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Is it possible for an English journalist to write anything about Australia without being so condescending and judgmental? You’re not HQ of the empire any more, you know,” emailed an Australian reader.
Writing for the FT these past 20 years, I’ve received thousands of letters, emails and comments sent by readers from Tanzania to Moscow. Thanks to social media, there are more responses every year. Most are smart and friendly. Some aren’t. All these responses shape the way journalists work. They also help me understand the world. Here are some recurring themes from my inbox:
• At any given time there are certain topics that get readers most angry. A few years ago, the big one was climate change. Every time I wrote about it, I got emails explaining that climate change didn’t exist. Lately that correspondence has dried up. My surmise: the deniers have relaxed after realising that governments won’t do anything serious about climate.
The new hot topic is inequality. Whenever you mention it, some readers write in saying that if you’re poor it’s your own fault; anyone can make it if they just work hard. I think inequality deniers suffer from the same anxiety that climate-change deniers used to: the fear that governments might actually try to tackle the issue. Also, many bootstraps types want to enjoy their money without guilt.
The most depressing topic to write about is Israel/Palestine. Most people have stopped reading about it because they think the conflict is insoluble. Almost the only responses come from people who decided what they thought years ago. They accuse me – in approximately equal measure – either of hating Palestinians or of hating Israel. One fairly representative email started: “YOU SCHMUCK…” (I save lots of time by not replying to abuse.) The only other topic that generates as much partisan poison is the football World Cup.
• Some topics, such as disability, generate almost no response. That matters to journalists. We never used to have much idea what readers read. In 1995, the FT’s then editor, curious to know what readers wanted, commissioned a study of people in finance reading one day’s newspaper. The finding: everyone read a little article about Cuban bonds. It wasn’t relevant to their work, the editor marvelled. It just fascinated them.
These days we know not just how many people read each article online but even how far down they scroll before they stop reading. Now that we know what readers like, the temptation is to give them more of it. Newspapers have become much more responsive. But sometimes you have to write about disability.
• If you write anything critical about a country outside Britain in the FT, some readers from that country (like the Australian above) will assume that you wrote it because you are a bitter Brit who hasn’t got over the loss of empire.
I understand the sensitivity, given Britain’s longstanding, outsized role in meddling (often violently) in other people’s affairs. Still, these emails irk me. I’m not particularly British. I certainly don’t write as a representative of the British empire.
Yet some readers assume that everyone writes as a nationalist. Presumably that’s because they read as nationalists. In my experience, this tendency is strongest in countries with a fairly recent past of fascist, militarist or white supremacist rule. Many older people from these countries learnt at school that the country itself is glorious but the object of foreign conspiracies. World views absorbed at school often stick.
If there’s a factual or grammatical error in an article, people will find it. The FT has a well-informed international readership. Whatever topic I write about, many readers know it better.
But if you don’t make an error, some people will find one anyway. Recently, for instance, a commenter mocked me for writing “Brazil’s” as a contraction of “Brazil has”. Bad grammar, he chirped. He was wrong, of course. But what baffled me was his assumption that the column had been thrown together in five minutes on a whim, and then not edited by anyone. (Perhaps that seemed the only possible explanation.)
In fact, writing for FT readers is daunting. I anguish over my columns. I check every fact obsessively. Then sub-editors and fact-checkers check again because the FT detests errors. I still sometimes get things wrong. Every time I do, I feel humiliated. It’s an experience I try to avoid.
• Readers sometimes think I am giving “the FT line” on a topic. But I rarely know the paper’s editorial positions even in cases where it has them. I write my own line. In 20 years, nobody at the FT has ever stopped me writing something for political reasons – only because it was boring, or factually wrong or because “Gillian [Tett] wrote that ages ago”.
• Readers often write in suggesting I change the photo above my column. To all of you I say: if you think that’s bad, you should see the real thing.
Illustration by Luis Grañena