benefit fraud are exaggerated by the press and made to appear as the norm for all benefit claimants, yet the government’s own statistics show that benefit fraud is actually just a small percentage of 0.7 per cent of the total benefit expenditure – or £1.2bn – which is being overpaid (Department for Work and Pension, 2012). In comparison, the HMRC estimates that £5bn a year is lost through tax avoidance and a further £5bn is lost due to people illegally not paying the tax they owe.

The head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Christine Legarde has recently said that Osborne needs to seriously reconsider his austerity plans and two top credit agencies – Moody’s and Fitch – have both reduced the UK’s previously prestigious AAA credit rating to AA+; a sign of a slow and declining economy. Despite this, and numerous other think tanks and economists telling the government to change direction the government continue with its harsh and cruel ‘plan A’.

April 1st 2013 saw yet another flurry of ill-advised cuts. Perhaps two of the biggest changes being the ‘bedroom tax’ or, as the government prefers to call it ‘bedroom subsidiary’, and a reduction in the amount of Council Tax Benefit any family (apart from the elderly) can receive. CTB has been abolished, and in its place Council Tax Support (CTS) aims to give England’s 326 local authorities the power to create their own schemes but with 10 per cent less funding from the government. This means that the amount of council tax a person will have to pay will be dependent on where you are lucky – or not – to live. This can be anything from £100 – £300 per year which will unsurprisingly push families, children and disabled people who rely on the state for help, into poverty.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) states that 2 million working-age people that claim Council Tax Benefit (CTB) are in poverty and furthermore, most are in deep poverty (1.5 million). The poverty line is calculated yearly by the governments own survey “Households Below National Income” or “HBNI” for short. For the year 2011/12 the HBNI set the poverty line at any household income that was below 60 per cent of the UK’s median income. Deep poverty is anything below 50 per cent.

With increasing numbers of people falling below the poverty line, more pressure is being applied to charities to pick up the governments shortfall. Housing charity Shelter has said that in the last year it has seen a 40 per cent increase in callers to its helpline. Rising living costs, cuts to benefits and services and increasing amounts of debt are putting families at risk of becoming homeless. Only last month Shelter reported that almost a third of people are cutting back on food in order to pay rent. This, along with other economic factors has meant the need for food banks has increased dramatically. The Trussell Trust states that there has been a 170 per cent rise in the number of people turning to food banks in the last year; the majority were working aged families.

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Graph showing the increased need for food banks since 2010 as documented by the Trussell Trust.

The government has stated that those under occupying social housing will either have to move or pay for the extra room(s). The bedroom tax works in the government’s favour. The National Housing Federation suggests that there are currently 180,000 social housing tenants under occupying two bedroom houses in England, yet there are less than 70,000 one-bedroom homes available. This means that tenants have no option but to make up the shortfall.

Talking to The Guardian, Dave Ireson, was forced to move out of his family home of 30 years when he decided he could not afford to pay the extra room subsidiary of £20 a week, he said: All my history was there; my friends and children are nearby. But I didn’t want to be in a situation where I couldn’t afford the rent.”

Dave’s story is, unfortunately, one of many. Charlotte*, 28 from Cornwall is currently faced with having to pay an extra £15 per week to keep her 4 year old daughter and herself from having to move out. She has recently been made unemployed after the small firm she worked at was closed down. Her daughter Ellie* has autism and finds change extremely difficult as well as struggling with mild learning difficulties. Speaking via email Charlotte said: “I really don’t want to move Ellie at a time when she’s just starting school […] I know I’m going to have to make up the shortfall in rent by cutting my food budget or something. The thought horrifies me.”

*name changed

As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation states in its research into “The impact of localising council tax benefit” it is hard to imagine how a person relying on Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) which is £71.70 per week, is considered by the government to have enough money to pay a proportion of council tax in one area of the country, yet too poor to pay in others. Many families which need financial support from the state do not have the luxury of a disposable income. Money to pay the bedroom tax and/or council tax will likely come out of money which is put aside for food, electricity and gas.

 

Collectively the UK needs to eradicated poverty myths. The right wing media needs to stop scoring political points off of the small amount of benefit fraud. The only thing the UK is thriving in is inequality. The UK needs to find its compassion, after all, anyone of us could find ourselves in need of help.