This morning, I awoke to an email from an actress/broadcaster/author/journalist/twitter celebrity (this is all one person, by the way, it wasn’t a petition, these are all the strings to a single bow) which read:
If you contact me one more time I’m reporting you to your college.
Don’t think for one single second I won’t do that.
You are harassing me.
Sent from my iPhone
How did this happen? How did I go from being a mild-mannered chap minding his own business who people might describe as ‘quite nice’ to being a harasser of one actress/broadcaster/author/journalist/twitter celebrity? What follows is the story of my fall. A cautionary tale to all of those who think they’re just being normal but are, in fact, harassing.
In the interests of full disclosure, before I begin my tale of woe, I feel I must level with you, dear reader, and admit to three prior incidents which could easily be construed as celebrity harassment. They have no direct bearing on this case but lest they be resurrected out-of-context to form some kind of basis to firm up this accusation, I’d like for you to know the truth about them and to recognise that I was forthcoming in detailing them.
Incident 1. 1992. Oxford. Complainant: Timmy Mallett. Some friends and I saw Timmy Mallett in a queue at some event in a park. We laughed and mocked him from a point further back in the queue and then I shouted “Oi Timmy, Give us a WACAWAVE!” He turned around and fixed me with a haunted look of anxious disappointment which robbed my epithet of both humour and dignity.
Incident 2. 2011. The Internet. Complainant: Richard Herring. Richard Herring asked for recommendations for summer reading. I immediately replied “Don’t bother reading your own book. It’s quite disappointing” I regretted sending it quite quickly as it was more snide than jocular but it was, in my defence, rooted in a genuine disappointment at having paid £11.99 to read a man swing between dull self-indulgent regret at a life wasted and smug references to casual sexual encounters. Before I could delete the tweet, he had responded by comparing me to a woman’s genitals and blocked me – which is fair enough, really.
Incident 3. 1999. Marks & Spencer Food Hall, Oxford St, London. Complainant: Christopher Biggins. Whilst trying to navigate my way around the narrow labyrinthine overpopulated food basement, I found my path obstructed on three separate occasions by the same apparently owner-less trolley left lazily in the middle of the aisle at an angle. Three times I moved it to the side to clear the way. On the fourth occasion, grumpy and un-lunched, I shoved the trolley with all my might and watched it careen into a chiller unit at the end of the aisle. Proud of my work, I turned to find myself face-to-face with an outraged Christopher Biggins. “Why did you do THAT?” demanded the owl-faced off-hours panto dame who, in my memory, was clutching a bag of frozen peas. I had no response. “You’re a very RUDE man!” he proclaimed before marching away towards his wronged trolley. “Fuck Off” I replied in a barely audible mumble as he left, not out of genuine malice but because I knew this was the chance to secure an anecdote entitled ‘The Time I Told Christopher Biggins To Fuck Off’
To these three people, I offer a belated apology, but I doubt they care. None of them accused me of harassment or threatened to report me to my college. I don’t actually have a college to be reported to, although I’m not sure that would have been a factor that concerned any of them.
The self-proclaimed harrasee is a person called Emma Kennedy. I followed her on Twitter because she seemed to be having a funny discussion with the incredibly excellent Caitlin Moran and because I remembered her as a peripheral character from the Lee & Herring stuff which I always loved (despite having been mean to Herring that one time). At some point last year, she and I exchanged a couple of tweets about something. I have a feeling it was the Murdoch thing. I can’t remember the nature of the exchange or the subject but it left an apparent precedent that she was happy to engage with people on Twitter. If only I’d known then what I know now (tone of mock drama, there)
I should say, at this point, if you can’t be bothered to read a transcript of a Twitter argument, I don’t blame you. Tiresome and tedious, this whole matter. There’s a good chance I’ve peaked with the Biggins anecdote on this blog and, really, I’m only writing this one to publicly state my case having been accused of harassment. That said, what Emma and I disagreed on is an interesting issue (rendered pointless when reduced to statements of 140 characters) and – after the transcript – I’ll conclude this blog by talking intelligently about it and, possibly, making a corker of a joke at Emma’s expense.
So, here’s the conversation we had. You should be aware that it was happening ‘live’ so sometimes they go a bit out of order as we address points the other had raised several tweets previous, but you’ll get the idea….
So, that’s that.
That was our dialogue. When it was finished, I was a bit pissed off not just because I felt we’d both got needlessly aggressive but because I felt she maybe hadn’t actually understood what I was saying – it was a thick and fast dialogue (resisting the temptation here to add ‘she was thick, I was fast’, that would be immature) so I made what I now see to be a mistake by sending her an email. In the meantime, one of my students had sent her a single tweet, which she responded to in volume (as you can see, he didn’t engage with her at all beyond his single tweet):
I sent this email to try to clarify my position and straighten out any bad feelings:
There are a couple of things I regret about this email retrospectively. The first is what I wrote about The Huffington Post, I’ll elaborate on this in a bit. The second is that I said ‘I am indeed a shitty teacher, teaching at shitty establishments’ I phrased it that way to highlight her definition of shitty as wrong but, on second reading, it might have come across as just agreeing with her. I’m not a shitty teacher and the places I teach are far from shitty. It’s just that neither I nor they are world-renowned, which is usually a lazy person’s basis for assessing quality.
The exchange continued:
There’s a certain logic that says if someone feels harassed, then they are, I think it’s pretty clear that that was never my intention but, out of respect, I’ve not responded privately.
There are two points to be made following this discussion.
My first is my position on writers not getting paid. I think there is a notable division between unpaid work and exploitation. If a writer were being exploited, it would mean that whoever they were writing for was publishing their work without their knowledge or permission, uncredited and/or retaining the copyright on it. That would be exploitative. The publisher would be profiting from the actual work and the writer would get nothing in return.
Although it’s a disingenuous practice for profitable companies to publish a writer’s work unpaid, I don’t think it’s exploitative. Firstly, they have the writer’s express permission to use it. Secondly they are providing a platform for a writer’s talents to be spotted. Thirdly they are allowing these writers to cut their teeth and get valuable industry experience. I don’t know Emma’s story and what her route to ‘success’ has been but, especially since the internet went huge, it’s almost impossible for a new writer’s voice to be heard. The internet is a quagmire of amateur journalism. Her assertion that ‘Talented writers don’t get ignored’ and ‘luck has nothing to do with it’ are painfully naive and her hostility to the sentiment that this industry rewards tenacity over talent smacks of either insecurity or ignorance.
I know a bunch of talented writers who go ignored – of course they go ignored – the competition is ridiculous. As I mentioned (and will continue to do so forevermore on this blog) I’ve spent the last 5 years making a film about precisely that and when you get members of Radiohead confirming that their career was thanks in no small part to luck and timing and commercial trends… well, I respect their views over hers.
The cream doesn’t always rise.
That may sound pessimistic, it may sound bitter, but it’s true.
I’ve always taught on the principle of honesty. I think a lot of adult education is actually motivational speaking – people like Robert McKee, Dov Siemens, these 2-day expensive workshops which seem to promise to prepare you for the industry. They’ll list glamorous ex-students in their literature but these guys tour the world to packed houses. Out of how ever many thousand people who take their courses, how many go on to success? My ethos is that if you want to learn to write, then you’re learning a craft and you’re learning how to express yourself. That’s almost incongruous to learning to make money from the skill. I teach people how to develop into good writers. That’s all I promise because that’s all I *CAN* promise. I grew up reading all of those books entitled ‘how to write screenplays that SELL’ – nobody can teach that.
All writing is competitive. If, unlike Emma, you don’t have an agent, a body of published work and a slew of rich, famous and influential friends, then you’re on your own in a sea of other amateurs. You have to do anything you can to get your name known. And that is currency you’re dealing in – not money. The money will come once you’re somewhat established. If anyone offers you a raft, a platform for your work you take it on the single proviso that your name will be on it. When you’re starting out, a by-line, a credit, anything you can put on your cv or will widen your audience is of at least equal value to a couple of quid. Work hard and be as tenacious as your personality will allow.
The stupidest thing to do would be to demand money if you’re an unproven, unknown talent. Ask if it’s possible by all means. But if you refuse to let people see your work for free at this point in your career… people won’t see your work because there is an endless queue of people behind you who will happily seize the chance to work for free to begin with.
This is true also in the world of music and comedy, where you expect to do unpaid bottom-of-the-bill gigs to get experience and exposure. it’s true in design – all of the designers I’ve ever hired I found through admiring the work they’d done for free on gig posters and websites. It’s true for writing too – screenwriters and novelist friends of mine have all responded to this issue of the past few days by telling me how their first deals were spec deals – they had to do the work before the company decided whether it was worth publishing or commissioning and these deals are usually now actually back-end profit-splits. This is what you have to do to get started. And it’s worth doing.
I applaud Emma’s idealism. The notion that if all writers refused to work unpaid it would suddenly become a fair world for writers (FACT) but we’ll never know because that’ll never ever ever ever ever ever happen. It’s a competitive marketplace and you have to be in it to win it. Or you have to be very very very very lucky.
The other point I guess I want to make is a brief one about this horrible new concept of ‘Twitter celebrity’. Some people seem to think that just because people choose to follow them they are actually fans who agree to exist in some kind of state of devotion, deferral and awe. They aren’t. They are all human beings, many of equal or superior intelligence and integrity who simply don’t have the same public profile or platforms.
Oh yeah, I promised to end on a joke…
How many Emma Kennedys does it take to change a lightbulb?
None, she is incapable of affecting change and is naive to the landscape of artificial lighting.