Opinion writing has changed a lot since I started. It’s time for something new | Hadley freeman
For someone who never wanted to be a columnist, I wrote a bunch of reviews. I’ve been a Weekend columnist for five and a half years, and before that I was in the Guardian’s opinion section, and before that I was a columnist in the Daily Articles section, G2, which means I have passed about 10 million of my random opinions on all of you. It has been a joy (for me, anyway), but now it’s time to stop. I’ll still do interviews for The Guardian, but there’s a tide in human affairs (all columnists love a classic random quote), and even an overly opinionated Jewish New Yorker obsessed with movies for years. 80 (I’m WAWKIN ‘here, I’m WAWKIN’!) Knows when to step away from the table. So I will speak less of my opinions and write more about those of others.
Like I said, I never wanted to be a columnist, but nobody did when I started in 2000. Of course, there were columnists back then, some of whom still write for the. Guardian (Jonathan Freedland, Martin Kettle, Polly Toynbee), some of whom unfortunately don’t (Martin Wollacott, Hugo Young). But column writing was seen as a sort of private club: elitist, dusty, and distant. Back then, young journalists wanted fun, rambling jobs: investigative journalist, music critic, feature film writer. But since blogging culture took off in the 2000s, when anyone with an Apple PowerBook (RIP) could knock out a column, just about every aspiring journalist I’ve met has told me that ‘they wanted to be columnists. Giving your opinion online has become the definitive way to say who you are, so of course more and more people want columns. Yet here’s a funny thing: I can’t remember a single day – and there were thousands – that I spent sitting at my desk writing a column. I do, however, remember going to the Oscars to cover them, or the weekend I spent with Judy Blume to interview her. Chronicles inflate the ego, but going out and finding stories is a lot more fun.
Something else has changed about column writing in recent years. I wrote last week about being in New York on September 11 and the murder of my friend. Two days after the terrorist attacks, a column written by then-Guardian columnist Seumas Milne carried the headline: âThey Don’t See Why They Are Hated. America, Milne argued, had brought about this on itself. It was shocking to read it at the time, but it never occurred to me to complain, and maybe some will see this as weak or – gasp, horror – appallingly centrist of me. But I saw this article as Milne’s opinion, so why wouldn’t he have written it? And Milne, I think, felt the same about the things I wrote. Considering that he became Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesperson and that I am an American Zionist who happily voted for Tony Blair, it is safe to say that we disagree on a lot of things. But it was Milne who brought me to the comments section of The Guardian and he became one of the most encouraging editors I have ever had. Ideological disagreements were just a normal part of life on paper at the time, and mingling only with those you agree with would have been viewed by many journalists as embarrassing partisan and unprofessional.
I no longer know if this is quite true. I approached some very controversial topics in my day, from Israel to – the most controversial – the ugliness of combat pants, so I’m no stranger to heated debates. But where once people could argue and then go out for a drink, now it seems like people are arguing. A difference of opinion becomes a seismic breakdown of alliances, and some topics are verboten in social situations. I could blame Brexit for it – a difference of opinion that pretty much shattered this country – but I’ve noticed it before. In May 2016, I watched a documentary on Corbyn, directed by Vice, and in one scene Corbyn got very angry with a column Freedland wrote in the Guardian, about anti-Semitism within the Labor Party. He makes a phone call – to Milne, as if by chance – and the two discuss Freedland: âHe’s not a good guy at all. He seems a bit obsessed with me, âCorbyn rages.
I thought about it a lot at that point, because it felt like a turning point, a passage from when readers were just disagreeing with a column to disagreeing and therefore assuming the columnist is a bad person. All newspaper columnists will have seen degrees of this change over the past five years, and this is not – as some have said – to hold them accountable for their opinions; it is a refusal to accept that not everyone sees things the same way. Yet that is surely the purpose of the columns: to reveal the variety of perspectives. So it’s ironic that at a time when column writing has never been more desirable for so many people, there is such an expectation of conformity of opinion.
None of this is why I am stopping the column. It is just time. Thank you very much everyone for letting me talk to you every Saturday morning, and thank you to those who have responded to me, whether by email or stopping in the street to tell me that the combat pants are great, in fact. (no they are not ). Following the tradition of chroniclers, I will end with a classic quote: farewell, farewell, to yuh and yuh and yuh.