LS interviews Stuart Heritage, Guardian journalist: “You can make yourself the butt of your own jokes”

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Stuart HeritageStuart Heritage speaks to Beckie Smith about comments, internet villainy and libel threats from Michael Bay

For a man who used to make a living out of writing acidic pieces  on the rich and famous, Stuart Heritage is surprisingly pleasant when we meet for lunch in Soho. I hadn’t been sure what to expect, but he smiles a lot for a man whose online persona was built on cynicism and acerbic commentary.

He seems cheerful – if cold. I’ve rushed from Victoria and taken a wrong turn on the way to tiny Korean restaurant where we’re due to meet. We exchange the obligatory questions to confirm that we are each who the other thinks we are, and I offer my apologies for having kept him waiting. It’s a frosty day in London, and he has the air of a man who’s been experiencing severe discomfort for the last twenty minutes but doesn’t want to show it. “Don’t feel bad,” he begins when I ask how his week has been, “but I’ve been ill for the last few days.” I feel bad.

While we wait for food to arrive we swap stories about student digs – “You don’t realise how depressing it is until you’re removed from it.” He recounts the time he found a rat in his accommodation in Korea, where he lived for 18 months post-graduation. Abandoning an awful job he’d been stuck in while trying to get a portfolio together, he took the job as an English teacher after seeing an advert online, despite knowing very little about the country. It’s why we’re here; it’s cold weather food, and he’s feeling nostalgic.

The rat came to a sticky end – quite literally, it turns out, glued to a trap set down by Heritage’s boss. “I am telling you the worst stories,” he laughs, as he moves onto the next.

The stint in Korea followed a degree in scriptwriting, which he all but dismisses as an unfortunate blip. “No one ever says ‘oh, you’ve got a degree in scriptwriting, come and write for us. Scripts get chosen based on how good they are.” He’s since worked on TV shows including Celebrity Juice and Tonightly, a programme he describes as “something that wanted to be Letterman, but terrible – but it was gag work, it wasn’t really writing scripts.” Is there anything else he should have done instead? Journalism, of course.

Some years later, Heritage founded Hecklerspray, a website that bills itself as the home of “internet villainy and grown-up gossip”. It was this that led to him becoming a regular at the Guardian. In 2008, the blog was listed alongside Perez Hilton and Jezebel in the Observer as one of the 50 most powerful blogs in the world. “We were 48 or 49” – 45, in fact – “I think they just ran out of websites.” He fails to mention that he was also named one of Hospital Club’s top 100 people in London’s creative industries during the same year. Being noticed gave him the chance to start freelancing for the Guardian’s film section, before becoming a regular columnist and TV critic.

His writing appears to have mellowed in the last couple of years, although the Guardian’s X Factor live blog for which he is best known is notorious for its pointed humour and well-placed jibes at the contestants. Still, this all feels rather good-natured. It’s hard to find any malice in the accusation that James Arthur’s recital of U2 sounded like “like cattle falling off the side of a boat”. Hecklerspray, however, was more vicious. It’s a difficult topic to broach, but Heritage finishes my sentence. “Oh, I was horrible!”

“I feel really bad about it… That was the business model – to be mean about stuff, so that if people didn’t like it they’d post it into forums and stuff, and be mean back.”

In his five years as Editor, was he ever sued? Not quite. “You know Phil Spector, the music producer? Maybe 10 years ago he took a girl back to his apartment,  and she was found with a bullet wound, dead.

“He said she’d shot herself because she was depressed because she’d met Michael Bay, and they’d worked together, and she didn’t recognise him. I wrote this story and I mis-worded the headline – ‘did Michael Bay kill her?’ – which he took as a literal thing.  I was  on the phone and my computer at the same time for an evening changing the headline saying, ‘How’s this now? How’s this?’ That’s about as bad as it got.”

He is surprisingly blasé when I ask about receiving death threats on the site. He admits he moderated the worst of the abuse, but death wishes from indignant readers were a source of amusement – it didn’t occur to him to react otherwise. “Until you talk to other writers, you don’t realise you should take death threats that seriously. I’d go, ‘hey, look at this!’ and laugh… But I know people who’ve called the police.

“Hecklerspray was a bit different, though, because it was largely an American readership. There’s always that kind of remove – they’re not gonna come round your house and kill you.”

It must have been a relief, still, to move to the Guardian. He laughs. “I was talking to a friend who worked there and saying, ‘It’s gonna be so great, having some intelligent discussion!’ They said, ‘give it a couple of weeks’.”

He doesn’t seem to mind the  trolling, although he sometimes avoids scrolling down if it’s not his best work. “It’s nice that really they can be bothered to comment. If you can get something out of a reader, even if it’s just angry barking, that’s something!”

Does he ever reply? “Sometimes. You’re supposed to more than I do. But I think you’ve said your points, that’s all my arguments. A lot of writers like to get there in the first page to kind of show the commenters there’s an adult in the playground and they all calm down.

“Especially in the X Factor live blogs, because people get really” – he searches for a diplomatic word – “enthusiastic in the comments.”

I ask how much his writing reflects what he actually thinks, and how much is a character. “A bit. It’s not entirely true…” He’s choosing his words carefully. “It’s more truth than not.”

“The stuff I wrote for Hecklerspray was more of a character. Actually, it got angrier as it went along. Once you’ve made a horrible joke about someone you’ve got to try and top it, within the lines of the law. I was always very aware of stepping over the line of defamation.”

That’s not unusual, though: “All the writers I know are kind of different to how they are when they write.

“I got an email from a friend of mine who used to work for Hecklerspray, and she said she was scared to email me for the first time.” Had I caught him a few years earlier, I might have had the same reaction.

Not long before we met, Heritage published an article about going to a “cuddle party”: a workshop for people who are uncomfortable with physical contact. It was quite a departure from his usual comment pieces and bashing of light entertainment shows, and he described how he woke up on the morning of the event “petrified and trudged there like a man heading to his own execution”. I ask if it’s nerve-wracking to write about something so personal. It is, but it’s something he’d like to do more. “You can make yourself the butt of your own jokes, which I think is quite a civilised thing to do.” Having spent so long poking fun at other people, a bit of self-deprecation isn’t altogether unwelcome, it seems.

So what’s next? A book, perhaps. “When I started Hecklerspray, it was always a means to an end. I always had a list of things I wanted to do. I wanted to write for the NME, I wanted to write a monologue for a David Letterman-type TV show and I wanted to write for the Guardian. Hopefully a book next. The publishing industry’s in such a dire state at the moment. It’s all based on celebrity. People keep telling me if I get a TV show, they’ll publish it.”

So all he has to do now is get a TV show – no small feat. Still, by this point, I’m fairly convinced I’d watch it.

Long before the interview is over, I’ve realised that Heritage, a man who often writes about typing with his fists out of indignant rage at how awful something is, is far more good-natured than his TV rants and snarky Twitter comments might suggest. I get the feeling that however biting a piece may be, it’s all in jest. The illusion is shattered.

Words: Beckie Smith

Photo: courtesy of Stuart Heritage

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