The Sensitivity Reader | Andrew O'Hagan | Granta

The Sensitivity Reader

Andrew O’Hagan

Before it occurred, the drama on the Piccadilly Line, I was one of those people employed to clean up the radio archives at the BBC. I’d written a book called Muriel Spark and the Comedy of Fact and was still smarting from the silence surrounding its publication. People talk such garbage about failure. They say it’s the attempt that counts, that failure is a great teacher. All I know is that success improves your life, and when it doesn’t come you’re left with a sense of premeditated injury. I joined a part-time MA in journalism at City University, where some of the students had tattoos, nose rings and pale blue hair. We yearned to report on the inner reaches of ourselves. All data was of course credit data. All reporting was surveillance. In good journalism you get to see what happened, but in the best you also get to see what might have happened instead.

‘You guys want to believe that stories belong to the people they’re about,’ the professor said one cold evening in the lecture hall, ‘but that’s just not true. History is merely a chronology of accidents and journalism a perpetual clean-up operation.’ His accent was strong. Welsh. The hall smelled of damp wool. The students seemed
super-alert. Outside the window, the lights of Clerkenwell glowed through the rain.

‘I don’t think so,’ the young woman sitting in front of me said. Professor Madoc behaved as if all opposition was enjoyable. You had the impression he kept his deepest professional experiences to himself, and that he doubted your capacity for reality. I admired him, perhaps more than I should have. I like the idea that minds improve by confronting difficulty, not by meeting reassurance.

‘Look out for that form of sentimentality known as privacy,’ he said to the hall. ‘It’s redundant. Your job, your only job, is to expose the truth, with no regard for special interests, the special interests of corporations as much as individuals.’

‘I’m not sure that’s right,’ I said, with my hand up (an old habit). ‘Surely it’s not okay to harm or offend people just to get information?’

He came straight back at me. ‘Offence is merely a by-product of good reporting,’ he said. ‘People’s feelings are irrelevant.’

‘That’s over the top,’ I said to the students rather than to him.

‘Speak up!’ he shouted. ‘I can take it.’

‘That’s really questionable,’ I said, a little louder. ‘You’re making it sound like reporting is a form of exploitation.’

‘You’re saying you can’t cope with it?’

‘You’re framing the whole thing as an immoral act.’

I couldn’t tell if the other students knew that Madoc and I had become friendly. I was a little older and already hired by a corporation, which may have annoyed them. He had a tendency to pick me out. Over drinks, he had told me I should be thinking about long-form. I suppose most of them imagined we were just two blokes in a competition to mansplain, but Madoc could be insightful. I thought he could help me.

‘In a time when all information is gathered and controlled by potentially bad actors,’ he said, ‘we can still believe in the power of the individual witness to circumvent that control. I don’t know if you believe that, Mr McAllister. You’re from the United States, no?’

‘I won’t deny it,’ I said, putting down my pencil. ‘Philadelphia.’

‘Home of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Well, people either believe in journalism or they don’t, Michael. They either like the truth, or they hate it. Some of you want to be activists, yet you’re frightened of offending anyone. But, let me tell you: objectivity takes a degree of courage, and this business is not a niceness contest. It’s brutal. It should be brutal.’ I think the students were put off by his categorical way of speaking. Some of them looked at me, as if I might know how to make him less like that.

There was a loner-guy in the second row. That evening, he seemed especially agitated, pulling his headphones on and off, the music suddenly blaring from his cans while Madoc continued to speak. There’s nothing more insistent than other people’s music. It was a jagged sound, thrash metal or whatever, and its discordance began to feed an anxiety already there in the room. ‘Fucking bullshit!’ the guy shouted, pushing the headphones back on.

‘I think you should leave the hall,’ Madoc said.

‘Like you know anything.’

‘Just leave.’

The guy provoked confrontation yet seemed to hate the attention. I’d often see him craning round to look at me during the class. A week on, it must have been him that stuck a Post-it note on the bench where I sat. I found it when I came in and could see the back of his head, nodding with his cans on. Then he laid his head on his folded arms for the whole hour. ‘SPEAK UP!’ the note said.

I’d come to Broadcasting House after two years at HarperCollins as a sensitivity reader. By my count, I’d saved twenty-six authors from making jerks of themselves or being cancelled, and now I was in this open-plan office on the fourth floor, trying to sort out the archives of Desert Island Discs. Archive cleansing was hardly my life’s ambition – a frontline assignment was the aim, or a serial podcast – but they allowed me to work flexible hours, and it calmed the mind to be assessing old recordings and listening to the variously intelligent and prejudiced questions of Roy Plomley and Sue Lawley.

Andrew O’Hagan

Andrew O’Hagan's new novel, Caledonian Road, will be published in the spring of 2024. He is the author of six previous novels, including Mayflies which was adapted by the BBC.

Photograph © Christina Jansen

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