'I was never going to work for the Telegraph, put it that way'

Gary Younge covered the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, woke to the sounds of gunfire while reporting in Haiti and saw the carnage created by Hurricane Katrina up close. But has he buried the hatchet with Diane Abbott?

Earlier this year, the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington responded in a column in the Jamaican Observer to an article Younge wrote for The Guardian about homophobia in Jamaica.

“I was very surprised to see myself denounced in a Jamaican paper in such a shabby way, by a black British MP who, on paper, I agree with on most major issues.” He laughs: “We haven’t kissed and made up.”

Younge got into journalism after meeting The Guardian’s Donald McLeod during a rent strike while studying to be a translator at Heriot- Watt University in Edinburgh. McLeod suggested Younge should try writing for The Scotsman. He submitted half a dozen ideas and The Scotsman liked one.

Although his political involvement might suggest a natural progression to The Guardian, he says the Daily Mirror was probably a more obvious choice.

“I was never going to work for the Telegraph, let’s put it that way, and the Telegraph were never going to employ me, so it’s not like there was any love lost there. Certainly by the time I was at university The Guardian would be the ideal place with my kind of outlook.”

Guardian angel After The Scotsman, Younge got a bursary to work at The Guardian in 1993 and has been there ever since. He started at Farringdon Road as assistant foreign editor before moving on to home news.

“That was a great job to start out with. There were four people on the desk and I was number four. You’d sit there in the morning, decide what the stories were going to be, how you were going to do them, how you were going to package them, then you call the correspondent and say I want 400 words on this’. I learnt a lot from really good people. I saw the copy of really experienced journalists come in and I saw how they did it.”

He was awarded the Lawrence Stern fellowship and went off for a summer on the Washington Post, where Younge also met his future wife. Did he notice many differences in the US?

“At the Washington Post you’d have a conversation before you went to do a piece, then you’d do some research, come back and say: ‘I’m thinking about doing this’. Then you’d have another conversation, do the damn thing, come back, have another conversation, write it, then they give it back, then you rewrite it and then it gets subbed. Here you say: ‘I was thinking about doing something’, [an editor says] ‘yeah, sounds great’, you do it, the response is: ‘OK, great, see ya’, and like shit through a goose, it’s in the paper.”

Landing a book deal to write about his experiences travelling through America’s Deep South took him away from The Guardian, but Younge went back to the features desk in 1998. He eventually got a column and worked on The Guardian’s magazine. Younge ended up back in the US, becoming the paper’s New York correspondent in 2003. From this year, he has just been concentrating on features and his fortnightly column.

He reports from America as an outsider and says the US media’s willingness to believe what a president says doesn’t always make them reliable conduits of information.

“I think the American media has a problem that they’re politically embedded and it has been [that way] for a time. They take themselves very, very seriously, not as chroniclers of power, but as players in power. They are brilliantly resourced and have brilliant writers, but there’s not a sufficient amount of independence.”

The New York Times apologised in 2004 over its reporting of Iraq and heads rolled at the paper one year earlier when it was discovered that a reporter, Jayson Blair, had been fabricating stories.

“He was a troubled guy who screwed up royally, which had nothing to do with race, but that’s the way they went with it. When Judith Miller screwed up on weapons of mass destruction, nobody thought: ‘that’s because she’s white’.

There’s been a few mad people making up stories – and most of them have been white journalists and the one time it’s a black journalist does it. With the Jayson Blair thing, you saw that race is still a big issue in the newsrooms and that immediately kicked in.”

Equal opportunities Back in the UK, Younge thinks there is a lack of imagination in the recruitment of journalists, in terms of race and class.

“They either only write about race or they never write about race, as opposed to being something that they might or might not be interested in.

“For most black people in Britain, our parents were nurses or bus drivers. If you look around most newsrooms and ask: ‘How many of your parents were nurses or bus drivers?’ you’re not going to see that many, particularly at decision-making level.

“Immigration or asylum and all sorts of race stuff could just be reported better.

I don’t mean a better line, I mean better contacts, fewer stereotypes, fewer clichés, all the things that journalism should be about. They [newspapers and broadcasters] don’t recruit in an open way, where a group that’s previously been left out can come in.”

“It’s a barrier because editors hire in their own image. A lot of recruiting takes place in pubs. You’re probably not going to get many Muslim reporters.”

Younge missed reporting 9/11 from the US, but covered Hurricane Katrina as it swept into New Orleans.

“What it did was wash up all the problems America had and put them on TV – poverty, race, colour, crime.

Everything was there. All the things that make America work had collapsed.

Nobody was really running the show.

You’d hit a roadblock and they’d turn you back. You hit another roadblock and they’d wave you through. It was more like reporting from a Third-World country.”

He adds: “Once you’ve seen thousands of people stranded in America and standing on their roofs with banners saying: ‘Help us, we’re dying’, the writing is wallpaper to that story.”

Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States by Gary Younge is published by The New Press.

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