Opinion writing has changed a lot since I started out. It’s time for something new | Hadley Freeman

It’s ironic that at a time when this job has never been more desirable to so many, there is such an expectation of conformity of opinion

For someone who never actually wanted to be a columnist, I have written a heck of a lot of columns. I’ve been a Weekend columnist for five and a half years, and before that I was in the Guardian’s opinion section, and before that I was a columnist in the daily features section, G2, meaning I’ve foisted about 10 million of my random opinions on all of you. It has been a joy (for me, anyway), but now it is time to stop. I’ll still be doing interviews for the Guardian, but there is a tide in the affairs of man (all columnists love a random classic quote), and even an overly opinionated, 80s movies-obsessed, Jewish New Yorker (I’m WAWKIN’ here, I’m WAWKIN’!) knows when to step away from the table. So I’ll be banging on about fewer of my opinions, and writing more about those of others.

Like I said, I never wanted to be a columnist, but no one did when I started back in 2000. Sure, there were columnists around then, some of whom still write for the Guardian (Jonathan Freedland, Martin Kettle, Polly Toynbee), some of whom sadly don’t (Martin Woollacott, Hugo Young). But column-writing was seen as something of a private members’ club: elitist, dusty and distant. Back then, young journalists wanted the fun, scrappy jobs: investigative reporter, music reviewer, features writer. But ever since the rise of blogging culture in the 2000s, when anyone with an Apple PowerBook (RIP) could knock out a column, pretty much every aspiring journalist I’ve met has told me they want to be a columnist. Stating your opinion online has become the definitive way of saying who you are, so of course more people want columns. Yet, here’s a funny thing: I can’t recall a single day – and there were thousands – that I spent sitting at my desk writing a column. I can, however, recall going to the Oscars to cover them, or the weekend I spent with Judy Blume to interview her. Columns pump up the ego, but going out and finding stories is a lot more fun.

Something else has changed about column-writing in recent years. I wrote last week about being in New York on 9/11 and the killing of my friend. Two days after the terrorist attacks, a column written by then Guardian columnist Seumas Milne ran with this headline: “They can’t see why they are hated.” America, Milne argued, had brought this on itself. It was jarring to read it at the time, but it never occurred to me to complain, and maybe some will see that as feeble or – gasp, horror – appallingly centrist of me. But I saw that article as Milne’s opinion, so why shouldn’t he write it? And Milne, I think, felt similarly of the things I wrote. Given that he went on to become Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesperson, and I’m an American Zionist who happily voted for Tony Blair, it’s safe to say we disagree about quite a lot. But it was Milne who brought me on to the Guardian’s comment section and he became one of the most encouraging editors I ever had. Ideological disagreements were just a normal part of life on the paper back then, and mixing only with those you agree with would have been seen by many journalists as embarrassingly partisan and unprofessional.

I don’t know if that’s quite so true any more. I’ve tackled some highly controversial subjects in my time, from Israel to – most controversially – the ugliness of combat trousers, so I’m no stranger to heated debate. But where once people could argue with one another and then go out for a drink, now it feels as if people just argue. A difference of opinion becomes a seismic breaking of alliances, and certain subjects are verboten in social situations. I could blame Brexit for this – a difference of opinion that pretty much broke this country – but I noticed it before. In May 2016, I watched a documentary about Corbyn, made by Vice, and in one scene Corbyn gets very angry about a column Freedland wrote in the Guardian, about antisemitism in the Labour party. He makes a call – to Milne, as chance would have it – and the two of them discuss Freedland: “He’s not a good guy at all. He seems kind of obsessed with me,” Corbyn rages.

I’ve thought about that moment a lot, because it felt like a turning point, a shift from when readers merely disagreed with a column to disagreeing and therefore assuming the columnist is A Bad Person. All newspaper columnists will have experienced degrees of that shift over the past five years, and this is not – as some have said – about holding them accountable for their opinions; it’s a refusal to accept that not everyone sees things the same way. Yet this, surely, is what columns are all about: revealing the variety of perspectives. So it’s ironic that at a time when column-writing has never been more desirable to so many, there is such an expectation of conformity of opinion.

None of this is why I’m stopping the column. It’s just time. Thank you all so much for letting me speak at you every Saturday morning, and thank you to those who spoke back, whether by email or stopping me in the street to tell me that combat trousers are great, actually (no, they’re not). Adhering to columnist tradition, I shall end with a classic quote: adieu, adieu, to yuh and yuh and yuh.

• This article was amended on 20 September 2021 to correct a misspelling of Martin Woollacott’s surname as “Wollacott”.

Contributor

Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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