PassTheAux with Suzanne Moore: interview regrets, pay rises and libel threats

One of the UK's most successful and longest-serving journalists shares some of her formative experiences as a young writer

Suzanne Moore has had an unusual career trajectory as a comment writer. After graduating with a degree in Cultural Studies, she earned her first bylines in Marxism Today and The New Statesman before settling at the Guardian in the Nineties, where she stayed for 30 years, becoming a leading voice on the intersection of politics and feminism – in 1995 even coming to verbal blows with Germaine Greer in a very public spat.

But then last November she resigned from the Guardian and moved to the Telegraph, where she now holds a weekly political column. Clearly sensing surprise in the crowd, she published a Substack post titled Why are left-wing women writing in right-wing newspapers?, explaining, “Why should I be stuck in a monogamous relationship with just one paper, one way of thinking, one “truth”?”

Suzanne had resigned after 338 employees had signed a letter to the paper calling out how its “pattern of publishing transphobic content has interfered with our work and cemented our reputation as a publication hostile to trans rights and trans employees”. While Suzanne was not named, the letter came shortly after the publication of her column Women must have the right to organise. We will not be silenced in March 2020, which she wrote in response to the accusations of transphobia against professor Selina Todd.

Some of her pieces for the Telegraph have also proved controversial, and I should make clear her inclusion in this newsletter is not a personal endorsement of her opinions for either publication.

But whatever you may think of Suzanne’s politics, she is one of the most prominent and longest-serving journalists in the UK, winning the 2019 George Orwell prize for pieces on how the world failed Monica Lewinsky and why she long-refused to wear a poppy. A sign of the times, her profile has only ballooned since her brush with cancellation, and six decades into her career as a journalist she perhaps wields more influence than ever before – her Telegraph pieces often rack up close to 2000 comments, while on Twitter she has well over 100,000 followers, and her newly launched Substack appears to be flying. 

I was interested in what she had to say about her experiences as a writer who seems to have seen it all, and what she has learned along the way. 

Do you remember your first big edit?

I became a film critic at the New Statesman early on, and I had an excellent editor – I very much wanted to please her. She could be brutal. She cut my copy of course – your best jokes are always taken out – but what I remember is that when I was really pleased with a piece, she'd say, “Yeah, I quite enjoyed that.” Or: “One of your better weeks.” She never said anything was good. But I think that was a really good learning for me.

I did have one shocker...when I interviewed Paula Yates for City Limits. They wanted this whole Paula Yates sex bomb type piece. And I met her in a cafe and she was breastfeeding. And I ended up talking to her all about babies and things. And they wanted the celebrity. They just said, “We're not sure about this piece”, and I remember feeling quite hurt because actually we had quite a good chat. 

And the thing she told me about Bob Geldof I've never forgotten. They had been together a long time and that morning he asked her if they had a washing machine! The piece being killed made me doubt what I found interesting. A good editor doesn’t make you feel insecure; a good editor doesn’t sow you full of doubt. They didn’t run the Yates piece in the end, so I just sold it to someone else. 

Have you ever worked with any nightmare editors?

Some editors are just horrible – when I worked at the Mail on Sunday there were always people crying on the toilet because they would set the younger reporters against each other in this ridiculous way. And there was one guy in particular who was on this massive power trip and everything people wrote he would make them re-write six times and then always use the first draft. 

Many writers are no longer edited enough. Do you think the quality of writing has gone down?

People are just working so fast. Say at the Guardian, you write something so quickly and it’s banged up online and not enough people have gone through it. I read so many pieces that could have been cut drastically and reshaped. 

Actually, it's not just newspapers, I feel that way about a lot of books. I think that people get too big to be edited. No one needs 400 pages. I occasionally teach journalism, and I can see that people have written paragraphs which they've thought to themselves, “Oh this is so great, but it doesn’t really fit”. And then because they don’t want to lose it, they cut and paste it somewhere else in the piece. Always rewrite it, don’t just move it.

I also think the first and last sentences are very important, and recently more and more pieces just sort of end. But they don’t have an end. Or they don’t have an argument – they’re just a stream of consciousness. 

How did you get your first pay rise?

Nobody wants you, then one person wants you and then everybody wants you – that tends to be what happens! I had a column at the Independent and then the Guardian said to me, “Why aren’t you writing for us?” They offered me a job. But then with my weekly column at the Guardian I had no idea how much other people were earning, which is a problem in journalism. I won Columnist of the Year, but then I found out the male columnists on my level were earning twice as much as me. Literally twice. I didn’t know what to do. I went for lunch with the editor Peter Preston and I was very awkward and he was very awkward. I just sort of blurted out, “Give me more money!” Then he said, “Bill please”. And that was the end of the lunch. So I knew I’d done it wrong.

But then this was in the Nineties, when journalists had agents. I had this agent, and this was the time of female power dressing and all that and she just came in to the office and rattled her BMW keys at him and said, “Suzanne has to be paid more.” The next Monday I got a call from Peter, he gave me what I wanted on the condition “that I never have to see her again”.

But usually I would never advise that journalists get agents to negotiate contracts because they will take 10 per cent. Understanding how much people are getting paid these days is getting even more difficult because the rates are going down and you are continually told to get exposure. I mean the Guardian comment blog pays £80, for someone’s 1000 words which they have probably worked really hard on. You can’t live on that, that’s terrible! 

So what’s your advice for journalists now?

I think you should quietly get a sense of what the rates are for what your rank is. But then again, you know, they fired a load of people at the Sunday Times who had been there a very long time because it was cheaper to get in a new raft of people, so it’s a really fine line between knowing your worth and being seen as pushy. Because women are always seen as pushy. Asking around what people earn can make you seem like a bit of a troublemaker. 

What was helpful for me was getting information from the commercial department that they could sell ads from my columns because they were doing so well. So then I knew I had a commercial value. It’s strange seeing yourself as a commodity but in a way you have to. 

Tell me about your worst ever celebrity interview.

I never did too many interviews because whenever I got offered them I’d ask, but why? Because I’m a woman? And editors would say, “No, because you’re a people person.” But what does that even mean? Besides I’m not interested in actors really, because they just speak other people’s lines, and musicians aren’t often great talkers. Directors are the creative ones.  So when the Guardian asked if I could interview Robert De Niro I said, what is the point of that? De Niro hasn’t said anything interesting to anyone ever, so why would he say anything different to me? I turned that down. 

Actually I do remember a terrible interview being with Roman Polanski, in Paris. It wasn't that he wasn't nice to me. I had been told that he wouldn’t talk about the Sharon Tate murder. So I did the interview and then someone said, “Oh come upstairs”. And when you’re a journalist you want to hang out with your interviewee as long as you can. But I just couldn’t wait to get away from him. Not because he was coming on to me, because I was 30 and he actually made it very clear to me that he only liked girls who were under 20, so it’s not like I was sexually threatened by him. But every instinct in me was just to get away from him. 

And I thought, is it because I’ve read all this stuff about him coming out of Auschvitz and the murders and the rape? And I actually don’t think it was that. I think now, looking back, I should never have given him the publicity. I was into his films and I got carried away.

Is that the piece you most regret?

Yes, although I learned a lot from doing it. I learned from that mistake. 

Was it irresponsible of the editor to ask you to do it?

It’s difficult, he had a film coming out, they asked me if I wanted to go and I said yes. I can’t blame anyone. I just wanted to interview someone interesting because, especially during the New Labour times, when I was interviewing politicians, it was so hard to stay awake. When I got [Peter] Mandelson I remember I thought, thank God! Not because I liked him, but because he was a character, and for a writer that is a gift.

Have you ever had fallout from a published interview and how do you deal with it?

Well, I just think, why does everyone have to love what you write? Celebrities can say no, they don’t have to do the interviews if they don’t want to. I would never punch down, I would never slag off someone who didn’t have the power to come back at me. I don’t believe in that kind of cruel tabloid journalism. 

I’ve had lots of people threaten me with libel. Actually Hugh Heffner threatened me with libel because I called him a pimp when I was at the Mail on Sunday. I mean, I was going to call his girlfriend a prostitute! Anyway I said, great, let this go to court! I’d love that. Come to think of it Russell Brand also threatened me with libel for saying he had a ghostwriter. The only time I’ve been worried was when I was at the Independent and they had no money so I thought oh, God, any sort of case would have made it collapse.

What is your best piece of writing advice?

It’s always what young people don’t want to hear: take your headphones out. If you want to report on the world, then live in it. Listen to what people are talking about on the bus or the tube. That’s how you understand what people think. Politically, that’s how you pick up the mood of things. So many of the stories I have written have been lifted from the school playground – not from Westminster, where everyone is always saying the same thing. You can’t understand the world without listening to it. 

This month in links

I’ve been reading the new Sally Rooney novel Beautiful World Where Are You and alas I sort of hated it. Partly because I love everything Sally Rooney, so any disappointment feels magnified, but also because I couldn’t believe in two of the main characters, Alice and Felix, who felt like vehicles with which to try out Rooney’s political and philosophical theories rather than actual flesh and blood. But my God does she write a good sex scene. My colleague Susannah Goldsbrough said it all much better in her review, which you can read here. I also recommend her comment piece on why young writers need to be wary of copying Rooney’s style.

I’ve been watching The White Lotus on HBO, which is like Big Little Lies meets Fawlty Towers, and is one of the sharpest satires of Gen Z I’ve ever seen. If you’ve already seen it then you might enjoy this very good Vulture interview with its creator Mike White. A snippet: “I wanted to explore with the show, how everyone’s on the defensive right now. Everyone feels on their heels a little bit. The funny, interesting, complicated ways we try to justify how we vacation, how we spend our money. I’m doing it right now defending why I wrote this! Where do I get off writing a show that takes place in Hawaii?” Read it here.

I’ve been interviewing frontwoman of London Grammar Hannah Reid for my podcast Straight Up, which I co-host with my wonderful friend Kathleen Johnston. Hannah talked about the problem with male music critics patronising women songwriters, and asks, when will we ever stop praying at the altar of the “complicated male genius”? She was warm and funny and – as she says herself – very different to her melancholy musical persona. Listen to it here.

I’ve been editing Thomas Hobbs on the underrated horror actor Peter Cushing and the legacy he left in his local Whitstable, told through the memories of his neighbours. I didn’t know much about Cushing and unusually for a pitch it came WITHOUT A PEG! but I knew Cushing would have been adored by many Telegraph readers, and this was such a charming, unique angle. The result is a thoughtful and moving long read of the kind many newspapers have stopped publishing. Read it here.

I can’t stop thinking about the four-course breakfast I had in Lyme Regis the other week, which began with an “amuse bouche” of toast ice-cream, followed by cacao granola and compote, salted caramel crepes or a full English, finished with fudge balls and a shot of ginger juice. I’ve never had such an extravagant breakfast but this is how I mean to go on. If you ever, like I did, need to convalesce by the seaside and hunt for fossils after one too many festivals, then Dorset House Lyme Regis will restore you to your former glory. And no this is not #Spon, I just bloody love breakfast.

Thanks for reading PassTheAux! Let me know your thoughts by emailing me or tweeting me @eleanorhalls1