Paul Mason Interview Pt 1: Neutral Voice, Soul Brother – British Journalism Review
On screen, whether crunching statistics, puzzling Paxman with graphs, or laying out the latest chapter of the banking crisis, Paul Mason packs a wallop not immediately discernible out in the real world. But then he starts talking and is instantly recognisable. It’s not just the Lancashire accent, adding tang to all he says, but the nervy intelligence and impatience on display, indicative of quickness and pride. The figure he cuts is more city banker than roving reporter. It’s about class, I think, not for the last time, and politics: two good reasons why Mason can’t afford the dishevelment some journalists go in for, even if his sartorial tendencies were to run that way. The smart suit, the “equivalent of body armour” he calls it, gives no hostage to fortune.
It’s a high-wire act he’s trying to pull off, after all, presenting himself as a ‘neutral’ BBC man, while describing what, over the last year or so, has looked like the implosion of international capitalism. And, harder still, one imagines, getting the viewer to care about the impact of this crisis in the big world, to share some of his focussed curiosity and fellow feeling for hard-pressed, far-flung interviewees, the kind of people who are, even in our endlessly-trumpeted global age, still too rarely glimpsed on television. “Poor you,” a receptionist once said to him, “having to try and interest people in all that boring stuff”.
During the dotcom era, in his early career as a journalist (there have been others in academia and music) he specialised in what were then the backwaters of business and technology, working for Reed Elsevier and Computer Weekly before the BBC. Now the world had caught up and he’s like everyone else issuing continual advertisements for himself in the world of mutual back-slapping that is Twitter. An avowed techie, his attitude, in the main, however, is functional and democratic, “just get out there, be yourself, and interact”, which is no doubt why in 2005 he became the first onscreen person at the Beeb given ‘permission’ to start blogging.
His Idle Scrawl was shortlisted for the Orwell prize this year (losing to Night Jack) and is named after the Lancashire insult Mason’s mother hurled his way to shake him out of bed in the morning, rather than the conventional meaning, once rendered by a Chinese producer as “bad writing by lazy person”. Its ambit, as you’d expect, is politics and economics, with the obligatory detours into football and encomiums to The Wire. More idiosyncratically, he writes about opera and Northern Soul, and in attempting to analyse the opposing worlds his work takes him into makes frequent, unabashed reference to sociology and economic theory.
A holiday from Newsnight spent in the library yields a discourse “on the link between occupation and psychological attitudes” taken from Erich Fromm’s 1929 survey of The Working Class in Weimar Germany: “Social Democrats favoured bric-a-brac over modernism by 10% vs 3%. Communists also, 4% to 2%. Nazis too liked flying ducks better than Mies van der Rohe chairs, by a factor of 11% to 6%.” While in 2006 he gave the Newsnight team their own “sociological going-over” with a straw poll designed to indicate “levels of poshness” and equivalence with the Conservative Party: “1) Were you privately educated? 42% (Tories 52%). 2) Did you go Oxbridge? 30% (Tories 28%). 3) Are you from the South? 60% (Tories 61%).”
Mostly what you get from his blog are impressions on the hop when he’s out in the world and concentrated observation of life on the homeground. There are hunches, tips, snippets of insider information; on-going assessment of what he’s up to as a journalist; and a powerful sense of him speaking directly to his audience. For instance, writing after the death of the singer Astrid Varnay in 2006 he observes: “What you are listening to is supreme self-confidence and artistry – a quality to hold on to even if you hate opera.” While a Comment on whether he’s out of the loop while reporting from China draws a steely No, “because frankly, the fate of 1.3bn people is also quite important.”
He’s interested enough in the medium to play around with it. After reading John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, Mason invented a mental exercise imagining how the Russian Revolution would be reported today. In the same spirit, one blog relays a day in his life in the style of a George Orwell diary: “At big offices of major company had to argue my way past security man: London companies now increasingly in shared buildings where instead of receptionist you have security men who have no feel for the class system and treat one lower than dirt unless one wears some recognisable badge and ‘lanyard’”. It’s all delivered with a sense of urgency, wit and compression that perfectly suits the style he’s aiming for: “tight, acerbic and as close to the truth as I can get”. Writing it must be addictive; reading it, you get a strong idea of who he is and what fires him up, which is surely the point of a blog.
But it’s in his second, non-aligned life as a writer of books that you really start to sense what an ambitious writer Mason is – and what he might yet produce if he doesn’t allow himself to be waylaid. There have already been two non-fiction works in quick succession. In 2007, his Live Working or Die Fighting chronicled modern labour’s creative revolt from its bloody christening at Peterloo in 1819 to the organisation and resistance of the Jewish Bund in Poland a century and a half later. Tales of individual audacity and community organising are placed alongside stories of today’s emerging global workforce, suggesting what a wealth of history has been lost, but also what, if properly understood, might usefully be regained. In these forgetful days the not un-important message he’s sending to the mutilated, uninsured worker in a Chinese factory, or the migrant living in a Nigerian slum amid shit-filled canals and street sellers hawking the “neo-junk of the Third World economy” is: know this – you are not alone; your struggle isn’t empty of meaning; you are heir to the dreams, battles, ambitions and hopes of millions who went before, and whose lives were not so different from your own.
Then earlier this year came Meltdown, a rapidly written, and inevitably more journalistic, history of the economic downturn. Both are significant books, vivid counterblasts to conventional narratives. Yet both, one suspects, were written, at least somewhere in the back of his mind, with the brakes on. Just why this might be, and what, if anything he can do about it, is what interested me when I talked to him. He began by acknowledging he’s perhaps not quite in the same vein as many BBC journalists: “I’m a bloke from a small town in Lancashire [Leigh in Greater Manchester] whose family were miners and cotton weavers and silk weavers. That’s me, whatever else I’ve done, which has been all sorts of things. On TV the important thing is to be somebody, especially if you’re in a job where you’re supposed to put this patina of impartiality over the work you do, which we have to.”
When asked a question, Mason will often begin his reply with a phrase such as, “A Masai person said to me…” or “If I’m talking to a migrant from Shizuishan…” This is not showing off, I think, but a constant recourse to the empirical facts of the existence of others. And, as he must be aware, it lends to what he has to say an authority that’s hard to refute. He thinks a good part of his power and relevance as a journalist resides in this: the authority of access – whether that’s to the Prime Minister or a Chinese peasant who earns her living skinning sheep. It’s access that separates him from the ‘blogger in pyjamas’. That, and the influence of an abrasive system of peer review that comes from working in the context of a newsroom. He makes these arguments as Newsnight’s Father of the Chapel, encouraging the NUJ to be pragmatic in the face of technological change, and to better define, so as to defend, territory that is specifically theirs.
“What you see on TV is just the tip of the iceberg of what I’ve done. If I’m on a train with a bunch of migrants, as I was in China four weeks ago, then once I’ve got the interview with one guy, I know I’m only going to use a minute of what he said, but I’m not going to just sit there for a minute with him, I’ll sit there for as long as I possibly can,” he said. “The key to all good journalism is just letting people speak to you. You don’t do that by constantly challenging them. You do it by understanding them. The job is not to challenge them – unless they’re giving you bullshit. Then you have to make the challenge without becoming the ‘great big white man comes here and tells us we’re doing wrong’. That’s the danger if you do my job. It’s the same if you go to Wall Street, if you talk to traders. You’ve got to accept their reasons for what they’re doing before you go any further.”
But isn’t just listening rather passive? “The point about journalism is getting to the truth. And the truth is always more interesting than what you went out to find. I was teaching a bunch of medical students about media skills. I was making them interview me and I was being the doctor. They said: ‘Oh so Mr Doctor, what is the key health issue here in the Swat Valley refugee camp?’ And I replied: ‘It’s rape by 20 men who’ve got guns, who roam around at night. Now that doesn’t fit your story Mr Journalist, but I’m telling you that’s what it is. Are you going to put it in or not?’ That’s your common experience. You go to place A to report story A, and what you find is story B. The test of a good journalist is that they accept story B exists and don’t go, ‘Oh shit, that’s ruined my entire day, ‘cos it doesn’t fit with what I came here to report.’ Now you only get that by listening. And listening sounds passive but it isn’t – it’s engagement.”
Truth can be got at in many ways, of course. And for Mason, Michael Herr’s 1977 book on the Vietnam War, Dispatches, has been an important influence. “It’s reportage and I think we’re in danger of losing an understanding of what reportage is. It was born out of a desire to write social documentaries. I’ve forgotten the name of the Czech guy who invented and theorised it [Egon Erwin Kisch], but the Left, both the communist Left and the non-communist Left in the Thirties, worked it up to a quite serious level of sophistication. Orwell is effectively a reportage writer, so is Priestley. The definition is literary non-fiction, so you make no apology for producing a quasi-literary output. One of the problems we have in my profession is whether or not this is going to survive, not just a series of technical innovations, but the audience’s perception. I was watching a piece of well-made BBC reportage with a bunch of students and they didn’t like it: it looked too constructed.”
There are some truths about the modern world that can be told only through literature, he thinks. “I am never going to be able to get inside a meeting of Communist Party officials in China where they are plotting to screw up my reporting. I could write a short story about it quite easily, though, because I feel the outcome. I know what they’ve done. I know what they’ve plotted. So I don’t think reportage is a step away from the truth. In some senses it’s a step towards the truth. Fiction can be the truth also. A lot of news journalists would find that problematic, but I don’t. I think you just have to open your mind to it.”
Even though Mason has said, for him, the appeal of journalism is not about adrenaline, he is a speedy character. In the Q & A sessions that follow his book-talks he seems happiest taking six points at a time, looking around the room, calling out like a fairground barker for more, “Yes, Madam!”, taking from his audiences – they veer from Marxists in scruffy independent bookshops to private members’ clubs stuffed with investment bankers – a range of complex questions on the state of the economy. Perhaps, as with his technological avidity, there’s something in his make-up that pushes him on, making sure he gets the job done, whatever fear the work induces. In one blog he records his feeling at the moment he is told each day whether or not he’ll be called up for duty on Newsnight: “That hour between three and four pm is the journalistic equivalent to the hour when the secret police come and take people away into the night and fog…”
“It’s true”, he admits, “I have a high work-rate, can assimilate a lot fast. That’s just always been me. I’m an action driven person. And that’s quite different from the background I’ve come from – Catholic, working class, aspirational. My mum went to night school – she was a secretary who became a head teacher. My dad [who died when Mason was 26] was a lorry driver who read novels and bits of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. They were part of a generation that wanted to learn more and their big frustration was they didn’t know where to get it.”
It’s a frustration Mason, with his financial expertise and mastery of technology, seems to have determinedly overcome. And yet something of it remains in evidence in Live Working or Die Fighting, where he makes an arresting statement about the long emotional legacy of Peterloo, even when the origins of that feeling have been lost to history: “All that was left was a gut feeling that Lancashire workers passed down the generations…something terrible was done to us and we will never forget.”
“My grandparents would never tell you anything about what I’d call the labour movement. Finally, if you persisted, they would talk about their own parents and how terrible they felt about how poor they were. It’s absolutely there in the folk memory of that side of my family: they’d had to live through poverty, it was unjust, nobody ever helped you.”
“I’ll give you a good example. By 1980 I’m active in student politics. I come home and there’s a debate which pops into the pub conversation: will there ever be a worker’s government in Britain? My Dad said to me: ‘I went to a Tony Benn meeting and, you know what? He was the same as every other politician.’ So there’s this great plebeian distrust of everybody. Even Benn he thought was basically just another politician who would always lie, avoid the question, or not come out with a straight answer. My Dad wasn’t disillusioned because that’s what his folk memory and folk tradition had told him: they’re all the bloody same. So just rely on yourself. But it’s the absence of detail that always frustrated me, and the evasiveness of bitterness, bitterness, bitterness about past generations and what they had to live through.”
A more affirming inheritance from his father was a love of music. But in this, too, there was shared dissatisfaction: “My Dad was a really good trombone player, had played in brass bands, and had a second job playing in a dance band. Even in the 60s and 70s you still had this Glen Miller-Stan Kenton tradition. And the big frustration – because it’s before the internet, before iTunes, before Wikipedia – is where do you find out how to play like a bebop trombonist? There’s a guy called J.J. Johnson who’s like the Charlie Parker of trombone. I was a trombonist too, and we both would sit around wondering how do you find that out? Today you’d go to the City Lit and there’d be somebody who could teach you to play like that. Also, me and me Dad both loved Tchaikovsky. We went to the Halle, went to the opera in Manchester. So it’s that kind of background. There’s a great feeling of autodidacticism in this sense: we know we are limited in what we can find out. It’s only later when I got to university, where I did two years of postgraduate research into music, and became exposed to a much wider intellectual world, that I realised even grammar school hadn’t really opened the challenging world of intellectual experience.”
When Mason described this I wondered why he’d made such a song and dance about the lack of modern technological information: after all, no one had this when he was growing up. But I see now this is also a matter of class. As he eventually understood, without access to these resources he was unarmed in the face of his grammar school teachers and all the other cultural gate-keepers who believed it was their job to determine what was fit for you, to deny you the wide world that only the web has finally opened up.
Instead of the resentment this might have bred, however, what you get in Mason is an abounding, sceptical mind and determination not to be hemmed in (pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will). He is that rare thing in British public life, an encourager and enthusiast, an adherent of the JFDI principle (“just flipping well do it”), and a herald of the liberating effects of technology. His 2007 report for Newsnight on the transformative power of mobile phones on the lives of many Africans was just one result of this enthusiasm.
What will he do next? Appearing on the box a couple of nights a week, his profile will rise, making it harder for him to pass unnoticed through a crowd. With the attention, will the sense that “something was done to us” be assuaged or forgotten? I hope not because it’s my guess that this feeling is at the root of his turbulent intelligence, making him capable of the kind of writing I hope he produces more of: that proclaims the poetry of the political, and then, as William Golding once described, rises up off the page at you like a fist.
This is a version of an article that appeared in the British Journalism Review, Volume 20, Number 4, December 2009, pp. 71-77; the second part of the discussion is at Downturns and Uprisings. There is a further interview with Mason from 2014, part of the Conversations About Eleanor Marx series, and my review of his third book, Why It’s All Kicking Off: The New Global Revolutions, appeared on Red Pepper in 2012, as History in the Making.