journalism


Playwright, novelist, screenwriter: A man hungry for ideas who cannot help but write. Esther Armstrong profiles Julian Mitchell’s career

Julian Mitchell is a gay writer. But he does not wish to be defined as such, “I do not regard myself as a gay writer. I write and I hope I can write anything.” And indeed he can. Born in May 1935, Mitchell is a playwright, a screenwriter and a novelist. Since taking up the pen at the age of 14 he has covered an array of topics but is perhaps best known for his contribution to the ITV drama institution Inspector Morse. However, despite his protestations, it would seem he does have a habit of looking to his own life for inspiration.

Mitchell describes the final night of Another Country as his proudest moment in a career spanning more than 50 years, and an occasion which made him cry. Based in 1930s England, the play deals with homosexuality in public schools and on its last showing in the 1980s, packed a West End theatre to the rafters. Mitchell himself boarded at Winchester College as a boy and admits he can identify with the experiences of the main characters, “We all assumed when we were young that this was just a phase out of which we would grow, and 90 per cent of people did. But it was a shock when you didn’t.”

This attitude towards homosexual activity is something Mitchell revisited in his film Consenting Adults (2007) – written for BBC4 in commemoration of the Wolfenden Report (1957). The film depicts the controversy surrounding the final suggestion by a government committee to decriminalise homosexuality. Adding to the complexity and drama is the relationship between John Wolfenden, who chairs the committee, and his son Jeremy, who happens to be gay. Again Mitchell’s art imitates life, “My father hated homosexuality and thought it was a crime. My mother never talked about it.

 “I was at least 25 before I fully adapted,” he continues, “It was very difficult in those days. I do not know how easy it is now. I never did tell my parents. But they knew.” Despite writing Consenting Adults, Mitchell is unsure of how important it is to educate young people today on the Wolfenden Report and its importance for the progress of gay rights. In his view society is much more relaxed now, “It seemed when I was younger things were never going to change. Then the law was changed and five years later nobody could remember it had ever existed. In this country I think people have become incredibly liberal in my lifetime.”

 Mitchell does not think he is unusual in drawing inspiration from his own experiences and says a little defensively, “Every writer writes about his family. You learn about human relationships very young and very early on.” Now, aged 74, he lives with his partner in Monmouthshire and says he does not like to define himself as either English or Welsh. Following a period of relative quiet, he is currently working on a series of six novels set in Monmouthshire which shows again his propensity to draw from what goes on around him. Inspiration, he says, comes along far less often than you would think, “I just drift around, I read, I listen, I look and I hope something will happen.”

 But Mitchell is not necessarily a modest man, “What is the point in writing if nobody is going to read it… I have written two [of the Monmouthshire series] so far and they are sitting in a box waiting for a publisher.” On saying that he has no plans to retire any time soon, “I would die if I didn’t write,” he imparts with no unnecessary drama.

 An avid reader of history, Mitchell wrote a biographical film of Oscar Wilde (Wilde) in 1997, something which he enjoyed tremendously. “When you are writing historically you are making them up… I did history as a student and I still read a lot. The imaginative effort to getting into the past is a great pleasure for me.”

 At times taciturn and at other times eager to share, Mitchell is an extremely interesting man who finds great delight in the world around him. Clearly capable of wowing a crowd he is both entertaining and fascinating in equal measure. But typically of men his age he does not seem inclined to sentimentality and this makes it all the more heart-warming when he temporarily lets his guard slip, “I met my partner at a dinner party. I arrived and there was an empty space opposite. He arrived late, he’s always late. I looked across the table and my life was changed.”

 

 

 

Julia's book <i>East of the Sun<i/> won Romantic Novel of the Year Award 2009

Julia's book East of the Sun won Romantic Novel of the Year Award 2009

 

 

 

They say everybody has a book in them. But it seems for some the book just writes itself. Is it easier to write if you have had an eventful life? And when is the best age to start? Esther Armstrong caught up with 2009’s Romantic Novel of the Year Award winner, Julia Gregson, to get some tips.

This is a woman who was asked by Muhammad Ali to affirm he was the sexiest person she had ever seen; someone who was so star-struck during an interview with Bob Dylan that she forgot the golden rule of listening; and a professional who found that even as she talked to him in jail serving his sentence for the Great Train Robbery, she was not immune to the charm of Ronnie Biggs.

Julia Gregson has had a career many could only ever dream of and yet, at the age of 61 she is still not ready to slow down. “I love the feeling of being gathered up and working on as many cylinders as possible,” she says. Having worked as a journalist since her mid-20s, Julia has recently branched out into novels.

In what could be described as a second career, Julia is finding out how different types of writing require a unique approach. While working on a novel she aims to write 1,000 words a day but will also “tinker” with what she has written the day before in what she calls a “warm-up exercise”. 

She compares a novel to a patchwork quilt; in the progress of fitting it together she draws ideas from various life experiences. And this is why Julia feels writing novels at a later stage in life can be more rewarding, “It’s much sweeter at my age. For me I could not have written a novel in my 20s, I did not have the discipline, self-belief or even the desire if I am honest.” 

Confidence is a theme she returns to time and again and is something she has developed with age. “Every time I have tried to take the next step I have had this sort of period of thinking ‘I cannot do this’. There’s always a mental block with me that has to be overcome. 

“There’s something about going through the process over and over again and learning what your own weaknesses are… It’s like a muscle you have learned to work, the more you do it the more instinctive it becomes.” 

Julia also feels better equipped to deal with the finer aspects of success now she is in her 60s, “It can be awfully overwhelming, suddenly everybody is being so nice to you. If it had happened at a younger age then I might have taken it too literally and expected it to always be like that.” 

Being older makes her wiser, and contrary to what you would expect Julia does not feel an overwhelming pressure to improve on the success of East of the Sun – the novel which won her the award. “The success of my last book has given me more confidence to keep going and to know that if I go through the process something will happen at the other end.”

 This is a clear example of how her journey as writer has developed alongside her journey as an individual. Not for a moment does Julia regret spending her formative years as a journalist. She acknowledges that had she started on novels earlier she might have greater literary notoriety by now but explains, “I loved being a journalist and would not have enjoyed such a solitary life in the early years.”

 And she did, of course, learn some transferable skills: the knowledge of what makes a good story, “It is like a prickling in your scalp and you know you are prepared to spend the time on it,” she says. Equally important is to write on topics that interest her, “If I was to try and write a book about middle-aged women going through marital angst it would not consume me.”

 But while it may sound pedantic, for those starting out, Julia advises one simple step: to write. She feels the worst trap can be thinking that everything you write must be deep and meaningful. “Sit down every morning and just write for 20 minutes about anything. It can be absolute rubbish… then piece together the bits where you feel excited about it.”

 Similarly she cautions against writing groups as she feels it can be destructive in the early stages of a piece. Instead, she favours a group of writer friends which she uses as a support network. “None of us share our work in progress… we get together and moan a lot, encourage and occasionally bully each other.”

 Her latest book, Jasmine Nights is due out in of August next year and it would seem even those with experience are not immune to the odd computer related pitfall, “I lost about 3,000 words in a computer error yesterday and I almost had a heart attack.”

 Above all she advocates writing with passion, “It’s an addiction. For me I feel my most alive when I am writing.” So with her final piece of advice Julia Gregson, a natural story-teller, leaves the room and I am left with an overriding compulsion to write. I better get cracking.

Last week media forums, social networking sites and blogs were filled with posts by angry individuals wanting to know why the identity of Baby P’s mother and her boyfriend could not be shared with society. Following this, there were posts naming and shaming the adults involved in this horrific case of child abuse.

Clearly, the Great British public are not aware of the legal ramifications of these actions. As far as they are concerned the mother of Baby P and her boyfriend should have no right to protection by the media. To the majority of society, the publication of their identity is deemed acceptable and perhaps even desirable.

Shane Richmond, Community Editor at Telegraph.co.uk, is familiar with the problem of moderating online content. In a lecture discussing online communities last week, he talked of how difficult it was to keep an eye on the flow of information being put on My Telegraph each day.

He said part of the problem stems from the fact Telegraph readers do not see themselves as bloggers. They use the forum as a way of talking to other Telegraph readers, people who have similar interests and viewpoints. It is likely then, these bloggers do not realise what they are publishing may have considerably graver implications than a conversation with a friend.

In the UK, contempt of court laws are in place to prevent jury members from becoming prejudiced towards a defendant prior to or during a trial. Professor Duncan Bloy says:

“In the criminal justice system the assumption is that the jury is the weakest link.”

This is particularly true in high profile cases which have received a lot of media coverage.

For this reason, the media is bound by the Contempt of Court Act (1981) to act responsibly in terms of what it publishes, especially in the run up to a trial. During the 2001 trial of Leeds’s footballers Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate, The Mirror acted outside such legal prescriptions. Their infringement of the law led to a retrial and the Sunday Mirror was found guilty of contempt of court.

Back to Baby P. What the British public do not realise is the last thing the media want to do is protect the perpetrators of such a heinous crime.

Journalists are obliged under law to adhere to reporting restrictions. If they do not, legal action can be taken against them or, more likely, their publication. By keeping in line with the judges’s order not to identify Baby P, his mother and her boyfriend, journalists are attempting to maintain the legal framework to ensure that any further trials, which may yet take place, are not abandoned.

The main worry is whether the contempt of court laws can survive the internet age and if so how? What is clear is the provisions are out of place in an era where people have instantaneous access to information and the means to distribute it worldwide. Earlier this week a woman was thrown off a jury for putting a poll on facebook which detailed the case she was sitting on and asked for advice on how she should act.

As Judith Townend points out, members of the public are uneducated about the laws and ethics of journalism and have no editorial controls to stop them publishing. Meanwhile, professionals are restricted, and rightly so, by a code of conduct and the rule of law.

How will we reconcile this dichotomy: journalistic values of authority, autonomy and lack of bias, against community values of transparency and honesty? If we can’t then journalists may be faced with a conversation continuing without them.

One thing is for sure: the status quo cannot remain.

(Image courtesy of google images)
I have just been reading a copy of Paul Dacre’s speech from the Society of Editors conference online. The link was tweeted to me by one of my esteemed class mates lucky enough to hear it in person, ah the wonders of modern technology. So, following what Adam Tinworth said in our online lecture last week, I am going to blog about it and blog quickly, because tomorrow it won’t be news any more.

Whatever one thinks of the man personally, or about the paper he works for, it has to be said that many of the issues he covered and the way he covered them resonated with me:

  • “Today I worry that too many journalists write only for other journalists”

Despite the continually repeated adage of “know your reader,” have journalists become too insular and therefore isolated? Dacre says there are many columnists out there who have lost touch with who they are writing for. He says journalism is now populated by “a privileged elite of university graduates,” who do not know how, or perhaps do not want to know how, to connect with their reader.

This would seem to concur with what Peter Preston said in our Reporters and Reported lecture on Friday. He told us the national newspapers were now threatened by a proliferation of inexperienced journalists, who are way out their depth because they simply by-pass working for regionals. With regional newspapers in decline it has made it all the more tempting to leap frog that stepping-stone job. And what is the result? Out-of-touch and over-cocky young reporters who are lacking a crucial lesson in how to communicate with the public.

  • “…today, newspapers…think long and hard before contesting actions, even if they know they are in the right, for fear of the ruinous financial implications.”

Here Dacre is talking about an issue presented to Gordon Brown, with the aim of demonstrating the threat posed to freedom of speech if newspapers in Britain start to censor themselves for fear of going bust.

The Conditional Fee Arrangement (CFA) known to us law novices as “no win, no fee,” was originally passed by government in order to allow the less affluent in society fair access to the courts. In recent times, however, there has been a feeling that some lawyers and their firms are exploiting the arrangement to bleed newspapers close to dry.

Basically, if a newspaper (or indeed any publisher) is taken to court for libel and they decide to contest the charge, under CFA they will be liable to pay the extortionate fees of the prosecution lawyers if they lose. If, on the other hand, the newspaper wins the case, it can still often lose money since claimants may have After The Event insurance which protects them if they cannot afford to pay legal costs.

According to Dacre, all this legal clap trap is leading newspapers to settle out of court rather than face lengthy and financially devastating law suits. From here then, it is not too much of a leap to consider editors choosing to leave a scoop out altogether to avoid potential claims against them. This leaves us with quite the dent in the freedom of speech aspirations our country is supposed to endorse. Luckily, it would seem the government is planning to take action. We shall keep our fingers crossed.

  • “The real enemy, if you like, is within…why is the British newspaper industry so full of self-loathing?”

I found this to be the most interesting point made by Dacre. In a world where we are fighting our way through a perfect storm with one hand, we steadily undermine ourselves with a “drip, drip, drip of self denigration” in the other. What does Dacre mean by this? Essentially, he is referring to certain portions of the British press who make it their main-stay to look on other publications with disdain and to lament as a whole the state of British media.

In this sense, Dacre is worried there may be an element of self-prophesy. By writing, sneeringly, about the dumbing down of Britain and its newspapers, are certain journalists making matters worse?

I have no quick answer for this one. But the almost iconic status held by the Guardian among my journalism peers does worry me slightly. Not that I think it’s a bad paper, far from it. It’s more that I fear the narrow-mindedness of the next generation of journalists, carrying it as a banner of their integrity and intelligence…or could that read pretension?

29/11/2008

Here’s a sample of Dacre’s speech I found on you-tube. This was the most covered aspect of his speech in the national press:

Does what it says on the tin.
(Image Courtesy of google images)

‘Newspaper circulation continues to decline rapidly,’ When I read headlines like this one my first reaction is to smile smugly to myself, safe in the knowledge that I chose the right journalism option to study at Cardiff University. But then I read on. Alas, it’s not only in the land of the dailies people are losing their jobs and reporters are being spread as thinly as a dieter’s low fat spread on their 31 calorie crispbread.

Furthermore, it’s not just the lowly juniors losing their jobs: the fat cats, well established in their roles, are also being thrown overboard as sales figures plummet and even the grandest of ships rock to and fro in the stormy seas of the magazine market.

So now I’ve set you up with a suitably dramatic and gloomy picture, how shall I turn this around? Because if I can’t, I might as well give up now and high-tail it back to Scotland where I can settle down with the local Laird and in ten years time look back and laugh at my days trying to pursue a career in journalism.
But some how that’s not really me, so here goes:

For one thing, if you are the type to turn and run at the first hint of a challenge I would hazard that you are not cut out for journalism. How many times as a journalist are you going to have to push that extra little bit to get the information you want? In such instances you wouldn’t think to yourself, “Oh Damn I didn’t get the quote or angle I was looking for, never mind I’ll just go back to the office for a cup of tea and a slice of Battenburg,” would you?

Two years ago if Barack Obama had decided the presidential race was too much of a struggle and thrown in the towel, then today we wouldn’t have the joy of celebrating the demise of the neo-conservatives in America after eight years in office.

But now he has been voted as the next Commander in Chief, Obama should expect challenges which are arguably bigger than those faced by previous men holding the reins. This Times article provides a great summary of the changing role of America in international relations and the reality of the situation Obama is now confronted with. In another medium, this cartoon from tabtoons@telus.net illustrates the enormity of what President Bush is passing on to the Democrats.

Again, Obama is unlikely to look at this challenge, think “sod this for a game of soldiers” and run back to Illinois with his tail between his legs.

Similarly then, when faced with a competitive job market, you would be foolish to see the glass as half empty when you could see it as half full. It may be a daunting time to become a journalist but I find that to be part of the draw. To an extent, all journalists are egoists; we like what we write and we like others to read it and like it as well.

In some ways then, the current clime may be even better for massaging those egos. At least if you get a job you know you must be pretty damn good. Which leads me to my final point: what should we do to stop ourselves from trembling at the knees in the face of all the doom and gloom prophesising about the world of journalism? Be pretty damn good. Embrace change and change with it and I fail to see how you can be left behind.