If we can't rely on its honesty, there really is no point to confessional journalism | Catherine Bennett

A confession. When I first read Mary Wakefield’s Spectator article “Getting coronavirus does not bring clarity”, I believed every word. As gullible as that sounds, her heartfelt account, with its hints for other simultaneously afflicted parents – “make it your child’s job to take your temperature” – seemed if anything to overshare about domestic life with Dominic Cummings and little Cedd.

Did we need, for instance, spasms “that made the muscles lump and twitch in his legs”? We know her husband likes to show off his bottom in Downing Street, but still. Ditto a digression on the real Cummings: “An extremely kind man, whatever people assume to the contrary.”

A companion piece by her husband on their weeks variously described as “in lockdown”, “stuck indoors” and “shut in together”, offered further evocative touches. “Everything,” he wrote, in a very serviceable attempt at human, “is covered in a layer of spilt Ribena, honey, peanut butter and playschool glue.”

Though the couple’s story hardly lacked, then, for tokens of sincerity, there was the additional detail, for anyone who’d heard rumours about the whereabouts of the prime minister’s chief adviser, that Wakefield, a commissioning editor on the Spectator, is as pious as he is kind. “What’s there to do for the sick now,” she asked, “except pray?”

With Boris Johnson in peril, she confided, she knelt and “found to my surprise that my prayers flowed easily, as if carried along in a current of others”.

Mary Wakefield, wife of Dominic Cummings.

Mary Wakefield, wife of Dominic Cummings and an editor at the Spectator. Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images

Perhaps that’s why, when the Today programme invited her to read her confessions aloud, some listeners mistook them for a particularly ghastly Thought for the Day. Actually, perhaps it also explains the miracle that is, surely, Wakefield’s professional survival, her reputation only lightly tarnished, to date, by revelations about the London breakout. Although Ipso, the press regulator, has yet to adjudicate, following complaints of inaccuracies, her employer appears content to have published a piece that reads in hindsight less like a confessional column, more a relatable alibi.

Prepare, if Wakefield’s confection passes for journalism, for a new press award, sponsored by the Spectator and awarded to the unreliable narrator of the year. Entries expected to feature include sickness columns by the fully recovered, meat cookery by a vegan, marital bliss by the acutely miserable, financial woe as depicted by the affluent. To be fair, at least one of those has already happened. 

Confessional journalism, if it weren’t a crafted form of personal disclosure – whether obliquely flattering or therapeutic – would be too tedious, too painful or otherwise unpublishable. You expect to relate, laugh or learn something, not fact-check. But its finest exponents, from Nora Ephron down, have been admired, as much as anything, for honesty. You didn’t read “I feel bad about my neck” suspecting that the American writer had left out an important episode featuring aesthetic surgery. Years of excruciating openness, starting well before online publication added to the deterrents, are what made Liz Jones synonymous with British confessional journalism.

If plainly misled, readers would be entitled to react like Oprah Winfrey when she discovered that James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, initially hailed as “unflinchingly honest”, was substantially make-believe: “I feel duped.” His publishers offered refunds.

Liz Jones

‘Years of excruciating openness’ are what made Liz Jones, now at the Mail, synonymous with British confessional journalism. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Whatever difficulties a reader might have with aspects of the Spectator – from Taki to the Barclay brothers who own the magazine – it can’t be faulted for employee support. Unless, that is, the Wakefield approach typifies the in-house understanding of authenticity. Perhaps Toby Young is really very popular. At any rate, readers expecting some sort of explanation have had to be satisfied, instead, with a terrific piece by Alex Massie on why Cummings had to go.

Radio 4’s Today programme (which ministers were reportedly instructed by Cummings to shun) appears similarly to have moved on from broadcasting pro-Cummings propaganda that, even before the Durham revelations, sounded professionally deranged. We await, now we know that homily obscured errors of judgment well beyond those for which other officials have resigned, the kind of public BBC rebuke to which Emily Maitlis was recently subjected.

As for Wakefield, unlike her husband, she hasn’t – yet – had to invent some farrago explaining why her account overlooked a quarantine-busting return to Downing Street, that invisible mob outside the London house, the 260-mile flight into Durham, two standby (but not train-going) nieces and a virus-ridden trip to hospital, but did include lines that cannot be aligned with his testimony. “Dom couldn’t get out of bed,” she wrote, of a period when he collected her from hospital.

If Downing Street refused to comment, on 5, then 10 April, on how Cummings spent his sick leave, Wakefield, on 25 April, made up for it. “Day in, day out for ten days he lay doggo…” Knowing his leg muscles and sticky home as intimately as we do, it seems reasonable to ask if he wouldn’t subsequently tell his journalist wife about the journalists bothering his workplace about their journey.

That they embolden inquisitive readers is one reason confessional writers need, as well as talent, great confidence or the thickest of hides. Both, preferably. Introduce a partner and his/her droll/saintly ways and, next thing, people will not just spot a sudden absence but remark, online, that they don’t blame her/him for doing a runner. A columnist will open up about, say, disabling depression and somebody with disabling depression will point out acidly that it never seems to stop them working. So make out, if only by evasion, that your sick family stayed in “London lockdown”, instead of ignoring rules being observed by truly desperate and grieving people, and some busybody is sure to take it upon themselves to look up Kant on the distinction between lying and deception.

Was Wakefield wrong to write as she did? Or should readers blame themselves for drawing, from the information available, the wrong conclusions? Hopefully Ipso will soon let us know.

Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist


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