(updated and corrected version – correcting a page synthesizing and creation error, which duplicated some sections and also removed some photos)
The other day I heard a Dutch NPO-radio colleague speaking (in Dutch) about the stress of the last year as a Great Britain correspondent.
He spoke of the fact that the year was evidently hectic and made it difficult to keep up with family and private commitments, not the least to look after himself. He also said that it was also mentally demanding with constant change in the air.
I echo all of this. Coverage this year may have been busy, but was most frustrating too.
In addition to Brexit, I had to again deal with the reporting of antisemitism in politics – not for the first year either – I wished I would never have to report on, and doubly so, as someone, who works for a left of centre newspaper, where issues of social justice matter.
Unlike some UK media outlets on the left of centre, my German newspaper taz was mostly outstanding on reporting antisemitism both in Germany and elsewhere, seeing it correctly as a problem of the left and right. Much of what I wrote was on Labour, but if you look at my last comment in the Jewish German newspaper, the headline is enough. It reads, not just Labour! The fact that taz reports this a problem of both sides has been remarked on in astonishment by British journalist colleagues, who work in Germany, because they assumed it not so in the UK – though I have to say, the Guardian has caught up somewhat on that.
I also reported on green climate change campaigns like XR and the school strikes, seeing my own daughter in one of them, while political decisions moved, as a matter of fact, insufficiently on that side. On the one hand, I was also able to meet and report on a Jewish contingent there, while on the other, one of the key figures of XR also got entangled into controversy due to a stupid and needless comment of his on the holocaust.
I reported again on Grenfell. First, on a photo exhibition, the first (perhaps only?) report in the German newspaper landscape, and then later, the first stage report from the Grenfell Inquiry was released and I had to speed-read the report in an embargo room, exactly when I had fallen ill and felt sick. I did the first report, but a second newspaper report almost failed due to my health (saved by my editor). Still, having promised campaigners and survivors that I would attend a meeting with them, I took some aspirin and even attended that meeting in the evening at parliament. The effort proved right. Not only did I not let my contacts down, I was one of only few journalists that evening attending and again the only one reporting this in the German media landscape (read here (German)). One of the last reports this year, on election night, came from Kensington Town Hall, where, in the end, at around four in the morning I stood in front of one of the key Grenfell campaigners, who was bereaved of words unable to comment, when Kensington went back to a Conservative MP. It went duly into the morning sheets.
I had to deal with this whole Brexit stuff, reporting from both camps who seemed not able to consider or compromise with the other, while being myself a dual UK /EU citizen, who saw rights and wrongs on both sides and somehow wanted it all to go away (considerable parts of the UK population had similar thoughts).
I met sheep farmers who were willing to end their trade and the professions their families had for generations, if EU export tariffs killed it after the withdrawal from the EU, “for the glory of Brexit “and if it would be keeping out foreigners”, and fishermen who hoped for their lost fortunes to restore through it (read here about in Hastings and here about it Scotland).
I met people whose only positive regional economic changes and contributions were expensive and large EU-funded infrastructure projects in one town a newly upgraded railway line, a newly done up two-lane country road, a colossal fitness centre, a hospital, a huge college and a cable lift, as well as expensive memorials to the towns past, were still not enough and so many still voted Brexit, because all the many faults that affected their lives, including those caused by austerity cuts, were blamed on Europe (and mostly they had something to do with local or national politics).
Privately, on my facebook and on twitter, I reminded people also on Boris Johnson’s rather poor record in London (London Garden Bridge, Routemaster Blunder, Air Pollution Issues (incl. non-released report on effect on children), Boris Island, Heathrow a.o. ), only to be told by two women in a small village in Yorkshire that “they knew” that Boris had been a good mayor in London – and so the man, who was co-responsible for the 350 Million Pound lie, became prime minister – many told me, because their options for alternatives were rather poor.
There was the resignation of Theresa May, a fight for the leadership of the conservative party, a landslide EU and local election, an illegal prorogation, there was a supreme court decision, and there were astonishing parliamentary votes, and so on. New parties emerged and vanished, I walked with Nigel Farage, and witnessed the ascendance of Jo Swinson (only to resign after the election). I interviewed Jonathan Bartley the Co-Leader of the Green Party.
But I also got some time with Jane Dodds, a refugee social worker who gained Brecon and Radnorshire in Wales for the LibDems in a hard-fought by-election only to lose it in the general election to a new Conservative Candidate and I argued with Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry, whilst quizzing with questions the Conservative Transport Minister George Freeman and the Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, amongst others.
In Bristol West, I interviewed both Green candidate Carla Denyer and the standing and winning Labour candidate Thangam Debonnaire (I actually liked both of them), and in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Labours Natalie Fleet (who lost aLabour seat of decades to the Conservatives). In Richmond Lib Dems Sarah Olney spoke to me (she won), Conservatives’ Zac Goldsmiths was asked for an interview, but declined. But I was refused an interview with Luciana Berger, in spite of working also for the Jewish-German newspaper. I also made the highlight of two Nigerian-British conservative party members, when I took a photo for them of the two of them standing with Jacob Rees-Mogg.
There were many demonstrations, those of the Peoples Vote and smaller ones of the Leavers.
I have been to Wales, Scotland, all sort of regions West, South, . As As usual, I learned new things, going into corners few would go, and thinking creatively and finding unique stories and people. My highlights include the anti-fracking campaigners in Bolsover or the story of a Remainer and LibDem supporter in Wales who lived next to a Brexit supporting Conservative, fighting out their conflict with huge placards on the countryside.
Also, I remember the citizenship initiative in the small 2600 souls town of Cuxton in Kent, who set up their own independent party of independent citizens called ACT (Acto for Cuxton Together) and won in that way against all established parties in their regional local election. I was the only one to report this beyond Kent. In the same wider region of Kent a Brexit supporting Conservative party club chair told me, that if Hitler would not have been such an idiot, he would have been a good leader.
In the same wider region of Kent a Brexit supporting Conservative party club chair told me, that if Hitler would not have been such an idiot, he would have been a good leader.
And this having been a most extraordinary year, I was mostly not able to write about issues I actually cared about, like poverty, health blunders and violence, or equality issues, because there are only so many hours of time one has. However, there was at least one story I wrote that set something in motion. When I wrote about the demise of a Dutch mother of two, a victim of abusive relationships and her problems to access social welfare in the UK, because of status issues, a reader had a heart and posted the money she required for a new Dutch passport, which she needed to set things in motion. We even translated the story into English (read here). The mum in question is now settled and protected.
Another breakthrough for people was an article initiated by me but co-written in taz with two expert journalists of taz colleagues Pascal Beuker and Christian Rath, which later was translated into English (read here) for wider reach. It regarded the strange omissions of entitlement to German citizenship to certain Jewish refugees and their children. Those affected told us, that the article we wrote was for a long time the most thorough in the German media landscape. Most other media outlets only followed after our article, and what’s more, there was an impact, when the German government briefed its authorities to consider the cases. It came short of a change of law, but it may be something that will still be changed eventually. I also wrote about this in the German Jewish Newspaper Jüdische Allgemeine.
Earlier in the year, I travelled to Berlin (the green way, by train) to speak about Britain at a political discussion event taz hosted. It was great to meet readers, many of whom made sure to let me know that they appreciated my reports.
Even though my position as GB correspondent since September 2018 slightly improved my pay, I continue to wait to be paid closer to the rates of colleagues of national broadcasters both in Germany and the UK. But like the vast majority of journalists out there, I continue to persevere in a relatively poorly paid profession – some say it remains the lowest-paid professional job. I have a German contract of minimum work assurance and pay (for both sides), but still am not entitled to sick and holiday pay. At 50, that is beginning to be a worrying thought, if one is honest.
I also made sure I had some time for my family, including a visit to my mum amidst the Brexit and election drama because she was hospitalised.
And if that was not enough to spend your time on in a week, the low journalism wage made me continue to prop up my earnings through my long-established side-profession of personal Pilates teacher, even during this crazy year. On the positive side, I really make a difference to most of my clients. Often, I would teach a few hours and immediately continue into the writing. Some of my sessions also had to be cancelled as and when politics got all wild.
There was little time to make progress on my book, though a taste of things to come on that side came, when I had the opportunity to write extracts of the book for the German Le Monde Diplomatique in its Brexit special in March (thanks to the editor of that special release, Oliver Pohlisch who had the idea). I had to also leave to the side the offer of a trustee position (which remains open, but I wonder now, if I can still commit to things like that), nor could I assist to upkeep a local organisation I had helped to build some years ago when some suggested I should become its chair again.
Did I look after myself? Reasonably well though there were often enduring days and weeks I could not, given the fact, that I also have family commitments. Luckily on reporting duties, I often have to walk a lot, so at least I got that. Worst of all was the announcement of the winter general election. Not because of winter itself or the work challenge, but because the election day fell a few days before my 50th birthday. To compensate for the shortcomings, we planned to go on holiday as soon as the election was over, skipping the last week of parliament, but not before surviving the election night, writing my report, sleeping an hour or two and then attending my daughter’s school end of term show. A month earlier, I was on call during their advent event, and receiving a call in the middle of it due to a fanatic Islamist attacking people in London and then being shot by police. Luckily I returned after the call just in time for my daughter’s little part in the show, though I had to report on the attack later. My wife also had to live with the fact that I was often not there when needed, also having an impact on her ability to work. I am grateful of course for the understanding.
In the end, I must have read and gone through several 100.000 of pages of reports, proposals, legal texts, political statements, comments of others and so on. I probably have forgotten to mention half of the other stuff I also wrote or covered. Am I more clever, do I know more, after all of this? Not at all.
The more I do this job, I know, that I know nothing. Not the least because there is very little time to reflect or go even deeper into a topic. There is always another side, another viewpoint, a perspective you have not heard yet. All in between is commentary – these days much of that is to be found on Twitter. Don’t get me started on what I think of that. The truth is, I much prefer meeting people and learn more about them than in a few characters, though of course, one can not ignore any longer all that commenting. But be aware, not always is there something behind it. Those who engage in this, should also admit more often the old truth of Socrates.
P.s. none of my work would have been possible without great editors in Germany. They know who they are and I like to thank them for their dedicated initiative and care!
To finish, here some of the pictures of the year 2019.