I’ve wanted for some time now to write about Laurie Penny, the Wadham College graduate who, aged 26, was described last year by the Daily Telegraph as “without doubt the loudest and most controversial female voice on the radical left”.
What’s interesting is that her career as a political writer has really been founded using online media. She launched her blog, Penny Red, in 2007, the year she graduated. Now, when I graduated, it was unthinkable to immediately obtain such a public platform for one’s own views. Of course, a blog has to attract its readers – otherwise you’re just shouting into the dark. But there are no barriers to entry, as there were with gaining space in traditional media, particularly in an area like political commentary. By 2010, Penny Red had been shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing.
Unfortunately, blogging doesn’t pay. Laurie herself has observed that a platform is not something that actually feeds you. But her writing has led to work for national newspapers like the Guardian and Independent, and she is currently Contributing Editor of the New Statesman. And while the downsides of contemporary media loom large for old hands like me, Laurie herself says that she counts herself “extremely lucky to have grown up as a political writer in the age of the internet.”
“Suddenly, where once there were only a few privileged pundits talking to each other and expecting the proles to listen, there are writers from all walks of life producing dazzling, meaningful prose and finding their audience,” she explains. “I’m part of a growing cohort of reporters and columnists who are not surprised when our readers chat to us like old friends, correct our mistakes or call us unprintable things in the comment section – because we started out online and have never experienced anything else.”
The nature of that online comment can appear challenging to those of us reared on printed columns and Letters to the Editor. The fact that she went to Oxford, for example, has been variously used to try and undermine her writing. A year ago, she wrote in the Independent about how “hundreds of people, most of them right-wingers, have suggested that the fact that I went to a private school and then to Oxford places indelible inverted commas around any radical sentiments I may espouse.”
One Liberal Democrat commentator publicly mocked the fact that she had been on the committee of the Light Entertainment Society at Oxford (OULES), claiming that that somehow negated her credentials as a “serious Left-wing figure”. Elsewhere, a College alumna insisted that the “true socialists” from Wadham “would never blog (‘bourgeois’), would never write for the New Statesman (‘selling out’).”
Like the media itself, the position of columnist is clearly very different today. As Laurie herself says, “to be a columnist today is no longer to stand on a stage alone, reciting marvellous soliloquies while a paying audience waits to applaud… Being a columnist today is more like being a street performer – collecting coins in a battered suitcase, telling stories about a better world and understanding that the audience might change the story.
“It’s hard work, because you’re competing with everyone else on the block, including the drunk, deranged old racist shouting abuse and the naked exhibitionist who doesn’t ask for money, and you have to move fast to avoid the pelted sandwiches and, occasionally, the police. In other words, it’s an exciting time to be a writer.”
And equally exciting to be a reader. One has to admire both the passion and the intelligence with which her views are espoused; the way in which she has used digital media to promulgate them; and the speed with which she has established her media career. Include in that the kind of comments which such successes attract, and there is a lot for today’s Oxford graduates to learn from her example.