A REPLY TO NEW SOCIETY

NEW SOCIETY was a weekly magazine that explored the social issues of the day via objective reportage. The tone of the magazine was described by editor Paul Barker as "rational, humane, unsectarian and unsnobbish." Barker described his political position as one of "libertarian anarchism" and the magazine as an "outsider." Ian Walker, who wrote the piece reproduced about Argyle Street was only in his twenties and Paul Barker gave tribute to "his remarkable gift for getting into other peoples lives." Walker wrote about football hooligans, skinheads and punks but also about communities such as the Jews of Cheetham Hill and an Northern Irish Protestant enclave. So it seemed right for Walker to write about a community of squats but some of the residents saw his writing as exploitive, filled with errors and formulaic. Brian Palmer wasn't too impressed and he wrote to New Society with the following:

 

"New Society" is a liberal sociologist's magazine that isn't about any new society at all, but about the old one we know so well and get bored by so much. Every so often it takes time to write about a "subculture": punks, skinheads, ageing Teds, they've all had the treatment. The style is one of unsympathetic mockery based on half-truths and out-of-context quotes.

Ian Walker went to Argyle Street; and on 12th November his report was published. To anyone who knew "New Society" the report was no surprise. To the people who had befriended Mr Walker, it was a shock.

There are errors of fact: - the street wasn't squatted on Guy Fawkes night, but on 9th December. It's not Freewheeling bookshop, just Freewheel. The alternative school has four kids, not two. More seriously, there's a description of Jane rolling a joint. Mr Walker didn't say that "Jane" was a pseudonym (he used everybody else's real names), so a real Jane living there was instantly labelled a dope fiend, with bad consequences for her and her family, especially her children at school. I hope their teachers read New Society's apology.

Okay, incompetence is pardonable. The distortions, omissions and implications are not.

Sylvia, who Mr Walker is rude enough to describe as having a "prematurely lined face" is quoted as saying "I hate it here sometimes". She also said that she loves it, too; but that wasn't quoted. Her son is shown to be some kind of uncontrollable hooligan who beats up adults, not a five-year-old boy who has still not fully recovered from being injured in a road accident. There's no mention of the support Sylvia got when doctors predicted that Steph would never walk or talk again, or of Sylvia's patient nursing which proved them wrong.

Mr Walker could be picked up in a similar fashion on other points. Some people still think that he captured one part of the atmosphere and character of the street. What he didn't do, by any means, is catch the atmosphere of the street as a whole, in all its diversity.

No justification of the original squatting was given. Nothing was said about the setting up of a housing co-op and winning a licence to stay from the council. (And incidentally, it was setting up the co-op which enabled the allocation of the H.A.C grant, not the other way around.) The proportion of pro-co-op to anti-co-op opinion, according to ballots, is at least three to one in favour. The article had three negative quotes about what the co-op was doing, and only one quote in favour.

Most of the peole metioned in the article came down from Scotland, and most of those who didn't said they wanted to leave soon. Yet most people living in the street are local, were homeless, have been there over a year, and have no plans to leave. And several who left, later returned.

Where Mr Walker went wrong was in not seeking out any kind of cross-section of the steet's population. As a professional journalist he needn't feel too clever about this.

Probably the most insidious aspect of the article was the sensationalist talk about drug-use. At least one of New Society's editorial staff has been known to partake of illicit substances too: Shall I repeat that in retaliation for the nine mentions of drugs in just the first half of the New Society article? Sure there are drugs in Argyle St. And in other places - but why go on about it?

This is why.....New Society can't titillate its educated readership with sex, because sex is not taboo with them any more. So it uses soft drugs to spice up snide articles about groups to which it feels far superior. Treating Argyle Street's culture and politics seriously would constitute a threat to the comfort of those who are doing well in the old society. And that's more than we can expect from a magazine which is just an up-the-intellectual-market version of "News of the World".

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