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Please put the can-i-write-for-evil-publications discourse to bed

Do what you want, but live with the choices you make

19 Feb 2021

My dad had a saying I never really understood when I was younger. “You can have a bowl of delicious soup,” he’d tell me in broken Russian, “but if you put a piece of shit in it, it will become a bowl of shit.” It’s taken this godforsaken debate about whether it’s ok to write for ‘evil’ publications to finally understand what he meant. If you’re a journalist with good intentions but go off to work for a newspaper which contradicts your morals entirely and perpetuates harm to marginalised communities, those lack of morals will contaminate everything you do.

Look, I don’t really want to be writing this. And I’m sure you’ve seen this exhausting discourse come up a thousand times, in a thousand different ways. But I promise this is the last time we’ll ever talk about it, because the conversation about whether it’s ethical for ‘progressives’ to exist in right-wing newsrooms, has to stop once and for all.

A magazine editor recently tweeted that she wouldn’t want to work with people who have a Daily Mail byline in their introductory email. Which seems like a fairly innocuous position, right? No one was being oppressed or discriminated against. This one journalist just happened to say she doesn’t want to work with people who proudly flaunt their right-wing bylines, because that directly contradicts with her line of work.

But the huffing, mainly white, red-cheeked journalists were at the ready as soon as the tweet landed on their timelines. One person typed furiously: “An attitude like this won’t get you very far”, which is funny because the OP was already a commissioning editor. Another droned on about how some of the ‘best’ journalists they know have worked for the Daily Mail. And someone else asked if the journalists who “waged a 15-year campaign to bring Stephen Lawrence’s killers to justice, who have fought on FOI, cladding scandal, elderly care and the environment” were not good enough to work with. All to try and suggest that we shouldn’t judge journalists who write for nazi propagandists because of that one good article they wrote that one time. 

“In the five years leading up to the Brexit referendum, the Daily Mail published 122 front pages devoted to anti-migrant stories”

Yet the thing is, not everyone has the luxury of being able to ignore the bullshit the Daily Mail has produced since its inception. And it’s incredible that instead of questioning why so many feel strongly against the Mail, journalists are whining about not being able to write for right-wing rags. Sorry to be a spoilsport Sarah, but people are dying!

In case you forgot, let’s go over the damage these publications have inflicted towards vulnerable, marginalised people. Not only has the Daily Mail been accused of institutional racism by former staff, but it has consistently churned out headlines motivated by racism and xenophobia, telling readers that immigrants were “invading” Britain and that immigration was a crisis of unimaginable proportions. In the five years leading up to the Brexit referendum, the Daily Mail published 122 front pages devoted to anti-migrant stories, while the Daily Express ran with 179.

The Sun, the most widely circulated paper in the UK, used similar tactics to sell copies. The newspaper previously employed Katie Hopkins who called immigrants “cockroaches” and “feral humans”. Her columns were so awful, they were condemned by the UN, and the language was likened to some of Rwanda’s media organisations which incited hatred in the run up to the 1994 genocide. Then in 2017, a column by Trevor Kavanagh questioned how Britain should deal its “the Muslim problem”. 

“There are so many other ways you can get newsroom experience without selling your soul to pay the bills”

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the public scandals these cold, right-wing publications have been embroiled in. I haven’t even touched on the toxic culture wars, stigmatisation of mental health, the blatant sexism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia the papers have been accused of too – mainly because we don’t have all day.

But what about the people who apparently feel ‘forced’ to work in places they hate because journalism jobs are so sparse and ‘everyone has to start somewhere’? For many young journalists in a pandemic, it may be tempting to do some shifts at a right-wing tabloid, especially in an industry that’s so hard to break into. But I promise that it’s not the last resort. There are so many other ways you can get newsroom experience without selling your soul to pay the bills. Many who refuse to work at right-wing tabloids will take up non-journalism related jobs to sustain themselves until the more ethical opportunities come round. 

“Isn’t it a privilege to be able to choose your gigs?”, some will ask. Let me pose this question instead: is it not a privilege to work somewhere where you can hang your morals at the door and perpetuate dangerous rhetorics which don’t affect you? Whether it’s directly or indirectly, your labour helps prop up venomous misinformation machines endangering people’s lives. If that sits well with your soul, that’s a conscious choice you make every day and one you’ll have to live with.

“No one is stopping you from writing for the Daily Mail, but equally, no one is holding a gun against your head to do so”

When I was a more naive version of myself, I used to think I could change the questionable part of the journalism industry ‘from within’. I was wrong. And it took a lot of banging my head against a wall to realise this. But when you’re trying to alter, or even resist a fixed structure, change will very rarely happen (apart from you burning out). And FYI, the ‘BAME schemes’ right-wing newsrooms offer don’t counteract all the damage they inflict upon society, nor do they create safe spaces for the marginalised groups in the office. 

And what if you start off at a right-wing tabloid and then gain a conscience and want to move away from the work you’ve done previously while trying to secure new work? Everyone makes questionable choices and people are allowed to change their mind. I have a byline for a place I consider evil now, do I talk about it often? Hell no. Did I have my head screwed on right when I wrote for the publication? I was a teenager with an underdeveloped frontal lobe, of course I didn’t. But it hasn’t made me unemployable forever and it would be ridiculous to act like it has damaged my career trajectory. I just take responsibility for that choice and never talk about it, as it’s not at all relevant to my work now.

Ultimately, anything you do, you have to own it. No one is stopping you from writing for the Daily Mail, but equally, no one is holding a gun against your head to do so. The frustration lies in people’s hypocrisies as they try to find ridiculous excuses to justify working in the right-wing newsroom for quick cash. For those of us whose lives the Daily Mail actively ruins, there is simply no ethical justification.