‘The further from power, the more you see’

Gary Younge, who served as The Guardian’s editor-at-large and long-time U.S. correspondent, left the newspaper recently, after 26 years as a staff writer and 20 years as a columnist. His political commentary, grounded in his reporting experiences, has offered readers clarity and perspective on both key global developments and their local manifestations, while zooming into oppression and exploitation in those societies. The award-winning British journalist and author has now taken up a teaching assignment at Manchester University as Professor of Sociology. In a Skype interview, Mr. Younge spoke on politics, journalism and the politics of journalism. Excerpts:

When you look back at your reporting trail, what would you say were the most valuable lessons professionally and personally?

Personally, one was to always try and add value. On election night in 2008 with [Barack] Obama, [I thought] why go to Grant Park [Chicago]. Everybody else is there. Whereas if I go to a bar in the South Side, a black area, maybe I can add something. So, I went to a bar. I found a guy, and I went and voted with him the next day. I watched the results come out and I saw how emotional he was. It was when he was explaining his vote that he started crying. In the bar I sat next to this woman who didn’t believe it was going to be possible [for Obama to win] because she thought America was too racist. I don’t think I would have gotten all of that in Grant Park. And in any case, the further you are away from power, the more you see.

Whether in the U.S., U.K., or South Asia, the politics of hate based on identity is on the rise. What could the media do in such times?

Well, the first thing they could do is not make it worse which in Britain a lot of the media do. The media’s role is to inform and tell the truth. I don’t believe in objectivity. I think it’s a farcical notion. Stories demand choices, so it’s not objectivity, it’s fairness.

But there is a responsibility if you are in the media to explain why there are no jobs. And there is no plausible explanation for the economic collapse that involves immigrants and refugees. They did not cause the collapse. Misinformation and disinformation help breed and caffeinate this ‘enemy’ and polarisation.

I’m not sure we can separate the media from the politics and say how does the media remedy the politics, because they are symbiotic. But I do think that if the media followed some basic precepts about factual reporting, curiosity, not ‘I know why that happened but why did that happen’, we would be in a different place.

You have reported extensively from the U.S. (2003-15) and the U.K. From Donald Trump’s election to Brexit, the last few years have witnessed major political shifts in these two Western democracies. Did you see them coming?

No, I didn’t. I try not to make predictions in my work anyway, because our job is not to foresee the future, it is to make sense of the present. Maybe thereby having a sense of what might happen.

I did see some of the things that made them possible. During the [Tony] Blair years I did see a disaffection with politics. There was a lower turnout, and people were alienated. I didn’t know exactly where that would go, but I knew that it was not going to go anywhere good. While in America, I saw the rise of [George] Bush and the war, and the collapse of the war. And there were these moments, like with Obama’s campaign, when you saw how much desire for change there was, but then he was a completely inadequate vessel; that was always clear to me. I didn’t know where the disappointment in him would go among white people, but I knew it had to go somewhere. In both cases, the social democratic wing of neoliberalism had reached such levels of arrogance and disconnection that in hindsight there was going to be some fundamental reactionary response. And this was it.

In 2017, you travelled across the States to find out what ordinary Americans were thinking at that time. In 2019, you went on a journey in search of the American Left. Based on these travels, how do you view the ongoing U.S. presidential race and the resistance to the politics that Mr. Trump represents?

The resistance has grown. There have been movements — ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Me Too’, ‘Extinction Rebellion’ in Britain, ‘Anti-Fracking’, ‘Occupy Wall Street’ — they burn brightly, and then fade. And another movement comes along. They do good things, but they’re not really movements in the traditional sense. ‘Occupy Wall Street’ was closer to that. They have no institutions to sustain them through the lean times. Not everything about the Civil Rights Movement was a march or a demonstration; there was organising, there were letters to be sent, there were structures.

The Unions were very actively involved, weren’t they?

Yes, at the least the union leadership was during the civil rights era. Quite often lower down the union hierarchy they were quite resistant to the hiring of black workers. But yes, people forget that in 1963, it was a march for jobs and freedom. And we don’t have much of a union movement any more. Current ‘movements’ explode, and then they fade.

Whereas that’s not how Trump came through. Trump came through thanks to the tea party, through a series of defeats, but each one raising the consciousness of a certain group of people. This is true in Britain too.

In a way more people are involved on the Left politically than they have been for a long time. Yet while there is resistance, there is no movement. There is this inability to cohere the resistance and find a home for it that isn’t hostage to electoralism, to corporate interests and to co-option.

I am still grateful for the resistance there is. Who’d have thought Bernie Sanders will be anywhere close? And here we are with a man who calls himself a socialist. In whatever way he is going to disappoint us later, here he is, and he is leading.

In one of your columns, you observed that 21st century journalists act not as critical interlocutors but convenient conduits. What drives these actions that appear to range from silence to self-censorship, subservience and a wilful alignment with the ruling class?

In much of the West there are two things. First, there is access. If I do this, they will keep talking to me. What is the price of this access? But even tied to that, they are essentially of the same class. In Britain, the percentage of columnists who went to private schools and Oxford or Cambridge is higher than it is in the House of Lords. So, when there are these ruptures, then they kind of band together, and the journalists become like political actors and as gatekeepers and they become affronted personally by the presence of these interlopers who have been selected by the great unwashed. And they find it much more cozy, comfortable to be in these much smaller cliques that represent quite a narrow band of political ideology.

Read the full interview on www.thehindu.com

In a way more people are involved on the Left politically than they have been for a long time. And yet while there is resistance, there is no movement.