“Life is about compromise. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”
I’ve known about Helen Lewis for a while now. If you hadn’t clocked her name in a copy of the New Statesman, both as a Deputy Editor and a contributor, then you might have seen her on feminist debate events, the Sunday Politics, the Today Programme, Women’s Hour and other various media outlets. You might also know her for interest in gaming. As a big voice on the ‘but hey women play video games too’ debate, she’s written frequently about gaming, both in terms of its sexist tropes and just as a art form. Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that if you don’t know who Helen Lewis is then you need to be paying better attention.
Helen’s extending reach into various public spheres doesn’t come without certain drawbacks. In an interesting time where we can satisfy our desire to find out everything we want to know about a particular columnist via the writhing mass of knowledge so-called-the-internet, Helen Lewis became not only a writer, but a public figure. In a conversation I once had with Editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley, on how I had heard of Helen Lewis before I met her, he mused ‘yes, she is a bit of a celebrity isn’t she?’ A celebrity, that is open to a lot of criticism on twitter.
‘I think it’s hard to be a columnist and an opinion journalist and have an editorial role as well, because the great joy of being a columnist is that you get to go “this is terrible” and “why isn’t something being done about this” but no one ever tasks you with the responsibility of doing anything about it. So when, for example, you’re like me and you write about under representation and women and ethnic minorities in the media, then people go “yeah but what are you doing?” and that’s quite difficult…There is a slightly odd idea that you’re never allowed to switch off, that must be on this kind of constant high alert.”
At the beginning of 2014, Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy’s twitter abusers were sentenced in court for sending “menacing tweets.” They sent tweets that threatened to “find” Criado-Perez, and told her to “die you worthless piece of crap” and to “go kill yourself.” If you reeled off a list of public feminist figures, Laurie Penny, Craido-Perez and Creasy, Mary Beard, each one would probably tell you the kind of abuse that they receive, ranging from absurd insults to rape threats and bomb threats. I asked Helen if she found it tough being a loud feminist voice on Twitter: ‘Yeah I think so [but] you don’t want to be “little miss negativity,” who’s always just moaning about stuff, because no-one wants that in their life. People sometimes complain about left wing media organisations doing funny stories and silly stories, as if we should be kind of doing a constant dialogue of just all the things that are terrible – and that’s fine – but nobody can take that 24 hours a day.’ A surprisingly optimistic response for dealing with the constant shit storm of sexist criticism.
Yeah I think so [but] you don’t want to be “little miss negativity,” who’s always just moaning about stuff, because no-one wants that in their life.
Something Helen often gets attacked on is for formally working for the Daily Mail, a paper, that if you had to draw a spectrum of publications, would probably be on the complete opposite end to the New Statesman. I’ve often wondered myself how someone could reconcile being a progressive, tolerant, feminist, normal, human being and have worked for the cesspit that is the Daily Mail. ‘If I hadn’t worked at the Daily Mail, I wouldn’t be here. I think that’s the really simple thing. I finished university, and I’m not a horny handed son of toil by any means but there was no money for me to sit around after I’d finished university, just not having a job, going from work experience to work experience. I had to find a job. The Daily Mail training scheme both gave me an income and they paid an enormous amount of money to send me to Press Association and train me in media, law, headline writing and loads of stuff. You see incredibly impeccable outlets in their politics who want to take people on thruppence halfpenny or keep them working for a really long time without pay, so you can’t fault the mail at that level about what they did in their journalism.’ She related it also back to this expectation of having to be consistently faultless – ‘The people who criticise me for having worked at the daily mail might very well work for a bank, they might work in the NHS, they might work in a shop, they might work for amazon. Nobody’s perfect, and no one has an uncomplicated relationship with capitalism. We’re all complicit.”
The current Editor of the Daily Mail is a formidable character, one who happened to also have studied at this university, and edited this paper you now hold in your hands. Paul Dacre is infamous on many levels, not only for running a terrifyingly wealthy and powerful Daily Mail, but also for being unique in his intimidating editorial technique (a man who also happens to be paid around a whopping 1.8 million a year). I wondered how Helen found working beside him. ‘He’s a ferocious personality, I think it’s fair to say. I would love to know what he was like at [the University of Leeds], where I think he knew Jack Straw. Which I think must have been fascinating. What I really admire about Dacre is that he is not interested in editing a Newspaper because it gets him to meet celebrities and that he gets to be close to power. I think for all that I disagree with his stance on a lot of things, the reason he wants to edit that paper is that he believes that there’s a view point that he wants to articulate, and that there’s a group of people that aren’t being heard, and that it’s his job to represent them…. For all that I say that, I do think there are huge structural problems with the way the Daily Mail addresses a lot of stuff and I’m sure there’ll be many things in which he would think I was absolutely disgusting in my opinions. But as an editor, that model of editorship is quite impressive.’
What I really admire about Dacre is that he is not interested in editing a Newspaper because it gets him to meet celebrities and that he gets to be close to power.
Something also notable about the Daily Mail is its success in what could only be described as a struggling field. The Daily Mail’s online section, the MailOnline, is the most read English-language website in the world, with over 11.34 million unique views a day. The paper makes, and has, a lot of money to spend, which is unlike many of its fellow publications (The Guardian and the Observer reported losses of £44.2m in 2012, and I know that the New Statesman has struggled to make a profit for a number of years). How was the New Statesman going to accommodate for the shaky and unstable platform it was now standing upon? ‘When I started at the Mail, we still didn’t print all the pages in colour, we had to black and white… That was 2005 or something like that…that feels like the Arc now, and that you might as well have been inscribing it on tablets and stone and sending it to people. So, things are changing incredibly quickly. What is interesting, is something that really didn’t work as well as people wanted it to – which was the integration of print and online.’ She references Buzzfeed in pointing out an online website, as well as the MailOnline, which “in sheer traffic numbers, is a monster,” as two very successful website that are autonomous or at least not exactly the same as any other print publication, and points to this as a model of a successful newspaper model. Would the New Statesman ever put up a pay wall, like The Times? ‘I’m not totally against it…I think there would be a point to saying “you can have it all, immediately, online, if you pay” because there might very well be an audience for that.’
Amongst Helen’s amazing variety of what seem like Victorian slang (Horny handed son of toil/thuruppence halfpenny/Need a Chimney sweep guvnor!) (That last one might not be accurate), she makes a compelling point about the expectations we have of journalists to be perfect. At points I wanted to challenge her more on her background, on how much the NS was doing for access, whether it was diverse enough, but her point was right: I was expecting her to be hypocrisy free. Which just isn’t human. She’s right. ‘Life is about compromise…Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.’
Photographs: Newstatesman, The Guardian and @helenlewis