New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Password:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:
 
 
High Profile

Northern Soul

Roland Howard

The economics editor of Channel 4 News is that rarity, a front-rank journalist who lets his feelings show. Third Way met Paul Mason at the offices of his publisher in the Strand.

Northern Soul

Your journalism is unusually committed and it is clear that you care a lot about the issues you report on. Where do you think that passion comes from?

D'you know what, it is so deeply ingrained in who I am, I've never thought about the source of it. I grew up in a household that was very passionate - my mum about social justice, my dad about socialism - and I suppose I inherited it from them. I would see my dad at a rugby league match in the early Seventies standing up and be­rating the entire terrace for being racist towards a player. If I could summon that level of passion now, I'd be in the big league!

 

As an 'elite' commentator on politics and economics, your background is unusual. You're a northerner, for one thing (and, I understand, a lover of Northern Soul) -

Well, Northern Soul was a sociological fact of my life. The music I am the most engaged with is Wagner, Mah­ler, early Schoen­berg, Frank Bridge, Debussy, Delius. Delius said that one bar of sincerely felt music is worth more than all of Beethoven, and that's what makes me love late Romanticism.

 

So, your first career was as a professional musician. You also used to be a Communist agitator -

Trotskyist agitator. I would never have described my­self as a Communist.

 

How has that background shaped your journalism?

I suppose I don't find the truth abrasive.

In my twenties, I was writing quasi-atonal music, and writing music in­volves digging things out of yourself. I still like some of the music I wrote, but nobody else did and you have to face that truth. I didn't realise until I moved to journalism that there was something I was good at. But quite a lot of the official discourse in society is dedicated to ob­scuring - obscuring - the truth.

I didn't plan to be a TV journalist. I became one at the age of 40, having been a business print journalist for 10 years - and very engaged with the left for 20 years. The day I joined the BBC, I had to sign this thing saying I wasn't going to engage in any political ac­tivity. Hav­ing thrown myself into things in the past, it was a big shock, really.

Obviously, you don't give your opinions up. There's a lot of rubbish talked by various bigwigs in BBC journalism about how they 'don't have any politics'. All that means is that the politics of the dinner tables of Chip­ping Norton becomes the default and you 'don't have any politics' because you assume that everybody thinks the same. It's rubbish, in other words.

A lot of the reviews of my new book1 are not about the book, they're about me. And it's not 'Why does this bloke have the temerity to write about new political and economic ideas?' It's effectively 'I just don't like him.' I've found it quite gratifying to read that, from every corner of the establishment and the elite press. It takes me to a kind of extra level on Super Mario.

 

That's like your dad pointing at the fans on the terrace.

They liked him in the end. I don't think these guys are ever going to like me.

 

Are you content now to be just an observer, or do you still have a political agenda?

I tell young journalists that the story you find is al­ways more interesting than the story you thought you were going to find. What you learn from the Orwells and the Hemingways, if you are prepared to learn from them, is the unflinching gaze at the truth.

I used to discuss this with my friend Martin Adler, a documentary film maker who's unfortunately dead now. In one of his films, On Patrol with Charlie Company [2004],2 there's a scene where some US Marines are try­ing to ar­rest an Iraqi they think is a terrorist and it turns into one of those ridiculous fist fights you get outside a pub when everybody's drunk. And Martin just follows it with his camera, for about five minutes: these poor, powerless Iraqis and Americans grappling with each other in the mud…

So, that's an example of what I think we're doing in journalism: we're just directing an unflinching gaze at the truth. We're not making propaganda, we're not ask­ing: 'What is the point of this? What is the moral?' We are just saying: 'This is what happens.'

 

All the same, your choice of what to direct your gaze at reflects a moral standpoint, doesn't it?

In broadcasting, you can never make individual choices - there's always a process of convincing the editors to send you to certain places, to do certain stories. You have to convince other people that your understanding of what's going on is plausible.

For example, I think that the truth is that there's a kind of economic elite destroying the world. They are happy to sit in their yachts and their Swiss chalets and espouse, in private, a very destructive and cynical view of the world; and then they employ public-relations people to say something different that makes them look good. I know that there's this - what [the US historian and philo­sopher of economic thought] Philip Mirowski calls the 'double truth' of the rich.3 I know, because I've got very good access at every level. I've been on the in­side with them, I've been in their boxes at the opera.

So, you start by acknowledging that truth and then move on from there to recording reality.

 

Does the fact that you're not part of the establishment free you from the constraints of 'acceptable' thinking?

You've described better than I could what I am trying to do. Look, I don't go out of my way to antagonise the establishment; it's just that the way it works is through a series of informal networks to which, if you do journalism the way I do, you are not invited. So, that's good. I don't want to be invited. So, what I then do is what I call 'scrum half' journalism. In rugby, the scrum half is a little bloke who is quite clever and can run fast, OK, and he has to stick next to a bunch of big guys to whom he is philosophic-ally disinclined - the forwards - and he has to persuade them to give him the ball so he can give it to the people to whom he is philosophically inclined: the backs. And that's what being a business and economics journalist is. I have to stick really close to the elite, the establishment, and when I walk into a room with them I have to get them to engage with me as an equal.

And many of them will. It doesn't involve any subterfuge - some veteran business journalists taught me how to do it. You've got to able to talk about what is on their minds, in an honest and truthful way, because they're surrounded by people who often won't do that. Journalists who move in that world can talk to the CEOs and the deputy CEOs and the finance people and can be quite blunt with them - and get them to be blunt back. And eventually the truth comes out.

Let me be clear: I'm not talking about investigating wrongdoing. I'm talking about finding out what is ac-tually happening. The banking crisis is a great example: how close did people come to going bust in 2008?

 

What were the formative influences in your childhood that made you the man you are today?

You know, I had a really happy childhood. I was a child of the Keynesian Sixties, and a working-class family that was on the up. My dad had two jobs; my mum was a trainee teacher, [in the period that was] the absolute zenith of liberal education.

She was bringing books of sociology into the family home and what is interesting, looking back, is that my dad, who had been very poor as a kid in the Thirties and had diseases of poverty his entire life, was actually discovering what it meant to be working-class through my mum's learning. His dad, who was a miner and a trade unionist who died of lung disease contracted in the coal mine, was right-wing, anti-Communist Labour. For him, solidarity came down to basic things like getting baths at the pithead.

 

You had a Catholic education, didn't you?

Yes, and I didn't like the way the priests operated with kids. This was nothing to do with sexual abuse, but just their general propensity to physical violence, to lying, to cant, to talking rubbish. By the time I turned up at Catholic grammar school, I wouldn't say I was already a rebel but I had pretty much decided I was an atheist. In fact, I've never believed in God - I have never even been an agnostic.

And then, of course, there were only two or three channels to watch on the TV, so you couldn't avoid the great eruption of radicalism in the world. I can very clearly remember seeing on a news bulletin the famous shot from Vietnam of a guy who's been napalmed stag-gering through the jungle on fire. I remember all the strikes of the early Seventies - my dad, as a lorry driv-er, being on a lot of wildcat strikes. I don't think I saw Ken Loach's film Cathy Come Home [in 1966], but I'm certain I saw his [1975] TV series 'Days of Hope'.

 

Given that background, how did you react to the triumph of capitalism in the Eighties?

Well, first of all I fought it. I was a political activist in the early Eighties, which means the Anti-Nazi League, the Irish hunger strike, the printers, the Miners' Strike. I was in Sheffield during the steel strike, on a picket line in 1980 - one of the first picket lines where riot police were deployed.

I fought it because I bought the left-wing politics, but I was also defending something that was important to me. You know, when you're at college, you go home at weekends and some people go back to leafy suburbs and you go back to this small mining and cotton town; and it's a great place, but then you begin to see what you described as 'the triumph of capitalism'. You could see it unfold in that town in the rise of the anti-social per-son. I don't mean by that the kind of person who des-erves an Asbo but simply the person who makes money by getting condemned food and selling it on a market stall, or sets up a contract cleaning company that does-n't pay wages or its debts. People like that, the wide boys and the duckers-and-divers, were so persona non grata in the world I grew up in, but the first thing Thatch-erism did was to empower them - and disempower the collective. You could not miss that human change.

[The 1996 TV drama series] Our Friends in the North described very well the moment when the working-class militant realises that his world has actually fallen apart. It was utterly depressing - though for quite some time, as long as the fight against incipient neoliberalism went on, there was a human counterweight, and it was never displayed better than during the Miners' Strike.

We had miners from Wales and Kent sleeping on our floor for weeks in the first three or four months of the strike. They were my grandad's type of people, but this time they had this combination of utter, utter selflessness and the right politics as well.

Actually, the dockers hung on long enough [to see] the next wave to come along. I remember the Liverpool dock strike in '1995-8 and a demo in Kennington Park, London: a bunch of people I'd never really seen before turned up, and it was the anarcho-syndicalist incipient anti-globalisation movement.

 

Were you confused or dismayed by the trajectory of economics, away from the ideas of John Maynard Keynes towards laissez-faire capitalism?

No, because Keynesianism didn't work. I mean, when I was in Sixth Form and at college in the mid-to-late Sev-enties, all you read was Marxist critiques of Keynes-ianism. And therefore I'm not nostalgic. I mean, I am nostalgic about the world where the working class im-posed a deal on the upper class - that deal was decency, collaboration, high wages and high social wellbeing -and I'm nostalgic in the full knowledge that it can't come back. But Keynesianism, no. Actually, many deep Keynesians believe that the 'Keynesian synthesis' that ran the post-war world wasn't Keynesianism.

The triumph of neoliberal economics actually un-folded in a series of stages, and one of the virtues of be-ing 55 years old - almost the only one - is to have seen it fall apart by stages. So, you know, in the late Seventies Thatcherism said that if you limited the money supply everything else would fall into place. And then Keith Joseph, who was Thatcher's ideologue, basically says: Monetarism is not enough, we have to overtly and pro-actively smash things up - the unions, welfare state, state-run industries.

Then you get to the mid Eighties and the Big Bang,' and then, you know, that's not enough, either, and now you need speculative finance. So, Thatcherism, which started as a way to empower grocers and farmers and car manufacturers, ends up absolutely destroying the world of the British grocer and farmer and car manu-facturer and subjecting it to global finance.

 

Your journalism connects the 'macro' with the 'micro. What does that say about you?

Well, I wouldn't describe it like that. I'd simply say that my journalistic brain has two halves. One half thinks in big chunks - so, in the book I'm coming up with a new theory of transition from capitalism to post-capitalism. The other half just goes into situations and understands that there's always a human aspect.

When I was in Gaza last year, obviously the main story was the war, but I'd always wanted to do an ana-tomy of a Gazan street. I'm not sure whether we ach-ieved this on film, but I saw a street I liked the look of -you know, less than a kilometre from a front line, with bangs going off in the background - and I persuaded my crew to work our way down it and work out who was who. And I [realised that it] was a stronghold of the Marxist [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], because I know what their sign is; and you think: There must be a dynamic there between the PFLP and Hamas, fighting together, overwriting each other's graffiti, red over green, green over red...

There's a lot of journalists who don't give a shit who the PFLP are, don't remember the Arab world when nationalism rather than Islam was in the ascendant, who would go: 'OK, I'll present this as a Hamas strong-hold.' But I want to go into the annoying, complicating detail that actually in this one, random street you've got Marxist fighters and you've got Islamist fighters.

 

Do you find it frustrating when you're trying to explain the complexities of macroeconomics to a public schooled by homilies by politicians about running a household budget or fixing the roof while the sun is shining?

No, I think you can always relate economics to people's experience. At a certain point household analogies and so on don't fit, but I think people do realise that. I mean, households have to balance the books, of course they do; but during the credit boom of pre-2008 I met loads of people from slightly dysfunctional families - friends of working-class friends - who knew from experience that you can actually stack up 20 grand on a credit card and get most of it written off. So, it's always possible to sort of de-ideologise these little homilies you get from the right.

 

Your debt to Marxism is clear. Have you taken anything from Christianity at all?

Well, the idea that people and organisations exist to do good in the world (and 'doing good' is mostly educated and well-off people doing things for uneducated and poor people) is pretty heavily ingrained into me by the Catholic social teaching, as well as by the quasi-Meth-odism of my grandad's generation.

When I was 16, though, I discovered - as you do -Eastern religions. I started teaching myself yoga from a book, and I got really interested in the ideas. I would never have called myself a Buddhist, but I was throw-ing into religious discussions in the Sixth Form what the priests labelled 'quietism'. It was just a fad for a year.

What I will say is that religion taught me to think in coherent ideological systems. And I care about the co-herence of systems. I cared about the fact that I thought that Catholicism was incoherent and I cared about the fact that Buddhism/Vedic Hinduism was quite coherent and could be a way you could live your life and brought you peace. And then I finally worked my way through - I think now mistakenly - to a set of ideologies we call 'Trotskyism', which basically sees class struggle as the route to a better society and understands that the state stands in the way; and that was coherent up to a point.

Of course, once the working-class world started to fall apart - leave aside the Soviet Union, because we were always heavily critical of the Soviet Union. You know, within months of the fall of Gorbachev [in '1991] I went to Russia to do crazy things like try and form left-wing trade unions. We were desperate to do that.

 

Do you still consider yourself a materialist in the Marxist sense?

If we ought to work for a better society, what are those ideas of 'ought' and 'better' grounded in? I'm a historical materialist, in the sense that I think that Marx outlines a methodology that is (as we say in busi-ness now good enough. I believe that economic condi-tions create social structures that then create and shape - not everybody's ideas in a direct way but an ideologi-cal world in which people then struggle for truth.

I've done a lot of thinking about the proposition put forward by Lenin's rival, Alexander Bogdanov, that Marxism should have moved on from the idea of dia-lectics to what we now think of as complexity. If I ever get time off for good behaviour, I might write up the thoughts I've had about it.

 

But can you build utopia on purely scientific or economic principles, or does it require an appeal to some absolute or transcendent values?

Well, utopia has to be based on human values, and those values are constantly evolving. When I was 18, seeing Thatcherism and Section 28 - you know, the banning of any ['promotion of homosexuality' in state] schools - I could never have imagined [I would see a day] three decades later when lesbians and gays can get married and transgender people are no longer generally seen as 'sick' or 'weird' and people can choose their own sexuality, their own gender. I wouldn't use the word 'utopia', though. What I mean is, a socially just society based on economic abundance will enable people to experiment. I think that what will happen is that society will fragment into a bunch of different experiments.

I was an early user of an online virtual world called Second Life.' It later degenerated into a horrible kind of abusive world, but in the early days what I observed is that all people did was create ideal communities. One set of people created an ideal German social-democratic village that was all the more endearing for the fact that it floated in the air and you had to fly up to it. And then the next one was basically a sort of bisexual trans-gender porn club.

So, people create these ideal societies, and I think that's what we'll just do in reality, once the economic problems disappear.

 

You observed that Second Life descended into something abusive. Why are you so optimistic about humankind, despite all the evidence against it?

But why shouldn't I be? In my lifetime, I've seen a technology emerge and go worldwide that allows women to take control over their own reproductive capacity, which has massively transformed women's role in the workplace, even if it hasn't liberated women. I've seen lesbians and gays go from [not being allowed] even to exist to being able to marry. I've also seen an HIV epidemic brought under control, however cackhandedly.

 

But human behaviour must give you cause for despair as well as hope...

Well... Naturally, there are things I've seen that - they don't cause me to despair but they do make me say that some people do not want to share in humanity's quest to become more human. There will be people very ready to staff the next set of concentration camps. I've seen enough from Kenya - you know, ethnic conflict - and Gaza - the unconscionable bombing of civilians - to know how we distance ourselves.

In Kenya, you do it by ethnic dehumanisation. So, in Kibera, people are going at each other with machetes and doing indescribable things. They're not seeing the humanity of the person, in effect they're only seeing a cockroach. That's what it's like when it's close up.

When it's on the end of a phone - I've phoned the [Israeli Defense Forces] while I've been being bombed by them and what you get is a college-educated American girl, who has flown over to 'help Israel' in the press office, going: 'I'm sorry, can you repeat that, please?' You say: 'You told [Palestinian civilians] to leave north jabalia. Can you tell me where the boundary between north jabalia and south jabalia is? What street is that?' 'Oh, we don't give that information out.'

You know, that woman is as systemically responsible for the bombing of those civilians as the pilot. You have to be quite dispassionate about this: pilots and soldiers pull the trigger, but - we've done it with all our wars -we create systems whereby perfectly ordinary people can sit in RAF Waddington with a cup of coffee, press a button and then go home and watch TV.

 

The banality of evil...

Well, I'm not calling it 'evil'. What I'm saying is that at the end of the day there are quite a lot of people who are prepared to do that. I don't despair of humanity be-cause my upbringing tells me that there are more good people than there are bad people. There certainly were in the kind of 'good society' in which I grew up.

The only problem is that when we had a stable and socially quite just society in the Sixties, it was quite hierarchical and it hid a lot of things we didn't know about, like the abuse perpetrated by priests, like loads of mis-carriages of justice perpetrated by the police. Many in-stitutions took advantage of that to do things that we couldn't even think about. You couldn't say, 'There's a paedophile ring raping and killing boys' - that would-n't have even been said in the newspapers, because it was so unthinkable.

I do worry about that, because that means that's repeatable, just as concentration camps are. I do worry that there is this minority of people who are quite hap-py to be the servants of systems and turn a blind eye to what those systems do. You know, Catholics who were prepared to go along with what the priests were doing; cops who were prepared to fit people up and do terrible things to Irish Republicans who were not terrorists and not guilty. Every generation seems to throw up a bunch of people who are prepared... Look at Abu Ghraib. If you look at the mentality of the people who worked there, most of them hapless people, it was the same kind of mentality you find in a concentration camp guard. We have to understand that there is a minority of people who revel in oppressive systems.

 

You say in the new book that, in a world that is teetering on the edge of destruction as a consequence of climate change, there is 'a rational case for panic.

Yeah, but what my experience convinces me is that with the application of technology and social technology - that is, co-operation - we could easily sort climate change. I mean, we have to address it. We've got 'til mid century before it gets really serious, but the later we leave it the more cleaning up we are going to have to do. Already you go to the Philippines or to Kenya and everything that's happening there is shaped by climate.

I mean, I'm even enthused by the ability of some (but not all) of the elite to understand the problem. The problem is, they don't understand the solution. They assume that a 25-year-old ideological system - that is, market capitalism - is the solution to a four-billion-year-old issue, which is the planet.

 

Climate change is having most impact on the poorer parts of the world, so maybe they won't bother about it.

Yeah, but they know they have to. There's no one more aware of the global nature of crises than the poor brat-wurst-chomping East German worker right now, be-cause coming across their border from Hungary are potentially half a million Syrians - because we let Syria descend into chaos and we didn't do anything about it.

The same thing is coming for Spain and Italy. In 10 years, the boats from North Africa will be full of people from Niger, because its population is going to triple in the next 40 years and there's already nothing there.

Actually, you know, that is a good example. Niger's population is projected to triple in the next 40 years but it doesn't need to. With education and health care and birth control, it won't. That's doable. 

 

 

Biography

Paul Mason was born in 1960 in Leigh and was educated at Thornleigh Salesian College in Bolton. 

He read music and politics at Sheffield University, trained to be a music teacher at London University Institute of Education and then did postgraduate research into the music of the Second Viennese School until 1984.

From 1982 to '88, he made a living as a music teacher and lectured at Loughborough University.

Moving to London, in 1991 he embarked on a new career as a freelance journalist. From 1995 to 2001, he worked for Reed Business Information on titles including Contract Journal, Community Care and Computer Weekly (of which he was deputy editor). He launched E-Business Review during the dotcom boom and was consulting editor for the launch of CW360.com. He also contributed articles to the Daily Express and the Mail on Sunday.

In 2001, he was recruited by BBC2's Newsnight as its business editor. He was one of the first BBC journalists to be permitted to write a blog, in 2005. His report on the social movements behind the Bolivian president Evo Morales was cited when Newsnight was awarded the Orwell Prize in 2007.

He joined Channel 4 News in 2013 as its culture and digital editor, and less than a year later became its economics editor.

He presented Spinning Yarns, a four-part series on the history of the cotton industry, on BBC Radio 4 in 2007 and appeared in a five-part BBC2 series titled 'Credit Crash Britain' in 2008. He presented a documentary about the Northern Soul scene for BBC2's The Culture Show in 2013.

He is the author of Live Working or Die Fighting: How the working class went global (2007); Meltdown: The end of the age of greed (2009); Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The new global revolutions (2012) and Postcapitalism: A guide to our future (2015). He has also written a novel, Rare Earth (2012).

He was co-producer of the Greek documentary Love in the Time of Crisis (2014).

He has been married since 1999. He does not have children.

This interview was conducted on August 25, 2015.

 

Notes

1  Postcapitalism: A guide to our future, published by Allen Lane on July 30 (and reviewed in the September/October issue of Third Way)

2  bit.ly/1htVk1W

3  In Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How neoliberalism survived the financial meltdown (Verso, 2013)

4  The extensive deregulation of the London Stock Exchange in October 1986

5  In 2006, he became the first person on British television to broadcast from inside Second Life - see bbc.in/1GA7CMP.