Wednesday, 15 September 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, September 17 2004

I was supposed to spend last weekend decorating the hall, but I got sidetracked by reading Andrew Marr’s new book on journalism, My Trade. It’s an odd confection, part hilarious anecdote, part history, part “how to” guide. But it’s strangely addictive, not least because it contains some of the best sustained critical thinking by a practitioner that I’ve read for a long time on the state of British journalism.

Marr, currently the BBC’s political editor, has been consistently ribbed by Tribune in recent years because he was a bearded badge-wearing paper-selling Trot when he was a student at Cambridge University a quarter-of-a-century ago. (I think he was there at the same time as Martin Rowson, cartoonist and Tribune columnist, but I could be wrong.)

Now, I’m all for reminding the great-and-good of their youthful leftist foibles. I have enjoyed the recent spate of recycled anecdotes about Alan Milburn, in years gone by one of the mainstays of the Newcastle far-left bookshop Days of Hope (aka Haze of Dope), and Kim Howells, who might or might not take a sympathetic view of student occupations of campuses against top-up fees given his role in the famous Hornsey art-school sit-in in 1968.

But, hey, we all move on, and the real saddos today are the 40- and 50- and 60-somethings who have learned nothing in the past 20 or 30 years and are still peddling the same Leninist snake-oil — the Tariq Alis and George Galloways, the Andrew Murrays and Lindsay Germans.

By comparison, Marr’s journey — if not Milburn’s or Howells’s — has been one from darkness into light. These days, he is meticulous about keeping his politics to himself for professional reasons (just as he should be). But before he joined the BBC he was, both in his newspaper columns and in his book Ruling Britannia, published in 1995, an enthusiast for all the causes espoused by the thinking democratic left (or what remains of it): Europeanism, redistribution, the welfare state, devolution, proportional representation for the House of Commons, radical reform of the House of Lords.

Whatever, his new book has more than its fair share of moments. It is worth reading just for his hilarious account of his time at the helm of the Independent in the mid-1990s, which should be studied by every wannabe editor. He was pitched into it even though he had no experience as an editor since his school magazine. And he struggled from the start against almost impossible odds. His proprietors were clueless about the nature of the business they were running and, despite promises, cut his budgets (which meant job losses, which meant he lost it with the journalistic staff). Eventually he was sacked after one too many run-ins with the chief incompetent megalomaniac among his bosses, David Montgomery.

There’s also some well-told history here (albeit with a few sloppy factual mistakes). And some of Marr’s descriptions of how journalism works today are as good as any. But what’s best in My Trade is his take on the state of British journalism.

Like other left-of-centre practitioner-critics of the recent past — notably John Lloyd of the Financial Times and Martin Kettle of the Guardian — Marr is less than impressed by what he reads, hears and sees every day. He makes well directed swipes at the hackneyed emotionalism that has crept into every newspaper, the cult of celebrity and, particularly, the decline of reporting of politics and serious discussion of policy.

Unlike Lloyd and Kettle, however, Marr doesn’t consider that the problem is simply (or even largely) that journalists have been overcome by an all-pervading cynicism about the political class that renders them incapable of doing the job required of them in a democratic polity. Although he says that politcal journalists “have become too powerful, too much the interpreters” and that “the political story has become degraded”, he argues that the reasons “have as much to do with politics as with journalism”. The Labour government’s current troubles with the media are as much a deserved reaction to its strict news management regime as they are of hacks acquiring a permanent anti-politician sneer. “Central control and manipulation created, within a few years, some of the worst press coverage any government in modern times has suffered,” he writes of Alastair Campbell.

Marr identifies the real enemy as an “idle, office-bound, marketing-directed copycat culture in modern news which is turning off readers and viewers”. What journalism needs now, he says, is fewer columnists and more reporters getting out of the office and talking to real people. At the risk of giving Tribune’s new editor, Chris McLaughlin, a good excuse to get rid of me, amen to that.

Friday, 3 September 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, September 3 2004

Like every other leftie teenager of my generation I had that poster of Che stuck on my bedroom wall — in my case taking pride of place in a collage that included an International Socialists placard demanding “Defend the Portuguese workers’ revolution!”, some arty French shots of girls with not much on, bills for gigs I’d peeled off boards in town and assorted beer mats.

I was very proud of the overall effect, which I thought compared very well with the efforts of the Dadaist artist Kurt Schwitters, but my mum and dad redecorated the room when I went to university.

I protested, but to be honest by then I’d moved on. Most of the bands whose promotional materials I’d artfully arranged had become unfashionable with the arrival of punk, and I was no longer at all enamoured of the International Socialists, who had become the Socialist Workers Party and chucked me out. But I was particularly embarassed by the poster of Che, based on Alexander Korda’s famous photograph of him taken in 1960.

I know the image is always talked about reverentially by media studies types as iconic and everlasting — but in late-1970s Britain it became about as cool as flared trousers, for one simple reason: Wolfie Smith, the ludicrous bedsit revolutionary in the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith, who looked just like the Che in the poster. Wolfie, played by Robert Lindsay, was, to put it mildly, not the sort of character any serious (or fashion-conscious) socialist would ever wish to emulate, particularly if he had younger sisters.

More seriously, I’d also started to have big doubts about Guevara’s politics. When I put the poster up, I hadn’t known a lot about him. I knew he’d been a guerrilla leader with Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution, and I knew he’d subsequently worked tirelessly to foment revolution elsewhere and had been killed while leading an armed guerrilla uprising in Bolivia in 1967. All very romantic. But that was about it.

As I read more about the Cuban revolution and Latin America in the 1960s and the 1970s, however, it became clear that Che wasn’t quite the revolutionary hero I’d assumed him to be. Yes, he was personally courageous, single-minded and ascetic. But the guerrilla strategy he expounded and epitomised had been a miserable failure everywhere in Latin America except Cuba — and was roundly (and convincingly) condemned as suicidal adventurism by most thinking Latin American leftists.

Worse, Guevara, from the mid-1950s until his death, was an out-and-out dogmatic Stalinist — show trials, gulag and all — who was such an admirer of the Soviet dictator that he insisted on putting flowers on his tomb when he visited Moscow in 1960, fully four years after Khruschev’s “secret speech”.

If this Stalinism had simply been a matter of opinion with no effect on others, it might have been forgivable. But Guevara put his worldview into brutal practice. As a senior figure in Castro’s administration, he played a leading role in creating a single-party police state, throwing opponents into jail and banning free trade unions. And although he broke with Moscow in 1964, it was not because he had given up on Stalinism but because he thought the Soviet leadership was, unlike his hero Stalin, insufficiently committed to world revolution and crumbling in the face of petty-bourgeois deviationism.

And so it was, 25 years ago, that I came to the conclusion that Guevara was even less of a role-model than Wolfie Smith. Big deal, you might well think, but this rambling reminiscence does have some contemporary relevance. It was brought on by seeing The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles’s movie about Guevara’s trip around Latin America in 1952 with his friend Alberto Granado on a battered Norton motorbike, long before he became a Stalinist.

I loved the film: it’s not quite in the class of Kings of the Road or Easy Rider or Thelma and Louise, but it’s an accomplished cinematic spectacle, as good a road movie as I’ve seen for a long time. One of the main reasons it works so well is that it doesn’t preach politics — all we see is the young Che and his mate coming up against appalling poverty and squalor and, well, being moved to do something about it.

Paradoxically, however, this is also the film’s greatest failing. What matters most about Guevara as a real historical figure is not that he was horrified by poverty and exploitation and decided to “do something” but that (after a brief flirtation with Gandhianism) he specifically and tragically chose the dead-end of armed struggle Stalinism as his mode of action — rather than, say, trade union organising or reformist democratic socialism.

It’s difficult to see how The Motorcycle Diaries could have gone into any of this and kept its coherence as a film, but the effect of its keeping the politics vague is to breathe new life into a myth that should have been buried long ago.