Last night I got drunk on free wine and accosted celebrated journalist George Monbiot. It was maybe not my finest moment but I was drunk not just on the wine but on George’s message. I had gone to the Guardian’s Masterclass in column writing expecting a distant formal journalist and a life story of how he made it through good contacts and persistence. The persistence was certainly true, no one makes it without this key attribute of dogged tenacity but George’s message was far more personal.
It was a message of how to live a decent life.
“Live frugally,” he told us. “If you need to earn £30,000 a year and want to be a campaigning journalist then you are going to struggle. Save the money you have for when times are lean. Make sacrifices. If you can live on less you can be free to say no.” It was an evangelical message.
The man in front of me, nodded enthusiastically, “Yes,” he mumbled. “You’ve got it right.”
I felt if we stayed much longer he would be punching the air and shouting ‘halleluiah.’ But in some ways I wanted to do that too.
George Monbiot seems to be that rare thing, an authentic individual. A man who is making sacrifices, getting criticised, getting hate mail, probably getting a price on his head but who is sticking to what he believes in. George is a preacher with a mission to tell the stories that other journalists won’t touch. Just that day George had received a barrage of abuse from readers over his exposure of research that suggests that once people get beyond a certain level of obesity there are no diets on earth that will help them. That the body undergoes certain biochemical changes and can’t change back.
“Some of the stories I tell, people just don’t want to hear,” George admitted. “They will ridicule you and tell you that you’re mad but even if someone is vehemently disagreeing with you they are still reading what you say.” Be true to yourself, be true to your values, that was George’s message. “There are people out there who are professional liars. Who are paid to discredit research and twist facts to benefit those in charge. You have to be prepared to get into a fight with these people. Don’t frame your arguments around the values of your opponents, it just gives weight to their values. Stick to your own values.”
I thought of all the times I had been told to find the middle ground, to appease the people who were opposing me, to be realistic. I thought about the director of a project I had worked on who had told me that “Conservation is compromise.” and I felt validated for all the times I had stuck my ground and said. “No, this is simply wrong and we should expect better.”
After the break, George told us how he goes about writing his weekly Guardian column. Days of research are followed by a breakneck rush for a deadline at 3.30pm on Tuesday afternoon. Many gasped when he told us he didn’t even begin writing his article until 10am on Tuesday morning and then intersperses his writing and editing with bouts of twenty press ups. He told us that there are days when his discovery of the dark plots of the world gets him down, that he needs to compartmentalize his knowledge of how the world works and get on with his life regardless.
“I get to see through some of the deceptions,” he said. “Most of us never do get that chance but I am very thankful for the chance to be paid to read about the world and this is something we should all do. Even if no one ever reads your blog or your articles it still has value. The act of discovery is part of the process of being a human being,” George said, “and that has value in itself.