FICTION: Headlines and Deadlines by Benjamin Burrett

“Kim Kardashian?!  You can’t be fucking eh-serious Charlotte!” shouts my boyfriend Rodrigo, his anger accentuating his usually subtle Colombian accent.  Whenever he gets agitated his English starts to fray at the seams, a trait that makes him incredibly adorable when it’s absolutely the least of his intentions.

He catches me smiling and looks away.  ¡Maldito Ingles!” he mutters, followed by a string of swear words in Spanish that I can’t really understand.  I reach out across the table and grab his hand to comfort him, grateful that our infrequent arguments always take place in my first language rather than his.

To think that Kim Kardashian-West is the cause of an argument between my boyfriend and I is peculiar to say the least.  The mere mention of her name can lead the imagination to themes of scandal, seduction and sex, but sadly for Rodrigo and I the narrative isn’t quite so juicy.  From our current location in the North London suburb of Finsbury Park we’re approximately as close to Hollywood as the East of Mongolia.

24 hours earlier Kim had been much nearer to here.  Just a couple of hours south in fact, at a luxurious hotel in Paris that you need to be rich beyond belief to even know exists.  In spite of the prestige of the venue and the weight of her security entourage, five men had broken in, bound and gagged Kim in the bathroom, and walked out with a stash of her jewellery worth more than the GDP of most African nations.

For a Daily Mail Online journalist like myself this is a massive story.  Not quite as massive as when she flashes her twat on Instagram, but headline news nonetheless.  From the moment I awoke and saw the alert on my phone I knew this story was going to ruin my day.  As if Monday wasn’t enough of a chore already.

The truth is I can’t stand Kim K.  I hate what she represents.  Why do we insist on celebrating people with no discernible talent?  For all the progress that we’ve made as women, arguably the world’s most recognisable female in 2016 is famous for getting fucked on video.  That’s messed up.

When I arrived at work the news was well and truly established in the public domain, and it was my job to keep it there for as long as possible.  Monday is a big day of traffic for our site – many choose to warm up for the week by reading pointless rubbish online – and so this story took on even more importance.  The news editor Glen spent most of the day riding me like Ray Jay in that infamous video to make sure the story stayed popular.

By the early afternoon Kim had returned to the US, with photos from her arrival at the airport indicating that she may be without her wedding ring.  This is exactly the sort of pointless detail that our readers love, thus a great way to extend the story in the absence of anything in any way factual or important.  Kim might be the most superficial person on earth, but it’s not her fault that she brings out the superficial in all the rest of us.

The best and worst thing about online journalism is its immediacy.  As soon as an article is live you know exactly how it’s being received, making the potential for instant gratification huge.  Ultimately the interactivity and accountability of the digital world makes my job more interesting day to day.

On the other hand, it has meant that the majority of mainstream media is now non-descript, populist bullshit.  They say that democracy seems like a great idea until you talk to the average voter – or something like that –  and I often feel the same way about online news and citizen journalism.  My job should be to be to make people smarter, not to optimise my work to match their current intelligence.

These kind of thoughts often occupy my mind well after I leave the office, but today I was more than happy to leave them at the door.  I left work around half past six, to be greeted by an October evening fractionally too chilly for the dress, tights and cardigan combination I’d hastily applied earlier this morning.

Every Monday evening without fail I spend with Rodrigo.  A while back we made a pact to do something fun on the first evening of the week to try and make this otherwise lamentable day at least tolerable.  We’d agreed that tonight we wouldn’t do anything too adventurous, instead opting to go for dinner at our favourite Turkish place not far from his house.  The perfect way to wind down after a long day of keeping up with the Kardashians.

On the way home I often find myself reading The Evening Standard on the tube.  Given I spend my day writing similar quality coverage on the same issues, it’s weird that I spend some of my first moments of freedom reading what my counterparts at the Standard have to say.  It’s like how many of us love to go for drinks with our colleagues after work on Friday, only to spend the whole time talking about our jobs.  We invite work to encroach on our lives and then blame it for doing so.

This evening I left the Standard to the other commuters and passed the journey with a mind largely absent.  Two trains and a brief walk passed without incident and I arrived to the restaurant only ten minutes or so after I’d intended to.  Predictably Rodrigo had beaten me there and was waiting patiently, casually browsing the news on his phone.  To describe my tardiness as a theme in our relationship would be a serious understatement.

I appreciate that the name Rodrigo in itself probably leads you to picture my boyfriend in a particular way.  And yes, he is Latino – hailing from the pulsating city of Medellin, Colombia.  We met there when I was travelling, at a time when a relationship of any longer than 24 hours seemed unnecessarily drawn out.  Little did I know he was planning to move to the UK, or that a year and a half later we’d still be going strong.

However, if you’re imagining him to match the fiery, passionate stereotype that often adorns a man of his background then I’m afraid it’s time for a figurative cold shower.  He’s not a bad looking guy, but he’s not Ricky Martin or Enrique by any means either.  Equally he’s fairly quiet and introverted in most circumstances, and disappointingly reserved when near a dance floor.  He’s an incredible guy though – smart, kind, thoughtful, worldly and interesting.  A man who speaks the language of honesty much more fluently than most of his fellow Latinos.  Or fellow males, for that matter.

From the start this evening he seemed different to normal.  Not in any way rude or disagreeable, just a little distant and distracted.  Predictably the conversation began with him asking how my day had gone, and equally predictably I responded with a disgruntled monologue that lasted several minutes – covering everything from Kim K through to the lack of lunch options near work with more accuracy and detail than many of my articles.

When I was finished we went about ordering food.  As we chatted through the menu it became even more apparent that something wasn’t quite right with him.  After we’d agreed on a lamb kofta and some falafels, I asked whether there was something that was bothering him.  He raised his eyebrows just fractionally and looked at me for a couple of seconds, then shook his head slightly and looked away.

“You didn’t follow the news today, did you?” he asked eventually.

What is he talking about?  Surely he realises that I haven’t just read the news, I actually wrote a lot of it! 

And then it hit me.  How the fuck could I have forgotten something so important?

Rodrigo’s beloved Colombia had yesterday gone to the polls to ratify a peace accord between the Government and rebel guerrilla who have engaged in a bloody civil war over the past 60 or so years.  The world’s longest standing armed conflict had accounted for millions of casualties – including some of Rodrigo’s family – whilst also taking a significant toll on the country’s limited finances and general development.  The guerrilla also funded and assisted many of the drug cartels whose violence had left thousands more dead and the country’s reputation severely wounded.

I had completely forgotten to check the news updates as votes had come in overnight, but from Rodrigo’s demeanour it was obvious that the people had voted against the peace deal.  Whilst the agreement was far from perfect – it guaranteed political representation for the guerrilla and amnesty for some of its worst perpetrators – Rodrigo had felt passionately about it and been uncharacteristically outspoken in its support.

Lo siento mucho, Rodg,” I offered, hoping that throwing in a little Spanish added extra sincerity to my attempts to sympathise.  “I was just so caught up with this Kim story and everything…”

And that’s when Rodrigo lost it and his temper flared in a way I’ve never seen before.  He’s now delivering a bi-lingual rant about the ignorance of the modern world, typified by his own girlfriend who apparently cares more for a single celebrity than for a nation of nearly 50 million people.  Whilst there aren’t many people in the restaurant, there are more than enough for me to wish this was happening somewhere a little more private.

I feel terrible.  And I deserve to.  How could I forget something so important to Rodrigo?  I know he would have remembered if the situation was reversed.

Whilst my failings as a girlfriend are regrettable in the extreme, more concerning is what this says about me as a person.  I like to think of myself as someone who knows and cares about the world.  Whose view of it extends beyond my immediate surroundings, and whose comprehension of it is born out of the experiences of others as much as my own.  Someone who doesn’t need to have a boyfriend from a country to care about its politics and its people.

I certainly used to be like that, didn’t I?

* * *

It’s now Thursday and the week has improved significantly – as weeks have a tendency to do.

Rodrigo has forgiven me for forgetting about the referendum, though he remains upset by the outcome.  A lot of his frustration is now directed at my colleagues in the media who – unlike myself – had at least given the story some public exposure here in the UK.  Their commentary implied that the Colombian people had voted against peace, as if it were a straight decision between peace and war and Colombians prefer the latter.  Perhaps it’s better to not cover an issue at all than to do so in a way that doesn’t reflect its complexity.

Here at the Mail Online I’ve been covering some extremely complex issues of my own.  Beyond all the fall-out from Kim’s robbery, I’ve penned articles on the following cultural gems;

  • A woman in Australia who found 8 snakes having an orgy;
  • A deranged divorcee who set all of her ex-husband’s Arsenal jerseys alight when she caught him cheating;
  • The Oscar-winning actor Joel Edgerton’s revelation that he split up with his mesmerizingly beautiful fiancée because he was too busy – “married to the job,” as he put it.

I’m fascinated by the modern obsession with busyness.  I certainly don’t doubt that Joel Edgerton has quite a hectic schedule, but it seems everyone I speak to nowadays feels compelled to assert that they’re ‘busy’ – that the list of things they need to do is always longer than time will allow.  There seems to be a lot of credibility found in doing so.  I understand it to a degree – of course a full life is superior to one which is partially or completely empty – but I don’t really get why it’s socially beneficial to appear perennially occupied.

Our website is an interesting reflection on this phenomenon.  The contemporary news media is defined by the short concentration span of its audience.  Our entire purpose is to update our readers on their world through soundbites, catch-phrases, images or any other means which allows quick comprehension amongst a sea of other competing messages.  Even on so-called credible media outlets you can now find a myriad of ‘Top-five-bullet-points-to-read-in-case-you-don’t-have-time-to-actually-give-a-fuck’ style articles.  It’s all about attracting audiences and the associated advertising revenue – the ends justifies the memes, if you will.

As with many things, the Mail Online takes this to the extreme.  Headlines on our articles now often run to 4 or 5 lines, and detail every single fact that we know (plus those which we’ve made up) about the subject.  Often they render the copy lower on the page redundant.

However, the brevity of the content doesn’t preclude our readers from spending hours on the page.  Nor from making comments and engaging in discussion.  There are thousands of readers – many of which presumably describe their lives as ‘busy’ – that take time out of every day to share their views on the stories we cover.

With this in mind I have started an editorial series titled ‘Meet The Trolls’, in which I profile some of the site’s most active posters and give an insight into their lives beyond the keyboard.  This type of story doesn’t really work on the Mail Online, but fits well in the Weekend magazine which comes out in the paper each Saturday.

The first profile I wrote was of a guy named Sam, a 22-year-old from Essex.  Sam is one of the most active contributors on our site, however it’s the nature of his comments that is more notable than the volume.  Most use the comment function to vent their spleen – to be the arsehole that they really are without anyone needing to know it’s them.  Sam on the other hand is always positive, often commenting to praise either the author or one of the other readers whose comment he enjoyed.  The kind of friendly persona that is paradoxically the hardest to trust or believe is genuine.

Turns out that Sam had been a promising rugby player, only to suffer a horrific broken leg which ended his career.  Amidst the depression that followed he developed a gambling addiction which placed him in huge amounts of debt before he’d even reached 20.  His counsellor told him to try new hobbies that could take his mind off having a punt, and he found that online news was something he could call on at any time when he would previously have turned to Paddy Power.   Desperate to not dwell on his bad luck, he has challenged himself to only comment when he has something positive to say – taking the ‘say something nice or nothing at all’ mantra that mothers have preached for centuries and applying it to the virtual world.

Today I’m working on the next instalment ahead of an interview with the second ‘troll’ himself this evening.  Only this time the term troll actually seems an apt description – so mean is this guy with his keyboard that I struggle to imagine him as anything but a horrible, gargantuan creature that lives in solitude beneath a bridge or similar.

This guy is the biggest dick that posts on our site, bar none.  Not the most profane nor the most bigoted, but certainly the most hurtful.  He once left the following pleasantry beneath an article of mine;

‘Another splendid contribution to journalism, Charlotte.  Next story please also include a photo of your Year 7 school certificate, so as to demonstrate that someone at least tried to teach you how to write.’

He makes comments as demeaning as this most every day.  Condescending and belittling taunts that leap from the webpage and cut you to the core.

What is really infuriating – though equally intriguing – is that all of his comments are superbly written.  If I’m honest, there are often times when his patronising comment is better written than the article itself.  That really stings, let me tell you.

I find it bizarre that someone of demonstrable intelligence spends so much time on the Mail Online, in spite of his complete contempt for the writers, readers and the entire publication itself.  Doesn’t he have something better to do?  Isn’t he ‘busy’’?

I’d long theorised that he was a student, with lots of brains but with too much time on his hands.  Turns out that Brendan – as I’ve today learned his name to be – is actually 37 and works in Canary Wharf.  Not exactly the native habitat of an internet troll, but an absolute breeding ground for arseholes nonetheless.

* * *

Brendan was already there waiting when I arrived at the bar.  He was sipping at what appeared to be a rum and coke and typing away intently on his phone.  Probably tearing apart my Joel Edgerton story.

We greeted with a handshake and some formal salutations.  He confirmed rum and coke to be his chosen poison, so I made my way to the bar to buy him a top up and ordered a white wine for myself.

Brendan is a reasonably attractive guy, though he looks every day of his 37 years and then some.  This certainly wasn’t the first time he’d visited a bar, if you know what I mean.  The bags beneath his eyes are only small but noticeable nonetheless, and appear more a permanent feature than a symptom of a poor night’s sleep.

“Thanks so much for meeting me.”  I choose to begin with a classic corporate nicety, as insincere as it is clichéd.

“Of course.  How did you come to work at the Mail Online, Charlotte?”

Hold on, this guy does realise how interviews work right? I ask the questions, not answer them!  The best things about being a journalist is you get to pry into other people’s affairs without needing to afford them the same privilege.

I also really hate being asked that question.

“I finished Uni in 2010, in the height of the recession.  Jobs were hard to come by, so I just took what I could get.”

“Do you like it?”

This is the hard part.  I can easily explain how I arrived at the Mail Online, but why I’m still there over half a decade later is something I ask myself regularly.  Albeit not regularly enough to have landed on an answer.

“Yeah, I don’t mind it.  It’s work, you know.  There are a lot of people with worse jobs than mine, that’s for sure.”  That statement is undeniably true, but I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily being truthful.

He looks to have another question in mind, but as I finish my sentence his iPhone illuminates on the table between us.  “Sorry, I’d better take this,” he says contritely, and walks a few paces away to answer the call out of earshot.  From his body language I’d say it’s work related.

He returns after a couple of minutes. “Apologies again, very busy day unfortunately.  Where were we?”

I decide to get on the offensive and ask a question.  That is how this is supposed to work after all.

“What do you think of the Mail?” I ask.  “You spend a lot of time on our site but aren’t often positive about it…to say the least!”

He nods and smiles just slightly, acknowledging my point.  He has the most piercing set of eyes, that seem almost detached from the rest of his face – they maintain their intensity in spite of how the muscles around them move.  It’s as if he hasn’t figured out how to blink.

“Can I be honest?’ he asks, to which I of course nod.  Honesty has never escaped him in the past, though perhaps he takes to it less naturally in real life than on the internet.  “It’s horrendous.  That people take it seriously is incredible.  Frightening, almost.”

I have to laugh a little at this point.  “Yeah, I know – it’s pretty obvious that you’re not a big fan of the site.  And that’s fair enough.  But why do you still choose to visit it so regularly?”

Again he nods slowly.  He takes a hefty swig of his drink whilst thinking through his response, his eyes not for a second breaking contact with mine.

“It’s a good question,” he says eventually.  “The stress of my job takes a toll on me.  I’m constantly on edge and find it hard to take a step back.  That’s why I read the Mail, it’s a harmless way of letting off steam.  It helps me concentrate on the things that I need to.”

My mind instantly fills with questions.  I know that behind this single statement lies all the content I’ll need for my story.

Then his phone rings again.  Once more he expresses regret, but chooses to take the call anyhow.  After a few minutes and another round of obligatory apologies I’m able to resume the interview.

“What do you do for work then?”

“I work here at the Wharf.” He points in the general direction of one of the soulless high-rise office blocks that define the area.   “I’m a stock trader.”

“And what about it do you find so stressful?”

“Do you know much about the stock market?”

“Fuck all.”

“That’s fine.  It’s stressful because it’s relentless.  When I’m at work – usually from before 7 in the morning – I’m flat out, there’s seldom a pause.  And all the time we’re either winning or losing, there’s very little time that is passive or neutral.  When work ends I find it difficult to stop, not to stop working but to stop doing things at 100 miles an hour.” Brendan drains the rest of his drink and looks towards the bar.  I don’t want to pause the conversation here though – this is just getting interesting.

“What sort of things do you like to do outside of work?”

“I go to the gym every day.  Exercise is crucial.  We’re often out with clients in the evening, I guess you could say it’s a work hard, play hard culture in this game.”

Thanks for the corporate clichés, dickhead.  I know you’ve more to offer than that.

“And do you play hard?”

“I do.  Rather, I used to.  I still enjoy a night out, but not to the same extent that I once did.”

“How many times have you done blow in the bathrooms here?”

“Hundreds.  Too many to count.  None recently, though.”

There it is.  Everything from this guy’s appearance to his demeanour and his profession made the possibility of heavy substance use a likely scenario.

“What made you stop doing coke?”

“I started seeing a girl who hates it.  My lifestyle had torn apart my marriage and I was single for a year or so, losing my way.  When I met Christina I suppose I finally had something that I liked too much to cast aside.  You can change anything if it stands in the way of your passions.”

“And you don’t touch it at all now?”

“I’ve changed a lot.  I do still enjoy a drink though, and if you don’t mind I’m just going to get another.  Can I get you anything?”

“I’m fine thanks,” I reply.  And I definitely am, I’ve barely even made a dent in my wine.  It takes him a couple of minutes to get to the bar and have a drink poured, after which he returns to our table.

“You know it’s not really harmless, don’t you?” I ask as he takes his seat.

“What isn’t?”

“Your behaviour.  You said before that abusing people online is a harmless way of dealing with your stress, but it really isn’t.  I’ve seen my colleagues cry because of things that you’ve written.”

Just as I finish my sentence his iPhone again illuminates on the table, as if Brendan had signed some kind of deal with the late Steve Jobs to rescue him from any uncomfortable situations.  To my astonishment he casually leans forward, swipes his right index finger across the screen to accept the call, and starts to raise the device towards his ear.

“Put down your fucking phone!” I shout, and use my own right index finger – along with its neighbouring fingers and palm – to viciously swat the Apple of his eye right from his grasp.  It crashes to the ground, makes a sound that strongly suggests a broken screen, and slides a few feet across the floor before coming to a rest underneath an unoccupied table next to us.  The bar is barely half full, but as with Monday’s argument with Rodrigo that is half more than I would like.  A few turn their heads to view what no doubt appears to them a lovers’ tiff.

I’m far too angry to be deterred though.  “Forget about your stupid phone, and fucking listen to me.  Your actions hurt people.  You reduce some of the nicest people I know to tears, when they’re just doing their job.  And for what?  To help you deal with the stressful life you chose for yourself.   What makes you think that’s ok?”

I pause briefly for effect. “You make others miserable just to help yourself get by.  And that’s fucked.”

Brendan looks bewildered, his menacing eyes widening in shock.  This certainly isn’t the Daily Mail puff piece he thought I was writing!  I also know that he’s dying to pick up his phone, but I’m not going to let him off that easily.  In its absence he reaches for his rum and coke, and takes a prolonged mouthful of composure.

“So what about you, then?” he asks after what seems an eternity.

“Huh?”  To my knowledge this is the first thing Brendan has ever said with even the slightest bit of ambiguity.

“You write articles about luxurious mansions to readers who can barely afford the rent on their small zone 5 flat.  You show them dresses, restaurants, hotels, and cars they could never even dream of owning; and breasts, pecs, arses and six packs that all the personal training in the world couldn’t help them attain.  You write as if Great British Bake Off is a more important democratic forum than Westminster, or that the latest events from Syria pale in comparison with this week’s volatility on fucking Coronation Street.  And then – just when your readers are feeling suitably glum about their pathetic existence – you pick them back up with a ‘feel good’ piece about two people who are wealthier and better looking than them falling helplessly in love, to take their mind off the restraining order they’ve just had to enforce against their psychotic ex-lover who is months behind on child support payments.”

His tone is measured but with an increasingly sinister edge.  His eyes, of course, are steadfast.  He leans forward slightly and continues.  “You know the worst part?  You do all of this for a job you’re not even passionate about.  And yet you think it’s me that makes people miserable just to get by?’

Not even my intense hatred for this guy can mask the fact that he’s got a point.  It does at least provide sufficient motivation to stop me from crying, however.

“You can get your phone” I say meekly, any hope I had of guising my emotions dashed instantly as the words shakily exit my mouth.  He nods, finishes his drink, reclaims his beloved mobile device, and walks straight out the door.

* * *

After the interview I meet Rodrigo and we get the train back toward the city, both of our minds consumed by work.  Mine with the profile I’m going to pen about the sociopathic stockbroker I just met and the latest version of my resignation letter; his with his engineering job where he builds real things that make a tangible difference to people’s lives.

His Mum video calls him from Colombia, the first time they’ve spoken since the referendum result.  She has a brief but profound moment of sadness as they discuss the outcome, but her face quickly snaps back to form a smile – as if frowning was so unnatural it hurt.  “This is life in Colombia,” she shrugs.

The modern world is full of excesses, particularly for those of us in circumstances privileged enough to indulge in them.  Celebrities, gossip, gambling, alcohol, drugs – none of these things are ostensibly bad, but with significant consumption each can overtake our thoughts and distract us from things of more importance.

Work is no different.  Of course a job isn’t an excess – most of us have little choice but to partake – but many of us indulge emotionally to a point which is excessive.  To the point where we stress about things we know don’t matter.  Where our hearts aren’t in it but our brains are too invested to think of a different way.  The deadline becomes all encompassing, and the constant demand to get things done clouds our judgement on the enjoyment and merit of what we’re actually doing.  Brendan the stockbroker-cum-internet bully has a severe case of work addiction, but he’s right to diagnose me with some fairly severe symptoms of my own.

I look around the carriage and sure enough on an empty seat opposite is a copy of The Evening Standard.  This time though I’m not intrigued to read the editorial, rather my eye is drawn to a massive ad on the back page.   It has a yellow bottle of shampoo in the corner, right next to the unmistakable smile and glimmering black hair of none other than Mrs Kim Kardashian-West.

There’s bold writing along the bottom of the page, presumably written to appeal to someone more-or-less like myself.  ‘THE PERFECT HAIR FOR A BUSY WOMAN’, it reads.

Thanks Kim, I think I’ll pass.

 

Benjamin Burrett

Ben Burrett - profile

Banjamin is an Australian writer and advertising professional living in North London.  Thought Brexit was a Wenger Out protest and voted leave, sorry!

If you enjoyed Headlines and Deadlines, leave a comment and let Benjamin know.

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