Sunday 21 February 2010

Penny for your privilege?

I had an article published by the Guardian's Comment Is Free site today. I'm pleased with it, bar a tautology in the last line that just goes to show you should never edit by email and by committee. As ever, and as often happens when I write something moderately high-profile, I've had a slew of comments suggesting that I'm horrendously posh, only get to write because my daddy is some sort of media pundit (he isn't), have never met anyone who doesn't live in Hampstead, etc, etc. Now, I try not to respond to these sorts of comments, especially not on CiF. But this time I cracked. I cracked pretty hard. And I'm going to reproduce the crack right here, right now, in bold, for the benefit of anyone who wants to make this kind of comment in future.


Right, sit down and roll a fag, you guys. I'm going to do some explaining.

Your criticisms have some legitimacy. But it's more than a little unfair to apply them to me. I've worked my butt off for years to get to the not-very-dizzying heights of where I am now, done stints at small magazines and local papers, lived on less than ten grand a year since leaving university, and most of that is because - privileged Oxbridge graduate though I am - I have no personal contacts and no family links with the media.

There's a huge problem with Gogartyism in the media. I'm not part of it: frankly, I really, really wish I were. I own the privilege I do have, and it's my responsibility to try and raise awareness of the fact that it takes money and privilege as well as talent, guts and determination to get anywhere in journalism these days. But actually, my money and privilege are not such that I'm not seriously worried about the future.

I know people from university whose daddies, mummies and uncles work at big papers, who have walked in to jobs at the Times and the Independent. I was unable to afford the place I was offered on the MA in journalism offered by City University - a standard entry-point to the industry, costing 8,000 per year exclusive of living costs, with no time to work and support yourself - so I settled for a shitty little part-time NCTJ course, and that choice has seriously held me back compared to the people I know who could afford City. Booga-booga personal finger-pointing actually obscures many years of hard work, knockbacks and disappointments because I wasn't lucky enough to have a daddy who worked in the media or a massive personal fortune to draw upon.

And that says a great deal, you know. It says a great big deal that someone with my opportunities - middle-class parents, nice school, Oxford - still isn't privileged enough to walk into a feature-writing job without years of being knocked back and getting up again, a process that, let me assure you, is very much ongoing.

The media is riddled with hypocrisy. I'm not going to argue with you there. Making it in the media today is tough. However clever you are, however brilliant, you have to slog and slog and slog to get noticed, whore yourself out promoting your work, write things you don't want to write for no pay or almost no pay, work long, thankless hours at large papers for free and smile every time they tell you to re-organise their filing system because you know you're lucky even to be there, because you know that behind you there are twenty other people dying for the opportunity to be trodden on in the same way.

So you smile. You grit your teeth. You offer to do more, work more; you hone your technique, you try to write better and faster than anyone else, you hold down shitty shop jobs whilst you're waiting for your break, you despair, you want to give up. And every day, you have to watch people who are less clever and less talented than you getting better jobs, more exposure and more money because they're the ones with the contacts, because they're quiet, inoffensive and pretty (if you're a girl), or because they just got lucky.

And then when you do get there, if you get there, you will be dogged at every stage by people writing in comments threads telling you that you don't deserve the little bit of success you've had - because you're [[under 25/a man/a woman/oxbridge-educated/not posh enough/ugly/beautiful/white/black/Jewish/Muslim -check all that apply]]. People who haven't gone through all this, or who aren't as far along, will resent your success and will look for any and every opportunity to tear you down. Meanwhile, the people above you are holding the door to the next stage firmly shut. If you complain about this, you're bitter, or you're not hard enough to make it in journalism. So, you shut your mouth and carry on working, carry on writing, trying all the while not to give up and bow out to the people with real privilege, because whilst you're exhausted, whilst every part of you is screaming for the day off you haven't had since 2007, you don't want the bastards to win.

That's what you need to do to be a journalist these days. That's the minimum. That's the minimum, from a starting point of having an Oxford degree and some savings. And you tell me that my generation has it easy. For shame. I tell you what doesn't help you get a writing career off the ground, though: making snarky, ill-informed personal comments in blog threads. I've wasted hours on it, and it has helped me not one jot. You want to change the world? Stop making personal attacks and start making a difference.


  1. Well done for getting into Cif, you had a rough time as expected. Many middle aged types waffling into incomptence.

    However I do not partucalrly agree with your article. You seem to have fallen for the general malaise that confuses British and American culture as being identical.

    Generation X did not happen in Britain. Of course we get American influence as we share a lnguage but we also get European influences, albeit on a smaller scale.

    The internet of course has exacerbated the idea that we are culturally similar because it has broken down barriers, so I suppose the first global generation would be this 'I-generation'. But that is a recent development.

    1. Do you even know how to write a five page paper? Here is what you need to know!

  2. Where did you do your part-time course?

  3. don't apologise, don't explain...

  4. Stephen Arrowsmith21 February 2010 at 20:54

    Is that really the point that the comments were raising? It seems to me (and with some validity), that most of the comments were not about you as an individual but the fact that the CIF seems to draw it's writers from a very narrow section of the population. You were used as *an* example, not *the* example - if you follow me.

  5. Frankly, this should be Best of the Web so that some people actually get to see it, because otherwise your comment will probably be missed, as it will be buried beneath all the hating.

    Stephen Arrowsmith - yes, that WAS the point that many of the comments were raising.

    'the people with real privilege' -

    The people with more privilege, rather, is surely what you mean?

  6. The article was very poor, and the negative comments mostly fair. I particularly liked the American Psycho quote down at 8.55pm.

    The comments made about The Guardian's limited pool of incredibly similarly backgrounded writers, including yourself, were also very fair. That you think you are the voice of your generation is incredibly arrogant, as were your gripes about how hard you have had it really and how we should be comparing your small bundle of privilege with the large sacks of some of your friends in high places, as opposed to the other great big whack of the population.

    Maybe there's more nuance from where you're standing, but it's all much of a muchness to me - Im sure even Peaches has richer or better connected friends.

  7. As someone currently trying to debate the merits of an NCTJ course vs. a Journalism MA, do you really think not doing the MA is likely to hold someone back?

    The NCTJ is cheaper and can be studied part-time, which is much more convenient for me, but I'm still unsure as to whether I should save up and go for the MA. Any advice appreciated!

  8. Maybe that was a bit mean (me, 22:48). Im just annoyed and not a tiny bit bitter, seeing as I didnt go to Oxford etc.

    And I do think you could have taken those (imo, more than fair) criticisms more seriously. And that the article itself was a bit pants and full of generalisations that dont fit anyone I personally know in your age group. And that your generalisations about other generations werent particularly accurate either.

    But you know, cynical gen X-er here. As if that werent obvious.. ;)

  9. I don’t know if this comment will get to you, but hey. I’m only trying to help.

    I have been reading everything you put up on the internet for years now. I have to say that the article at CiF is not precisely an example of your best work. And I think you may know this, which is why what the other commentators said got to you, when it hasn’t been the case before. Not only do I not agree with it, I don’t think it reflects your own views. Not if your past posts on this blog are anything to go by. ”They Lied To Us”,
    ”Say you want a revolution”, ”Back Home and Unimpressed”. Whatever happened with wanting a Revolution? With the anger that would fuel real change?

    As one commenter put it: “you know things are grim when even Laurie Penny can't find anything more inspiring in this generation than our conservatism.”

    My fear is that, as you write more high profile pieces, you lose your radicalism. Maybe if would help to look at your past work?

    As for your privilege… Yes, you do have privilege. But you have acknowledged it. And you have apologized for it. Many, many times; and it may be time to stop. The very fact that you have acknowledged your privilege and that you have committed yourself to use it in favour of those who don’t says enough about you. I am more than slightly suspicious about this whole “privilege” dealio. It keeps those who are already on our side permanently anxious and permanently apologetic, which leads to inaction. The ones who are not on our side and who will never be will not recognize much less apologize for their privilege, and they are precisely the ones who have the most of it, as well as the most power. When was the last time Boris Johnson apologized for his privilege?

    As I said, just trying to help here.

    (Not that it should matter, but this comment took me about 3 hours to write.)

  10. Yah... but according to your own political agenda how hard you work isn`t particuarly relevent - privilege should still be opposed wherever it is found. Where`s my newspaper column Penny? Or is it all about money as usual...

    The good news is that the newspapers are dying, public comment is being opened up for all and that technology and the market will do what direct intervention never could.
    Hip hip hooray!

  11. I think the key problem with your article is displayed when you write:

    "With a few notable exceptions, my peers..."

    There is a big difference between your peers (i.e. the young people you happen to know) and your generation.

    If instead of trying to speak for a whole generation you'd said 'I, and I know I'm not alone, want to do X Y Z' the article would have been a lot better.

  12. The CiF crowds logic is simple. They want to write for the Guardian, you did write for the Guardian. The only way you could have achieved this whilst they haven't is that you have an unfair advantage. Right or wrong your article was worth publishing as the topic receives far too little attention.

    Talking about ones generation is a dangerous business at the best of times (the best of times being of course standing on stage next to Pete Townshend). Anecdotal evidence seems flimsy even by the standards of anecdotes and opinion polls are wildly interpretable even by the standards of opinion polls.

    Take for example the assertion that students are more conservative now than they were in the sixties. What comparative data exists for this? Are they more conservative in their opinions or just more conservative compared to their respective elders? Economically the entire spectrum has shifted to the right, whilst in social issues most of the glamorous battles have been won. Protesting a pay gap that many claim is justified by career postponing maternity may be no less important than the battle for reproductive rights but it makes for less pithy chants.

    As you're probably ready to point out I'm lapsing into speculation in a comment denouncing it. There is little evidence to back up any claims. That said I think, or speculate at least, that you are right about the rather tawdry political instincts of the young generation (of which I'm a member in spite of the Who reference earlier). I realised how bad things were years ago when an anarchist friend of mine warned me I was endangering my UCAS application by writing on the internet.

    But that's anecdotal evidence all over again. There's a line that is now banned from many scientific journals because it would suffix almost every article but seeing as you apologised for ending with a tautology I'll excuse my self to end with a cliché. More research is needed in this area.

  13. Far be it from me (CofE comprehensive and no degree at all) to wade in on behalf of the Toby's and Becca's of this world but I think you're possibly over-estimating the undoubtedly real effect of nepotism in the doling out of media jobs.

    It's not possible for everyone who's clever enough to get into Oxford, let alone everyone who can string a sentence together, to write for national newspapers for cash.

    Some people get a head start through their parents but for lots of people it's a combination of being really talented, being lucky and working very hard.

    I reckon the original CIF piece is quite good. I wouldn't bother justifying your right to write it.

  14. "But it's more than a little unfair to apply them to me. I've worked my butt off for years to get to the not-very-dizzying heights of where I am now, done stints at small magazines and local papers, lived on less than ten grand a year since leaving university, and most of that is because - privileged Oxbridge graduate though I am - I have no personal contacts and no family links with the media."

    But it is fair to point out that there is a massively disproportionate amount of Oxbridge grads writing in the Guardian and that you are one of those grads. That by definition, your experiences are different from many of the people in the generation you were defining. If we assume ~700,000 live births in these years and 5,000 undergrads at Oxbridge a year now, it is shocking the extent to which we dominate the media.
    How hard you worked is a red herring, as is the number of people who have it easier. The point is the much larger number of people who have it harder.
    Sorry, but I won't give you much sympathy for getting critised in the comments of the national newspaper hosting your work - because you get to be the one writing the articles. Hard as it is to live with privaledge, it's a lot harder to live without it.

  15. In one way I sympathise: if you don't have any contacts it is bloody hard getting paying gigs in the newspaper/magazine world.

    I don't (didn't perhaps is more accurate) have any family contacts at all....nor any other form of contacts. Not even the Oxbridge thing. Worse, I don't even live in the UK (let alone London, which is where you really need to be hanging out) and thus can't even do the schmoozing which can help.

    I also don't have a regular and or well paid job in the media. But I do get enough freelance work to do the roof, feeding, beer thing.

    Yes, it's damn difficult. But that's because there are thousands who want to do this thing: get paid for giving other people our opinions.

  16. Great post (and good one at CiF as well).

    I had the same experience with City. In fact, they even offered me an AHRC scholarship...which turned out to amount to half of the £8,000 course fees. And didn't include living allowances, of course.

    Hence I retreated to academia where I could get adequate funding. If my parents were rich, it would have been a totally different story.

  17. I guess the fight for the best jobs in journalism has always been hard.

    But the expansion of the middle class has caused inflation of university degrees. And we have the proletarization of the middle class. And the precarisation of work. The divide and conquer of workers by capital.. Etc. Your situation is telling of all this.

    But when the proletarised middle class ought to unite with the working class to fight against Capital (or however you put it) the fight is over different levels of privilege..

  18. Wow, what a shit-storm. I'm relucant to add my two penneth but likely to do so now, so here I go.

    Firstly, don't defend or apologize for your writing, or your privilege. You're not as privileged as some of your peers, but you're still more privileged than many of the ordinary wordsmiths out there hoping to get published in the Guardian etcetera, due to your Oxbridge education. We could debate this for days--so you got there on merit, well there's a whole other argument about social class and access to Oxbridge educations that I really can't be arsed to go into, and I'm sure you've heard it all before.

    Secondly, I enjoyed your article in CiF and your follow up to it here. And isn't that really what being a writer is about? Call me a hedonist, maybe. Perhaps you care more about the argument and the points you have made (I've had a cruise round the internet reading your other stuff, and I see you are admirably politically-minded, which seems unusual for your generation).

    As to the content of your article at CiF, well, I don't entirely agree with what you've said. But isn't that the point of Comment? You're the writer and it's your opinion, not a god-given truth. It's supposed to be polemical, controversial. If we all agreed, we wouldn't have such diversity of great writing to enjoy.

    Keep writing, and I shall keep reading your work, with pleasure.

  19. Samantha,

    I'm guessing from your comment that you are not entirely familiar with the Guardian's Comment is Free website.

    Let's just say that the CiF comments are hardly a source of intellectual nourishment and for the exchange of ideas. Much more a place in which people find ways of calling you a c*** but without the moderators deleting it.

  20. Erm. Ever thought that your difficulties might stem from the fact that you're only an average writer, Ms Red? Many are called - or feel they have a calling - but ultimately very few are chosen. As a fall back plan I recommend that you consider abandoning your plans to become a career girl and settling down as the wife of a nice Jewish boy who is currently working in a profession, e.g., a chartered accountant or similar. You know it makes sense and would at least put a smile on your poor mother's face.

  21. Coming here to comment I was going to note that I'd just read my way through a whole CiF comments thread for the first time, but no- I gave up halfway through and just scrolled looking for more snappy comebacks. What a hellhole!

    As for the article itself? Hmm. I... I'm not too keen on blaming people for not being interested in creating a genuinely world-changing radical alternative when the 'standard bearers' of that radical alternative are such an unappealing bunch of losers who value their own internecine squabbles more than the struggle to create that radical alternative; as you argued so eloquently yourself Laurie at Love on Trial earlier in the month.

    I say "losers" not in the common colloquial sense, but in the literal sense of people who just can't win anything much at all. This is hardly inspiring, don't you think?

    I think we are here confronted with the problem of taking the symptom of a situation as the cause of that situation; a situation which I believe has historical roots going back some 3 generations. But this comments thread is not really the place to air my ideas about the Stalinist legacy of the Bolshevik revolution.

    One of these days mebbe.

    Write on, and I'll keep reading.

  22. Dear Laurie,

    You have an Oxford degree. You have even admitted before that your father provides you with a safety net for whenever you aren't able to make things meet. I don't think you realise just how much those two privileges count for in today's Britain.

    I personally suggest that, for the time being, you look for another career. You could walk into many decent jobs with an Oxford degree, without any family contacts. Continue to do journalism in your spare time, and when you can move into the field with a secure job, do so.

    As for City, they are starting a new MA in Political Journalism which you might be interested in. It's £7k I think. You can get a Professional and Career Development Loan to cover the cost of the fees. Forget what they say at the uni, you can easily work part time and on some days/evenings/nights/at the weekends to cover your living costs.

  23. I want to say this: Laurie might have enjoyed considerable privilege in her life, but that in no way detracts from whatever pain or frustration she is feeling at the moment. Sure, other people might have it worse. But I know, with my own privilege, that simply knowing others have it worse does NOT make it one bit easier. Life is tough as shit for anyone, privileged or lucky or otherwise.

  24. I haven't yet read the CiF article or the comments on it, but I can imagine it's the usual mix you get on The Guardian's site and so found Paul's comment above most entertaining. Just wanted to say thanks for posting your response here. I always suspected that my favourite writers got their work in high-profile publications through hard work, ambition and perseverance. It's nice to have that confirmed.

  25. Penny, the problem people have with you is that you've been permitted to advance directly to punditry despite being a 23yr old with chaotic but responsibility free life. It makes you a pure distillation of a particular activist culture without the indecision that might come from life experience (a soulless 9-5 job, friends with little kids, losing a rental, worrying about your pension).

    And you ought to take something from that. Seriously, you're smart, young and have a lot of freedom. (There is no money from my parents, I _have_ to cover my own rent, even if it means crushing my wilder hopes & dreams.) Go find out about something, and *then* tell us about it. Spend 6 months in Oldham studying Asian businessmen's lives, or research HK gender relations post-unification, or anything except being a queer left-wing middle-class girl in London. We all know several already, and we all know how they think about every possible political question.

    Anon of Not Searched

    P.S. People like Tamsin can help fight climate change by shutting up. When you ask people outside the M25 to accept sensible limits on harmful emissions based on neutral science they're okay with it. The sacrifices are small and apolitical. Going on a jihad against chavs taking foreign holidays doesn't help with that.

  26. Polly Toynbee worked in factories and look at her now! Buck up!

  27. Penny's only been writing for the Guardian for a short time. Let's not give up on her yet :-D

    Anon of Not Searched

  28. Penny,

    Whatever anyone says here, this is the most varied and interesting comment discussion I've come across in ages. So much of the net, blogs, journalism is just so dull and mediocre now that I find it hard to get excited about any of it.

    Some of the commenters above are right. You are so young to be in this much envied position of published journalist and political pundit. You haven't spent years working in factories or doing the soulless 9-5s that most of us here have had to struggle with. And if you don't do that, I feel you will have missed out on understanding what modern life is like for most of us (even those of us with only a good honours degree from a university like Birmingham - where the English department is full of students that just missed out on getting a place at Oxford).

    Does Daddy provide a net for you or not? I don't care. My parents couldn't support me, either at uni or after. And one way or another, that affected the opportunities and career choices I made after that. It sucked but that's life. I couldn't do the MPhil in Film and TV Production that I wanted to do then, and I still haven't got round to being in a position to get back into postgraduate study, but I hope I will one day.

    You are clearly well on your way to a good career in journalism, so suck up the negative comments for now with a little bit of grace.

  29. I hope it's not too late to try to connect this to your earlier piece on Simon Jenkins. SJ really is the overprivileged Oxbridge arts-graduate elite. One thing you didn't mention is that students planning a career in either politics or journalism have to not only go to Oxbridge but while they are there devote all their time to making contacts who will be useful to them later, leaving no time to actually learn anything. That's why the likes of SJ are pompous clods who throw a tantrum if it's suggested that anything outside their very limited understanding is important.

    John of London

  30. Just an idea to see how much the Oxbridge connection affects success in the media. Try an experiment.

    Write 3 articles. For the first article, name yourself as author. For the second, A. N. Other, fresh out of Oxford (potted CV). For the third A. N. Other (with Oxbridge-less CV). Don't choose which article has which author when you're writing them.

    Send them into the Guardian/CiF for starters, and then into the Indie, Telegraph, Times etc later.

    See what happens.

  31. People often use privilege as an excuse to attack someone, rather than actually addressing their arguments. I think that as long as you acknowledge privilege and realise that it limits your ability to speak for everyone, then you shouldn't feel guilty about it.
    We're never going to get a more equal society if the best we can do is insult well meaning, intelligent people who are more privileged than us and have got somewhere we haven't.

  32. I have read with interest your blog and the comments about it. I have not read the original article on CiF.
    I am about to go and write my own discussion piece; haven't decided what I am going to say yet.
    However, my one main reason for posting this comment is to ask you a question... What was so bad about the NCTJ course? And why would a masters course have been so beneficial?

  33. Ignore the trolls, if you are capable and have a new angle on reporting then your work will stand on its own merits. Personally I do not care whose got a rich daddy, what I do care about is what they produce.

    I like what you've written on UKUncut and the student protests, you've got a distinctive angle from the street, whereas other journos have written about the protests from their desks.

    There's no point in you trying to encroach on subjects that established hacks regard as their own. For now, you're bringing the cuts protests to the mainstream media and its important that you continue to do this. If you stay in this area you'll have a lot of work over the next few years ;-)

  34. Is there anything you won't whine, moan, bleat and self-pity about?

  35. interesting blog. It would be great if you can provide more details about it. Thank you...

    ucas apply

  36. Your post reminds me of a quote:
    “I’m resourceful, I’m creative, I’m young, unscrupulous, highly motivated, highly skilled. In essence what I’m saying is that society cannot afford to lose me. I’m an asset.”- Quotes by Patrick Bateman


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