Praxis Makes Perfect: Gary Younge
Professor of Sociology and award-winning journalist Gary Younge has plenty to teach us about solidarity, identity politics, and that in activism, no energy is ever wasted.
Regular Praxis Makes Perfect readers will know I have so far introduced each interview with the same joke. It’s really clever and funny of me, but just amending the gif caption each time to ensure you know that has kind of run its course, so this week I’m going even more meta and screenshotting it instead:
The ending bit of that intro paragraph is: “Begin by getting to know the people already doing the work, and following their lead. This will help you find your lane.”
And who better to follow than Gary Younge, multi-award-winning journalist, author, three-time Honorary Doctorate recipient, and now Professor of Sociology at Manchester University.
He’s also a Type Media Fellow (alongside last week’s Praxis interviewee Sarah Jaffe), the gold-standard accolade for progressive journalists who are making an impact on the world.
Among his numerous awards are: the Society of Editors 2018 Broadsheet Feature Writer of the year for a year-long series on knife crime, naming his “brilliant in-depth journalism that told a familiar story in a new way [and] had a real impact"; the 2016 Sanford St. Martin Trust Radio Award for his BBC documentary on gay marriage in the evangelical community; the 2015 David Nyhan Prize for political journalism from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center (“It’s the powerless on whose behalf he writes,” said the Center’s director); and the 2009 James Cameron award for the “combined moral vision and professional integrity” of his coverage of the Obama campaign. From 2001 to 2003 he won Best Newspaper Journalist in Britain’s Ethnic Minority Media Awards three years in a row.
And just this week, he was named a ‘Member of Honour’ by the NUJ.
(Interview edited for brevity and clarity.)
Introduce yourself however you wish!
My name is Gary Younge, I’m currently Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester.
Give a brief overview of your career.
I was previously at The Guardian for 26 years, in various guises. Reporter, Assistant Foreign Editor, Feature Writer, Columnist, US Correspondent for 12 years, and most recently, editor-at-large. I’m an editorial board member of The Nation magazine in America, and a Type Media Fellow. And now that I'm a professor, I write for GQ, The FT, New York Review of Books, and whoever will have me.
Your writing appears to me to be a mixture of reports and features. Do you have a typical method for sourcing and crafting stories? Is there a typical day?
Well, I guess now I don't have a typical day, because I'm not a full-time journalist anymore. When I was, mostly I would do columns so it's really a typical week. When I had time I would go somewhere and introduce some reportage, that's how I started doing my column but it became more difficult once I had kids. I’d apply what I'd seen to what I was thinking, and what I made of what I saw. If there was a general MO, I would be trying to analyse and sometimes polemicise what I saw, so commentary on reportage.
The other element of it - it’s not like I invented this stuff - but I would try and go places where other people weren't. So, on election night in 2008 most journalists were in Grant Park where Obama was enjoying his victory, and I was in a bar on the South Side of Chicago with African Americans. In 2016 I spent the whole election in Muncie, Indiana, which wasn't in a swing state at all. I figure if lots of other people are there, then what can you add?
Why Muncie, Indiana?
Two reasons: I thought the election was about insurrection, and in Delaware County where Muncie is, Democrats had voted for Sanders and Republicans had voted for Trump. So, both of them fitted that electorally insurrectionary state. And also, Muncie was the subject of a famous sociological survey called Middletown, where two sociologists stayed there for a year or two and wrote about the workings of it as a quite typical American town. And so it achieved this status of being the ‘archetype’ of America.
Do you consider yourself to be an activist?
What are the end goals for your activism?
Change. Progressive change, and my personal freedom. I think you're not fully free unless you're trying to engage with the world around you and make yourself and other people free.
Do you engage with any other forms of activism, other than your writing work?
I go on demonstrations, I speak at meetings and demonstrations, I would sometimes write for free for left-wing magazines, and so on. I don't do an awful lot of organising now, but I was the chairman of the chapel at The Guardian so I was an active trade union member.
You contributed an essay to Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian, which I was lucky enough to review. I felt you were the person to make it clearest that The Guardian doesn't claim to be a left-wing paper, and so there's an ambiguity to holding it to that standard. To what extent do you find leftist critique of The Guardian useful?
I think it's perfectly legitimate to criticise The Guardian or any other outlet for the things they do and don't do. That doesn't mean that all criticisms are legitimate, but it's perfectly legitimate to say ‘you've got that wrong’; they got their facts wrong or their account of something was partial. I think it's problematic to complain about The Guardian not being left-wing when it never has been unless you're gonna define that in relational terms.
So, it is the most left-wing newspaper - with the exception of the Morning Star, arguably - the most left-wing mainstream newspaper, so to that extent it is left-wing. It's also determinedly liberal in its constitution, and it's actually quite conservative in its liberalism: it’s owned by a trust which says you have to carry on as heretofore so unless you're going to define what you're wanting it to do… it's one of those things where you can say, well, yes, there were lots of flaws with their reporting on Corbyn, AND it was the most left-wing. I don't think any paper was fairer, maybe The Mirror, maybe, but I don't think any mainstream paper was fairer.
Now that may not be enough, it’s not enough, but it’s also true. It's perfectly fine for Diane Abbott to criticise The Guardian for all the things it did, which she has, but it’s also useful to know that no other paper published more of her articles. She wrote for no other paper more than she did The Guardian and therein lies the contradiction. I don't think anybody has to be happy about that but you just have to recognise it for what it is.
You wrote about some of the racism that you experienced working at The Guardian; did you also find any sense of hostility there as someone who was left-wing?
I mean, first of all, the racism I experienced, which I explained was extremely benign given the racism I've experienced anywhere else… Similarly, not hostility exactly - first of all for 12 years I wasn't even there, I was in America - but for most of my time there, it was indulged. I think it became an issue, and there were moments where people were abrasive. When its liberalism was tested, which really wasn't until the Corbyn moment because then it wasn't just something to indulge, right? It was something that was real in the world - in the same way that Corbyn was indulged actually, people were like go on then, bless you, you want to stand, yeah, have a go. In that period where Corbyn was around, there were far more testy conversations.
It was really most elucidated outside of The Guardian, to be honest, that was where you got a sense that not to trash Corbyn was to risk your reputation. I had severe reservations about Corbyn’s candidacy because there was no movement to sustain him and I wasn't convinced that the Labour Party was fit for purpose. And I'm not a member of the Labour Party, I wasn't paid up, I was skeptical about his prospects for victory. But just not to trash him was enough to risk your reputation. It was clear that in the fetid ecosystem of journalists this would count you out of polite company.
Not the done thing?
Not the done thing, not a cool thing, you've gone too far, this was all very nice and cute but now you've gone too far. How could you justify this, how could you justify that… I was occasionally called on to answer for Corbyn: why has he done this? I dunno - ask him! What would Corbyn say about this? How would I know? I've met the guy, like, twice.
There have been waves of layoffs in journalism, especially in the last few years. The Cairncross Review in 2019 talked about the need for distinct change as a result of the “market failure” of the press. The review was mainly concerned with bigger mainstream outlets and I felt they didn't take into account smaller online outlets that certainly, for people of my age, are just as important as the BBC in the news ecosystem. Do you have any predictions for the future of the journalism landscape over the next decade? I know that's a big question, by the way.
Yeah, and I think I've got a short answer - no I don't. I remember coming back [from living in the US] in 2015 to a kind of quasi-managerial position - no budget, no staff, but in some meetings - and seeing things I didn't know existed like the shift to programmatic advertising. It used to be that ads were sold, a bit like Mad Men - there would be meetings and you'd want to attach yourself to a brand and there were calculations about where it would go and brands will be thinking: yes, we would like to be associated with The Guardian. Whereas now, because a lot of it takes place online, it can just be eyeballs. So it can be done algorithmically: where can I find young men between the ages of 22 and 30 of a certain socio-economic class, or in a place, or whatever. And then you find that’s Yahoo Mail. And then you get rid of all the lunches and all the ad execs and all of that stuff. But you lose something; that's how you end up with fancy car ads on jihadi and neo-Nazi websites because there are lots of young men there, some of whom have disposable income.
And so that drove the price of advertising down. The shift to mobile was much faster than anybody thought it would be; it’s much harder to monetize on mobile; ad blockers; all of that escalated within about three months, and totally changed the landscape. Most of these things I'd never fucking heard of. I'd heard of mobile phones but I didn't know what they did to revenue. So the technology is moving so fast, and the industry is moving so fast. It's not possible. It's not plausible for me, or maybe anyone to really know how it's gonna turn out.
What I would say to my centrist colleagues about Corbyn was: if you saw Brexit coming, if you saw Trump coming, if you saw Scotland doing what it’s doing now, then you get to talk about the next five years. But if you didn't see any of that why would you think you can predict what's going to happen in the next five years? That's what I think about journalism, really.
Your latest article is about Starmer’s failure to launch. I know you said you're not a paid-up member of the Labour Party, but do you think continuing to support the Labour Party is an effective way of making change anymore?
It depends on what you mean by support. I mean, vote for, yeah, in a first past the post system it's very difficult to know what else to do at the moment. In terms of throwing one's weight into it… I've never been convinced, well, I was a member until about ‘92/’93, and I wasn't even that convinced at that time.
When I was a member I spent most of my year fighting centrist Labour people. Not Nazis or Tories. Some of it’s recorded because I was on the national executive of Labour students and I was the first lefty to get there for 300 years or something. And so they were absolutely horrible to me and in the end, the Labour Party hierarchy had to wade in because Black sections waded in, and it became a bit of a thing. The Times Educational Supplement wrote a couple of things about it. I mean it was years ago… it’s the only social democratic party that we have, electorally. I'm not hostile to it, but I definitely think it's worth considering whether the four years that were spent on the Corbyn project produced the results that we want.
I raised this with a colleague at the time, when it was clear that he was going to be elected, and they said: “the battle is joined”. This is where we are, and I thought yeah, fair enough. You don't choose one's terrain completely. But there's more to socialism than Labour, and there's less to Labour than socialism, so I think that it's worth a profound conversation. Ultimately, I'm not so completely sure it matters, I think you can be in it or you can be out of it, it depends what else you're doing. I remember interviewing Tony Benn before the Iraq war, I think it was 2001, people were writing to him saying ‘I'm ripping up my Labour Party card’. And he said ‘well congratulations, but what else are you doing?’ I think that is true whether you are in the party or whether you're not.
Your book, Who Are We? explores identity politics and you’ve shared some very useful insights on ‘idpol’, for example in your recent interview with the Race Equality Network. It's been derided by both the left and right at different times, and my thinking is that it is necessary and useful but not without those clear aims and actions - which is exactly what this newsletter is about. There is an interesting tension I find as a writer: it’s all well and good to talk about these things, which is my job as a communicator, but is it redundant without any other work towards goals and campaigns?
Well, those goals and campaigns come from a level of introspection and understanding. There are ways in which it is completely counterproductive to talk about it, whether it's in journalism or not. I just did a Radio 4 documentary about passing, and race and colour - interestingly, they asked me to put a conclusion at the end. I don't think there is a conclusion, I don't think that's what we're doing here. It’s a kind of exploration, and I think these things are constantly worthy of exploration.
That exploration does need an end, you can't just explore in a kind of completely futile manner. And different people have different ends and some of those ends are lacking but it's not necessarily going to be apparent in each exploration what the end is. So, I think that race, gender, sexual orientation; these are intellectual pursuits in themselves, and then, I believe as a socialist and activist that there are goals I would like to see come out of them. So, I personally am not very interested in race beyond its capacity to radicalise and cohere, and be part of a broader coalition. But you won't always see that in every piece of work that I do, because that's just not how it works.
What other organisations or journalists do you think are doing the most important work currently?
That's really difficult… I'm sure I will miss people out! As long as you write that I will miss people out and I apologise to all of them.
Aditya Chakrabortty is doing very important stuff. George Monbiot is always doing important things. I think Ash Sarkar does really important work. Owen Jones can do really important work. You see that I'm not straying very far from my very limited comfort zone. This is kind of incriminating… Naomi Klein is very important. Nesrine Malik. In the words of Julie Andrews, these are a few of my favourite things. And Frances Ryan!
Do you have any guidance for young people coming up into organising or activism?
There is so much to do, and there is no single movement. I mean that was the convenient thing about Corbyn, there was a kind of funnel but the funnel was into an inadequate vessel, which was Labour. If this doesn't sound too flaky: be active and militant in the world that is most relevant to you, wherever that world is, if it's your local community, if it's your Student Union, women's group, your Black Lives Matter organisation. It's not like we have an excess of active militant people, and therefore wherever you choose to sit and is the most relevant to you, you will be of use.
What I would say about the previous five years and Corbyn is, while I wonder about how productive it was, no energy is ever lost and things were learned. There are things that people can't say with a straight face now, there are ways of understanding British politics and electoralism that are different now as a result of that. And so it wasn't a waste of time. We marched against the Iraq war; we didn't stop the Iraq war, but we probably stopped other wars. And so the counterfactuals are always important, even if, by definition, they don't exist. So, be active and militant in the world that's most relevant.
Thanks to Gary for taking the time to answer my questions - what world can you be most active in? What organisations exist that you can join? Find out!
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Another insightful and inspiring interview. Thanks for putting this together Liz.