Thursday 18 February 2021
Walking the tightrope between conviction and ambivalence is part and parcel of being a slow and open newsroom. It is not always easy
At the end of last month, Mary-Kay Wilmers stepped down as Editor of the LRB – the London Review of Books. She’s 82. She co-founded the paper and edited it for 30 years, during which time she commissioned and directed some of the best writers of our times on books, politics and ideas.
I don’t know her; I’ve not met her; and I can’t claim to be her friend. If only. She runs with quite a dizzying crowd: Alan Bennett and Hilary Mantel are her friends; Christopher Hitchens and Seamus Heaney wrote for her; in fact, even her nanny, Nina Stibbe, has a best-selling book to her name – Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life, a memoir of her time working for Wilmers.
In the 18 February edition of the paper – Volume 43, Number 4 – there’s a brief and elegant appreciation of her editorship by Andrew O’Hagan. He describes her editor’s style: “It relies on an enduring respect for the possibilities of ambivalence – ‘most writers believe too much in what they believe,’ she once told me – as well as what John Lanchester once identified as a ‘Russian horror of clarity’.”
O’Hagan goes on to say that the LRB cuts any sentences that could be used as quotes on the back of a book; those, according to Mary-Kay Wilmers, are never good sentences. O’Hagan writes: “She taught a generation of us that the job was to have a point of view. Vagueness wasn’t a useful quality, and grand declarations are not the same as good writing.”
I’m James Harding, the Editor of Tortoise, and in this week’s editor’s voicemail, I just wanted to note how much that description of an editor has been playing on my mind, that appetite for ambiguity and suspicion of clarity. In other words, how to deliver journalism that has conviction, but doesn’t over-egg the certainty. I suggest you stop listening now if you’re hoping for any firm conclusions.
Liz Moseley, my fellow editor and a partner at Tortoise, often asks what I think is maybe the best question for us editors: “Have we lived up to our promises to our members?”
In Tortoise’s case, we started a new newsroom with promises: we pledged to be slow, to be open and to be clear about what we’re for.
In the last week, I can point to examples of slow and open in action.
Robert Kennedy Jr was barred this week from Instagram for spreading anti-vaxx misinformation. It was six months after Tortoise’s investigation into the Infodemic identified him as the leading superspreader of vaccine misinformation on social media. Alexi Mostrous’s reporting on the Infodemic and Basia Cummings’ podcast – What the RFK Jr!? – are the fulfilment of a promise, that slow isn’t fast, but it can be ahead of the news.
As we came to the end of the hour at our ThinkIn on the Maxwell family, Nicola Glucksmann told us she had a story about a dinner party at the family home, Headington Hill Hall. “We had a perfectly nice meal and then, [Ghislaine Maxwell] announced as a sort of MC that she was in charge of games.” For the first of these games Maxwell “came out of the next room, to which she had retired briefly, with blindfolds for the men,” Glucksmann told us. “And then the women were to take off their tops and their bras and present their breasts to the men, who were to identify the women from the size and feel of their breasts.” You can go to the Maxwell ThinkIn on our website and hear Nicola tell it and explain it – a story that offers an insight into Ghislaine Maxwell and the use of sex as a currency with men. It was a moment when the idea of open journalism, I hope, proved itself: a newsroom where people bring their experience, expertise and point of view and we all leave better informed.
But in trying to keep our promise to be clear about what we’re for, I realise that we often come up against a journalistic dilemma: how do we understand complexity and, at the same time, offer clarity of thought? In practical terms, how do we ensure that we are open to a range of competing views and still have a take of our own? How do we ensure our opinion doesn’t fall for a false simplicity, doesn’t lapse into old left-right arguments and doesn’t duck its choices? How do we stay true to the idea of a journalism that’s conducted in a spirit of radical optimism, that works on ideas to mend the 21st Century, that’s not just an observer but is interested outcomes, that has a stake in what happens next in the story? There’s not a glib or snappy formula, not a back-of-the-book blurb that can respond to these questions, but I hope at least that in all we do – Sensemaker, Thinkins, Slow Views and Files – we are looking to answer them. The job, after all, is to have a point of view. The LRB, I know, is not everyone’s idea of a good time. But it is a paper that has kept its promises to its readers. The possibilities of ambivalence. The horror of clarity. There’s not much to be said for either vagueness or grand declarations. There are lessons for every newsroom in the subtle, formidable editorship of Mary-Kay Wilmers.
Photograph Antonio Olmos/Guardian/eyevine