It wasn’t so much the subject matter that provoked floods of angry comments, emails and tweets to the Vagenda offices, the Guardian and the social networks, but the springboard she launched her story with – a British musician who had just lost his home, creative output and pet dog in a house fire.
Originally titled ‘Why my wallet doesn’t care that Dev Hynes’ puppy burned in a fire’, the piece sought to criticise already wealthy people using crowdsourcing websites to raise capital when the world knows they could probably pay for it themselves ten times over. Dev Hynes and his unfortunate puppy popped up in Baxter’s crosshairs after reports about the fire included references to his girlfriend’s mother setting up a GoFundMe campaign to help the couple rebuild their lives. It has been reported that the couple were not insured.
The vitriol that greeted the piece and it’s shamelessly shock n’ awe headline seemed to take the Guardian by surprise. The title was hastily changed to the significantly less provocative ‘Why celebrity crowd funding has little appeal’, and it has been suggested that unacknowledged amendments have been made to the copy since it was published. It didn’t help Baxter’s cause that a post appeared around the time of publication (ergo Baxter had not seen it) suggesting that Hynes was uncomfortable with the idea and was considering donating the money to charity.
Apologies from the author and her colleagues at Vagenda have been profuse (if little desperate), but despite the fact that panto villains are not in short supply this time of year, Baxter is continuing to cop merry hell for her article. Her reputation as a writer will suffer, and Vagenda can only wait and see how this will impact on their brand of feminist vitriol-lite.
Whether it’s fair or not isn’t the issue. If you are a writer with any standing or skill whatsoever, someone who writes because they love words, love the thrill of arranging them into patterns to tell stories or evoke emotion, the chances are you have honed a voice. Something within you that processes information and immediately sets about forming it into patterns, calling on all the randomly absorbed details in your brain to shape and nurture and tease a piece out. Holly may have been planning a story about crowd funding for a long time but it was only when the story of Dev Hynes’ misfortune popped up in the press that the crucial elements of relevance and human interest bound her ideas into a cohesive piece of writing.
Call it what you will, but for me that’s how the creative process works and the timeline implies similar for Baxter. It’s open to debate, of course, but then, isn’t everything these days?
The point is that as a writer with a remit to produce work on a daily basis, your editorial radar needs to be high alert at all times. Is the argument you are making more effective because of the additional element you have introduced? Without meaning to be facetious, riffing on the death of a man’s dog after his house burned down to make a point that you’re pissed off that rich people might be using charity money to inflate their already sizeable coffers is not.
That’s a rookie mistake. But we all make them. We’re human. But how did Baxter’s end up in the Guardian? Do they have sub-editors there? Did the potential for great offence pass them by in the alcohol infused haze that is a post Christmas party hangover?
I have worked for many different outlets, some of whom I’ve had to pitch to, then submit drafts to ensure the piece is heading in the right editorial direction, some who allow me full editorial control but remain omnipresent in the background, ready to issue sharp, metaphorical headslaps for irresponsibly placed apostrophes and, on the very blog you are reading now, for myself. None of them have been major publications, just places where hardworking, understaffed, underpaid people have a passion to produce something and a solid understanding that no brand will ever be taken seriously if their writers can’t bloody apply basic grammatical rules.
Baxter and co-founder of Vagenda, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, have enjoyed the warm, accommodating gaze of the left wing press for a couple of years now; aside from their blog they regularly write for The Guardian, New Statesman and Huffington Post. Feminism has experienced something of a resurgence in recent years and arguably their take on it is one that sits most comfortably with the demographic of chattering classes who buy or read these publications. That and the latest fashion for Samantha Brick ‘agent provocateur’ journalism (generating page views, commentary and a subsequent career of sorts by stating something most people will find offensive) seem to have acted as an enabler, allowing previously unconscionable ideas to be dressed up as something valid and unleashed.
It’s a terrible thing for Holly Baxter, but she shouldn’t be the only one copping the flack for this. Her judgement was shocking, but that of her editors was worse and indicative that the slump in journalistic standards isn’t just confined to certain areas of the press.
The writing is on the wall, it seems.