The past few years have been an age of abundance for the news columnist. For pretty much everyone else, they have been an age of gathering chaos and rising disbelief. The news gods are so deeply committed to providing their own metaphors that our septic isle is now literally lapped at by tides of sewage. I don’t know if future historians will officially slap the permacrisis label on us, but as someone whose job it is to write about the news, I need hardly point out there hasn’t exactly been a shortage of material. Even I am on the point of launching a “Stop the news” campaign, and will inform you of how to join the push for total stasis as soon as I get membership badges sorted.
This has been a period when it often seemed like the UK (and beyond) had tumbled down a rabbit hole. Or gone through the looking-glass. Or maybe got trapped in the ancient curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Things seem to have become permanently “interesting”.
When I came to select columns to include in my new book, I was struck by how many confusing and frequently still-unresolved twists and turns there have been. That’s why I’ve called it What Just Happened?! I’m told they call a question mark and an exclamation mark together an “interrobang” – and I hope my use of one conveys the sheer, category-five “answer TBC” of what we’ve all lived through. In recent years, many of you will have sent news stories to your friends and family accompanied only by that punctuation mark: ?! It’s very much the age of the interrobang, where one’s reaction to almost every development is a mildly strangled, “Really?! Really?!”
Weirdly, I discovered when going through the 47 trillion words I’ve written since 2016 that I often don’t even have a memory of writing half of them. It slightly felt like I had written a book I hadn’t read. A bit like Katie Price – only instead of not having even skimmed a single one of my seven autobiographies, I was completely in the dark about other stuff. Take the whole week of daily columns in March 2019, focusing on something called “indicative votes”. What in the name of sanity were they? I’ve heard of past-lives therapy; maybe I need past-columns therapy. Just as distinguished Hollywood crazy Shirley MacLaine is convinced she previously walked the earth as Charlemagne’s Moorish peasant lover, so I could be assured that I really did once, only last year, turn out 1,100 words on how Boris Johnson had literally swapped bodies with his dog. I mean, it sounds like something I might have done? And I don’t think I have an alibi for it?
In the end, those columns are just my record of an era in which so many of us – but not all! – felt the news had become stranger than fiction. For instance, in the space of a very short time in early 2019, Tory MP Mark Francois and novelist Will Self had a spat about the size of Mark’s penis on a midday politics TV show; a Ukip leader wrote to the Queen and informed her she had committed treason when she signed the Maastricht treaty; and a Conservative MP stood up in the Commons and intoned to the house: “This is a turd of a deal, which has now been taken away and polished, and is now a polished turd. But it might be the best turd that we’ve got.”
Let’s face it, you had to laugh. Indeed, I hope you got several belly cackles in the bank, because within a year we would be in the midst of a deadly global pandemic. Very, very interesting times indeed.
I know some people like to think of column-writing as an art, but, for me, it’s definitely not. It’s a trade. You get up, you write something to fill a space, and you hope it’s not one of your worst shots and that readers enjoy it. Maybe some columnists are out there imagining they’re writing the first draft of history, but I feel like I’m just sticking a pin in a moment. In fact, I often feel that if I wrote my column in the afternoon, it would say something completely different from whatever I’d ended up writing that morning. “Do you still think this, six years on?” “Oh my God – I probably didn’t even think it by teatime that day.”
I look back on plenty of my articles, particularly a couple from 2016 in the immediate wake of the Brexit vote, and think: “Oh, do get over yourself, luv – do you have any idea how histrionic you sound?” Like I say, columns are just a moment in time – and in those cases, perhaps some howl of entitled despair that liberals like me had to work through. After all, as was made abundantly clear from 2016 onwards, we were no longer flavour of the century. Yup, we’d got home to our ivory tower to find the locks had been changed. We had, in the immortal words of Chris Morris to Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan in The Day Today, lost the news.
Having lost the news so decisively, I did think the sensible thing to do was to get out of the business of making predictions. Now, you might have noted this decision was not unanimously adopted by my profession. I can’t remember exactly when it hit me, but at a certain point I noticed how often political journalism was about predicting what was coming. We were suddenly awash with discussions about how the various stories were going to play out. Don’t get me wrong, I read and very much enjoyed most of it. But with the best will in the world, I’m not totally sure it’s the job of a journalist to tell you what’s going to happen next, as opposed to what’s just happened. Let’s be clear: the stuff that actually was occurring was wild enough. Even so, increasing amounts of content – particularly about where Brexit would end up – seemed to be a kind of futurology, with speculation about potential scenarios occasionally crowding out analysis of existing developments. I think it comes back to that thing of having lost the news. There was almost a cargo cult element to it all. If we just lay out the flowchart, if we just set out our logical case for how things should develop, then somehow – somehow! – the old familiar certainties will be airdropped back to us.
They haven’t been yet – but soon, no doubt. Any day now …
They say all comedy and tragedy flows from character – and looking back over the past six years, we’ve certainly been blessed/cursed with an eye-popping ensemble of characters. I haven’t just had politicians to write about – I’ve had wicked advisers, celebrities, Hollywood sex offenders, a queen, various princes and duchesses, reality TV monsters, billionaires, philanthropists, fauxlanthropists, judges, media barons, populists, police officers and all kinds of other heroes and villains. It’s been the full fairytale, in fact. Sometimes pretty Grimm. We’ve had bullshit purveyors from Gwyneth Paltrow to Nigel Farage, disaster artists from Boris Johnson to Donald Trump, PR meltdowns from Brad Pitt to Rebekah Vardy, miscast geniuses from Dominic Cummings to Richard Branson, and misunderstood “real victims in all this” from Prince Andrew to Harvey Weinstein. And Gregg Wallace. I sometimes feel we’ll always have Gregg Wallace.
To anyone kind enough to read them, I hope my twice-weekly chronicles have captured how the news felt to some of us, as we were put through it, seemingly on an endless wringer cycle. The Americans got Trump; UK citizens got the seemingly interminable Brexit wars. Everyone got plunged into a pandemic. How would you rate your satisfaction at your news journey, on a scale of one to the survivors of the USS Indianapolis? Those sailors got through the worst naval disaster in American history when their ship was torpedoed by the Japanese in 1945, and were then left bobbing in the Pacific Ocean. Subsequently, and over several days, they were subjected to the worst recorded shark attack in history. That has been the experience of the news cycle in recent times – out of the inferno, into the shark attack.
This year, horrifyingly, war has broken out in Europe. Unimaginable scenes that seem plucked from the darker parts of the 20th century have played out live on our TV screens. Elsewhere, Trump is once again the favourite to win the Republican nomination. Johnson was finally seen off – only to somehow already be the bookies’ favourite to succeed new prime minister Liz Truss as Tory leader. Meanwhile, the omnishambles era looks like the good old days, as we officially enter the realms of omnicrisis. And last month, the death of Queen Elizabeth II removed someone many saw as the last constant of British public life – and the last embodiment of a set of virtues increasingly absent from it.
Things will calm down. Won’t they? A non-scientific “most” people in the UK had absolutely had enough of politics by about six months after the Brexit vote in 2016. On the other hand, had we really? We supposedly hated it, but couldn’t stop rubbernecking at it. The BBC Parliament channel had never rated so highly. Westminster seemed to reach far beyond its bubble. A friend of mine was doing a comedy tour in September 2019, and I remember going to Worcester to see his show there. Having put my bag down in my hotel room, I went downstairs to the bar and beheld a selection of people at separate tables completely and utterly glued to the Sky News feed from the supreme court, where arguments on the lawful or otherwise prorogation of parliament were being heard. It was 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon. Without wishing to go out on a limb, it was difficult not to conclude that something quite odd had happened to the UK.
Having said that, I do have one small theory about what has happened both here and beyond. I think that reality television – the overwhelmingly dominant and highest-rating entertainment genre of the early 21st century – became reality politics. Instead of sitting back and having entertainment done to them, audiences in the reality TV heyday were given buttons to press and voting lines to call, and were invited to change the narrative themselves. They loved it. The X Factor had “kind of given democracy back to the world”, its supremo, Simon Cowell, noted mildly. At the height of his light-entertainment powers in 2009, Cowell was convinced that his next big will-of-the-people format would be “a political X Factor”, a “referendum-type TV show” in which viewers would vote on hot topics. No 10 would then be challenged to phone in to the studio and explain its position. Well, now … Be careful what Simon Cowell wishes for.
And, as shows like The X Factor and Strictly matured, a new phenomenon could be observed: people were taking increasing delight in voting for…