The real problem with Laurie Penny

Posted on April 30, 2012

It can’t be easy being Laurie Penny.

For a start, being the self-appointed voice of the young must be a heavy responsibility – particularly when so many of the young keep thinking things you don’t agree with.

Then there’s the difficulty of carving out a media career in New York, a place somewhat less vulnerable to the British Left’s obsession with appointing new Messiahs of the Media every 6 months or so.

Even when you give in to the temptation to abandon your RiotGrrl anti-paternalism and write a traffic-hunting piece swooning over a Hollywood star who, you claim, saved you from death-by-traffic, irritating bloggers crop up pointing out that your story bears remarkable similarities to the plot of a Natalie Portman film.

Now, having inherited the seat left vacant by Johann Hari’s ignominious demise as the previous pen-wielding star of the young left, people start snooping around suggesting you have perhaps polished reality or even made things up to fit your articles. There’s even a hashtag, #pennygate, set up a couple of weeks ago by the guy who brought Hari down.

I must confess that as all of these things pile up, I can’t get too excited about whether Laurie is the new Johann or not. There is speculation, there are undoubtedly people hunting through her past works for fabrications or plagiarism, and who knows if they will find anything.

It’s true that Laurie is almost unique among journalists in always happening to overhear the quote that perfectly and precisely proves her point, regardless of whether she’s in the middle of a riot, trapped in an alley by the EDL or having her bum pinched on a sweaty dance floor. Indeed, I questioned a couple of years ago whether all of her quotes, which tend to read like a poor Grange Hill script, are genuine. Maybe she’s just immensely lucky, all the time; maybe she has remarkable hearing superior to that of ordinary humans; or maybe there’s something more scandalous to it.

It would be interesting to know, but even if the worst was proved it would not be the most fundamental problem with her journalism.

The problem with Laurie is far more important than that.

Laurie’s journalism is flawed because of her worldview.

There’s nothing wrong with biased journalism. Whether you read the original gonzo journalists or, you believe truly balanced journalism is an impossibility, bias has plenty going for it. It is human nature.

Laurie’s worldview suffers not because it is biased, but because it is so hypocritical and so inconsistent.

For an investigative commentator who paints a picture of herself as a kind of war correspondent on the streets of London and New York, she has a remarkable dedication to double think. On Planet Penny, everything is a bit topsy turvy.

Those who loot shops are excused, having been forced into their crime by a wicked society; those who go to work or stay at home watching TV are bad, and by daring to enjoy the fruits of their own labour are personally responsible for forcing those looters to nick flat screen TVs.

Those who use violence against the police are protecting themselves and epitomising the beautiful flame of youthful rebellion; those policemen who hit back are not protecting themselves or others, they are simply autobots carrying out the personal orders of David Cameron/Rupert Murdoch/Andy Coulson to smash what is beautiful.

Those who are on the Left are well informed, have made their own minds up and base everything on evidence; those on the Right just think what they are told by their parents and have obviously never read any history. At worst, the Left are just keen on serving good; at best, the Right are genetically incapable of disobeying the master class.

Those are just some of the peculiar distortions that she embeds in her work. We can also consider the factual distortions inherent in her argument.

Take, for example, the idea that the West is at war with itself. To read Laurie’s work, you’d think every family is riven by violent generational hatred, every student is planning the downfall of the state, every relationship is one of power struggles, and every Primark lies empty because its ethos is so corrosive to the human soul that anyone entering a shop immediately tears at the hair and vomits uncontrollably.

This is, put simply, balls.

But you knew that, because you only need to hold up Laurie’s picture of the world next to the reality that you see every day to realise there is a remarkable discrepancy between the two. As much as she may hate the idea, most families are pretty happy, most people would like a successful career, most consumers enjoy the ability to buy new ipods or to prettify their house. Whisper it, most people are even willing to believe that their partners really do love them, rather than viewing them as foreign ambassadors negotiating a temporary inter-gender armistice.

I suppose it must be deeply frustrating to have to struggle every day to uphold an ideology that, no matter how strongly you promote it, keeps running up against inconvenient fundamental human emotions like aspiration, pleasure, loving one’s family and that kind of thing. Laurie has let that frustration disconnect her writing from reality.

In short, the problem with Laurie isn’t that some of her reported quotes or experiences may (allegedly) be untrue. It’s that all the things she asserts so strongly about human nature are untrue – and no journalism course can set that right.

New NUS President hasn’t been a student since 2006

Posted on April 13, 2011

The bubbling nonsense-pot which is the National Union of Students have just announced the winner of the election for their new President: Liam Burns.

Never heard of him? I wouldn’t worry – nor have the vast majority of students, given that the election is held among Student Union delegates to the NUS National Conference, who are themselves elected on the back of tiny turnouts on campus.

The question is what does this mean for the future of the official student movement in times which Burns himself describes as “some of the most turbulent NUS has seen for a generation”? Is NUS about to break through within its own constituency, changing from a niche, hard left clique to a truly mass student movement?

On the evidence so far the answer is no.

Burns has classic NUS hack credentials – remarkably for the supposed leader of the UK’s students, he appears to have last actually studied something in, erm, 2006. Yes, five years ago. That’s so long ago that he wasn’t even a student when top-up fees came in.

Since then he’s been a professional student union staffer, first at Heriot Watt and then at NUS Scotland. This is only going to reinforce the reason that most students couldn’t give a toss about the NUS – it’s a body which represents union sabbatical officers and NUS oddballs rather than ordinary students. For example, Burns publicly and strongly opposes the idea of enfranchising all students to elect the NUS leadership (see his PDF manifesto, pg 6).

As I noted after the student riots in December, there is a difference between being noticed and being listened to. The NUS will continue to be loud, but under its new leadership it will also continue to be fatally disengaged from the people it is meant to be representing.

Student Union turnouts shows the Unions lack a mandate

Posted on March 04, 2011

The NUS and the Student Unions have made great play in the last few months about the Coalition’s supposed lack of “democratic legitimacy” or a “mandate”. Cameron and Clegg, we are told, don’t really represent the voters.

The Student Union establishment is on shaky ground here, as today’s news from Sheffield University shows. In publishing the results for their SU elections they proudly boast that they have achieved “the highest ever election turnout for a Students’ Union election in the UK”.

So what was this staggering percentage? Erm, 23.82%

Yes, you read that right. They who complain about the democratic legitimacy of the Government can only achieve a turnout from their own constituents that would make most local councils blush.

Thom Arnold, the Sheffield student president elect, received 1,933 first preference votes out of  6765 cast – a miserable 28.5% of the 23.82% of the constituents who bothered to vote. It was only after six rounds that he was able to go through on others’ lower preferences.

This is the same old story – most Student Unions are far worse. I remember when I was elected to represent Durham at the NUS conference (for my sins) we had a miserable turnout of 10% or so. When we arrived at the conference we were amazed to find that most other delegates viewed our “high” turnout as a remarkable success.

At the core of this news is a simple truth that they don’t want to accept – the so-called “student leaders” are utterly disconnected from the people they claim to represent. They don’t inspire attention from most students, never mind confidence or actual support. Next time they throw stones at the Government, they might want to pause to consider their own glass house.

Memory failure at the New Statesman

Posted on January 27, 2011

Mini-Toynbee Laurie Penny continues her rapid ascent through the mighty ranks of the New Statesman – now she’s got the front page splash with a story from “inside the student movement”. She’s pitching it slightly oddly, describing herself as being “embedded” in the movement like an outside reporter, viewing the students as “observational subjects” – despite the fact that she’s as much a part of their gang as any of them.

Most peculiar of all, though, is the way she tries to edit history in order to rebrand their mortally wounded public image:

“One thing they are not, however, is children playing games. For them, the political situation, with new cuts to public services announced every day, is too desperate to brook any useless high jinks.”

That’s an interesting observation. It must mean I imagined the students who….

urinated on Churchill’s statue:


…attacked the Cenotaph:

mobbed the Prince of Wales:

and threw a fire a extinguisher off the top of a building at a crowd of people:

Now those events have been put down the New Statesman’s memory hole, so they didn’t happen.

Repeat after Laurie: “the student protesters aren’t children playing games….they don’t brook any useless high jinks…” Eventually, if you repeat it enough, it might come true.