I was always encouraged to read and I’m lucky it came naturally. I would spend hours on my own in Woking library or the kids' poetry section of a Waterstones. I grew up surrounded by books – literally, the walls were covered in them and my mum loved them like people. Her battered, faded orange-covered copy of The Great Gatsby that she’d had as a student (and, she says, was responsible for a life-changing decision) was a thing of priceless treasure in our home. She’d take it from the bookshelf and show me and I’d read it again and again.
And there were the newspapers, spread out among cats and wine and cups of tea. Pages torn out, left on my bed, that I should read, as soon as I was old enough to. And the message was always there, as militant as the message of not talking to strangers or looking both ways when crossing the road: reading and, crucially, learning through reading was essential.
If journalism was a person, they’d be lying on an expensive psychoanalyst’s couch in New York, wondering how they got here
So, I guess it’s not that surprising that I’ve ended up trying to make a living out of writing about things that I’ve read. But what a peculiar time to be doing so.
A few weeks ago, I came across an op-ed piece in The New York Times, which read like an existential crisis: if journalism was a person, they’d be lying on an expensive psychoanalyst’s couch in New York, wondering how they got here. The piece was titled Journalism, Lies and Objectivity and it explored the blurred, yet crucial, lines between “lie” and “untruth” . In our world of fake news, a president who permanently contradicts himself and a growing population who choose to believe what they want, rather than what is factually correct, is it any surprise that some of the most credible news organisations in the world are reestablishing what constitutes news, truth and objectivity? So extreme is the election of Donald Trump as president it very much feels like we’re questioning everything we once took for granted.
And our British press – the parts of it that claim to be not fake (true? Honest? Accurate?) – is trying to get a hold on this, too. The BBC has set up a desk to flag fake news. Channel 4 has announced an entire week of programming on the subject. Very quickly, fake news has gone from an escaped lion during the London riots – which, more acutely, was a rumour – to propaganda. Hillary Clinton is alleged to have freed rapists and been associated with paedophile rings, if you are to believe everything you read.
And that is no doubt why Obama issued such a stark warning in his final press conference last week. Addressing the press and their role in covering his presidency, he said, “You’re not meant be to sycophants; you’re supposed to be skeptics […] And having you in this building has helped this place work better […] America needs you and our democracy needs you.” (This, of course, comes in sharp contrast to Donald Trump shutting down a CNN reporter.) Not only are we facing a president who refuses to talk to the press if they are too critical, but we have a press with a deathly infection: a spreading disease of dangerous lies.
If you work in print publishing, you’ll know the feeling of a sinking ship – there are mass redundancies, title closures, disappearing budgets, local news all but gone and newspapers feeling like gramophones next to apps and Facebook Live and YouTubers. And yet, suddenly, news journalists – the ones who investigate, interrogate, ask difficult questions, relay facts, not rage, who report, without bias, who aren’t afraid to tell stories that aren’t popular and stories that threaten the popular – must come forward. Behind the buzzy glow of internet listicles and viral rants and “influencers” and jabbering, meaningless podcasts, journalists – the ones we might have thought were a thing of the past – must take centre stage once more.
And you know what that means? We must read it. What have you read today? (Hopefully, you’re still reading this.) But did you read past the headline? Past the tweet? Did you start to read something on Facebook, but got a bit distracted by that gif of a cat dressed as a dog? Well, maybe you did, because I sure as hell know I have done all those things – I’m guilty of reading a newspaper as quickly as I scan a Twitter feed, glancing over headlines, collecting snippets, keywords. Do I pore over every word? Do I seek out contradicting opinions? Occasionally, but not as often as I should – as we all should.
This isn’t about reading War And Peace or every single thing published in every single newspaper. We can’t do that (and, besides, there’s far too much amazing fan fiction in the world for that). But this is about choosing to read things that are reliable, objective, interrogating, probing. This is about reading things thoroughly and arming ourselves with knowledge and understanding. This is about taking a very real responsibility to know what’s happening – and not just retweet someone else’s unfounded accusation, but to dig a bit deeper. By reading, we keep journalism going and, like Meryl Streep (America’s actual First Lady, if you ask me) said of the press in her dazzling Golden Globes speech, “We’re going to need them.”
Reading was something that I was equipped with to get through life, whether I’d had a knockback or was heartbroken, or whether I wanted to know what was happening around me. It opened my eyes and it sent me down a journey I’m still on.
Yet, now, today, on the first day of the 45th president of United States, reading journalism that tries – even if it fails, but at least tries – to tell the truth is more essential than ever.