‘I thought arts could change the world. I now find journalism has much more impact’
Carole Cadwalladr and Peter Jukes switched from fiction to nonfiction to ‘grapple with the real’
Carole Cadwalladr attends a screening of the documentary The Great Hack at London’s Science Museum in July. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images
Recent criticism of Colm Tóibín for his disavowal of thrillers – “I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them” – masks a public turning away from fiction in general, with severe sales slumps for fiction recorded in the publishing market.
The UK Publishers Association reports fiction sales dropping by a quarter over the last five years, ditto the Association of American Publishers. A key reason given, alongside the competition from screens, is that “readers want non-fiction”.
“We have become a talking head society,” says Publishers Weekly in the US. In the UK nonfiction is seeing sales rising by almost 10 per cent per year.
The problem with fiction is that it’s fictional. In a period in which radical change is happening at unprecedented speed it is hardly surprising that attention focuses on the seemingly real.
As George Orwell wrote in the 1940s piece The Frontiers of Literature, it seems we are again “living in a world in which not only one’s life but one’s whole scheme of values is constantly menaced. In such circumstances detachment is not possible.”
And it’s even more complicated now: we may be becoming a talking head society, but it happens within the context of the society of the spectacle, brought to us latterly by tech-giant monopolies, Twitter, Facebook etc, for our instantaneous gratification, and targeted to stir up our deepest anxieties.
Guy Debord’s 1960s prognosis (Society of the Spectacle) is our here and now: the spectacle supplants genuine activity, being not just a collection of images, “rather, it is a social relation among people, mediated by images”.
In what is being termed by media academics as the fourth great communications transition – after speech, writing and printing – we seem to have entered an age of upheaval. It is what calls upon us to attend to our attention, consider how it is being trained.
Role of the writer
What about the role of writers in all of this? Literature by definition being slow, the distillation of human experience into the novel or poem is highly challenged by the acceleration of time in the “it’s happening now” constant stream of the spectacle.
American poet Patricia Lockwood has taken soundings from “the communal mind of the internet”. In her London Review of Books lecture at The British Museum this year, Lockwood spoke of the motivation she felt to begin documenting her own participation in the “now happening” dialectic of Twitter. “I cared about the feeling that my thoughts were being dictated. I cared about the collective head, which seemed to be running a fever.”
Lockwood attempts to generate a literary form that can accommodate the stream of consciousness – pace of the collective head, at once so hilarious, stupid, insane, and ultimately, as she points out, “too ordinary”.
“She lay every morning under an avalanche of details, blissed: pictures of breakfasts in Patagonia, a girl applying foundation with a hardboiled egg, a shiba inu in Japan leaping from paw to paw to greet its owner, white women’s pictures of their bruises – the world pressing closer and closer, the spider web of human connection so thick it was almost a shimmering and solid silk.”
Lockwood captures irrationalities released to the four winds, but ultimately, ephemerality being both its message and its medium, the unleashing of poetic images remains shallow, untethered to anything significant, meaningful, of value. Twitter is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Except that the idiot has risen up to bite us, hard. “Every day,” Lockwood laments, “we were seeing new evidence that suggested it was the portal that had allowed the dictator to rise to power. This was humiliating. It would be like discovering that the Vietnam War was secretly caused by ham radios, or that Napoleon was operating exclusively on the advice of a parrot named Brian.”
The citizen investigator
The poet has taken the temperature of the fevered patient. Other writers seek the origins of the contagion. Carole Cadwalladr is one of these. Beginning as a novelist, Cadwalladr’s first novel, The Family Tree, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Authors Prize and was translated into five languages. She also wrote freelance features for various British newspapers. One of the positive outcomes of the net revolution is the democratisation of news gathering; the ease of dissemination empowers the citizen investigator.
As a freelance journalist, Cadwalladr began investigating what she called the “right-wing fake news ecosystem”. A series of articles was published by The Observer.
Following the Brexit referendum result, Cadwalladr’s diligence in wading through detail, connecting often obscured relationships between right-wing data mining companies and their billionaire owners, led to her discovery of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Her work exposed Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation of big data, harvesting information from 87 million Facebook users, without their knowledge or consent. Facebook was recently fined $5billion in the US following a year-long investigation into privacy breaches prompted by the scandal.
Crucial was Cambridge Analytica’s targeting of marginal groups of voters with Psyops – weapons-grade techniques used in warfare to activate underlying anxieties and effect mass sentiment change. “British democracy was subverted through a covert, far-reaching plan of co-ordination enabled by a US billionaire,” says Cadwalladr.
The phenomenon of high-tech-programmed info-wars lurking beneath the surface of social media communications, was revealed to our attention by a freelance writer honing her, relatively, low-tech craft. For this work Cadwalladr was awarded the 2018 Orwell Prize for Journalism and was a finalist for a 2019 Pulitzer Prize.
Wars of words are nothing new: propaganda is a time-honoured sideline of the ancient art of rhetoric and many great writers served apprenticeships in the school of persuasion – Orwell mentions Auden, Spender and MacNeice. Going back further it is Kipling, Hardy, Wells and Chesterton among others, doing a bit of “engineering of the soul”, as Stalin termed it. In the current society of the spectacle, the ubiquity and intimacy of “linguistic machines” in our daily existence, the internet as “the collective head,” and the way in which language has been turned into a utility – like gas or electricity – means that, as Cadwalladr writes, “Whoever owns the data owns the future.”
It seems therefore a crucial time for writers to grapple with the real. As Peter Jukes, another fiction writer turned journalist-investigator, puts it, “Who needs fictional dramas in the current climate?”
Jukes is linked to the Cadwalladr exposé on the Brexit info wars, combining his resources to maintain investigative heat on those involved. This year he set up Byline Times, an online and weekly tabloid investigative newspaper with a banner heading “what the papers don’t say”, which has served up major scoops.
Jukes has a distinguished background as a television and radio dramatist going back two decades. “I think I thought arts could change the world,” he says of his earlier self.
“I now find, at a political level, journalism has much more impact.”
If we have entered a golden age of investigative journalism, as Byline Times insists, then it’s ironic that Peter Jukes was a central witness to the shameful demise of the last one – the Murdoch press hacking scandal. Jukes crowdfunded his place at the News of the World hacking trial, blogging and tweeting from each day’s hearings, to the extent, he says, that he now has RSI thumbs. He also gathered a massive following and produced a bestselling book from the process.
If he finds resistance from established news outlets to his new brand of investigatory journalism – “everybody hates us, we’re doing well” – Jukes also sees the cultural field as just as combative, but in a more covert way. “Steve Bannon,” [a vice-president of Cambridge Analytica and former Trump campaign CEO and White House chief strategist] “recognised this early on – that culture is upstream from politics. Change the culture you change the politics”. (Witness Bannon’s staging of a much criticised BBC interview: sitting by a portion of a privately funded ‘Trump wall’ at the Mexican-US border just days before the El Paso mass shooting.)
The problem with rhetoric is that, for all its appeal, it’s not about truth. It is a reminder of the potency of good writing that the traditional skills of journalism can still bring down tech-Goliaths of the billion dollar cash reserves. Cadwalladr’s work alone has led to parliamentary hearings across the world, a tightening up of election laws, the end of Cambridge Analytica and a nasty, $5 billion dollar, headache for Facebook. A Netflix documentary, The Great Hack, released last month, is bringing her revelations to a wider audience. A measure of her success can be seen in the backlash she has experienced online, with misogynistic hate messages advocating violence against her coming from supposedly public service organisations such as Leave EU (endorsed by Nigel Farage and funded by Arron Banks).
Cadwalladr is now being sued for defamation by Arron Banks, “Brexit’s £8m Diamond Geezer” as he’s termed by The Times (following allegations leading to a National Crime Agency investigation). Suing individual journalists rather than the organisations publishing their work may be seen as an effective way of shutting down investigative journalism. The Guardian journalist Juliette Garside has written about the ways in which “the wealthy use our courts to neuter stories”.
She points to this tactic also being used against the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was assassinated in 2017. “At the time of her death 43 libel cases were pending against her, many from high-level politicians,” wrote Margaret Atwood in the Guardian.
In response to these court proceedings being taken against her by Arron Banks, Cadwalladr has set up a fundraiser on gofundit.com to finance her legal defence. The fund has so far raised over £250,000.
As a literary giant, George Orwell knew well the struggle involved for a writer in fusing “political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole”. For Orwell, writing in the latter half of the 1940s, the writer keeping out of politics was not an option. For him, the job was “to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us”.
Orwell’s prescience in his last book, Nineteen Eighty Four, seems uncanny in the daily unfolding of populisms and the underlying tech strategies that have made them possible. Ditto the systematic stripping of meaning from language in the service of creating false realities – fake news as a virtual war, social media sharing platforms such as You Tube creating “an eco-system of hate” (for profit) to envelop users, drawing them in through “the dictatorship of the like,” as rightwing activist Pedro D’Eyrot of Movimento Brazil Livre terms it in a New York Times report last month by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, How You Tube Radicalised Brazil.
In thinking about the role of writers and their writing in the present culture war, it is salutary to note that sales of Nineteen Eighty Four surged in the wake of the Trump election, ranking it in the top five of Amazon fiction sales. Although some suggested it should have been placed in the nonfiction category.
Fiona O’Connor is visiting lecturer in the School of Organisations, Economy and Society, University of Westminster, London