Freelance Journalist Interview with Jane Fae

Writing about IT, law, politics, policing, sex and sexuality, Jane Fae makes the most of her time by highlighting the stories that matter and getting beyond the "charmed circle view of life" that media journalists can often (however unconsiously) be reporting from.

Representing alternative sexual communities in her writing without the negative spin of heteronormativity prevalent in most areas of the press is a speciality of Jane's, as well as dodging local police to get to the heart of an issue! Today's interview is for anyone interested in tracking the possible consequences of censorship and fighting for the right to self-expression, so make the most of your time by reading about Jane's work…

About your journalism

What subjects do you write about?

I always describe my core interests as IT, the law, politics, policing – and the intersection of those topics with sex and sexuality.  It may seem an odd mix, but I have a long history of writing in and about quite techy issues, as well as being in touch with a range of alternative sexual communities who have increasingly found that the internet is the contemporary battleground for their rights to self-expression.

I have taken part in radio and TV debates on issues such as sexualisation and child abuse, and have written extensively about the Internet Watch Foundation.

Oddly – almost as aside – I have been writing in depth over the last four years about energy policy, renewables, and the politics and economics of both. I’ve probably now produced the equivalent of three quite weighty books on the topic (because my output here is aimed at professionals and is in the form of reports), so I guess I’ve developed a fairly chunky secondary expertise around energy policy both in the UK, and globally.

What magazines/newspapers/websites have you contributed to?

The Guardian, New Statesman, Private Eye, The Register, Daily Mail, Index on Censorship,, FHM, Bizarre, The Erotic Review, Forum…to name but a few. I also write fairly extensively for the LGBT press: places like PinkNews and GayStarNews.

What’s the most memorable work you’ve done so far in your journalism career?

In a way, there’s nothing that stands out absolutely above everything else. What interests me is the investigation and breaking of news.  Sometimes that happens because I’m the only journalist apparently interested in a story, sometimes because I have instincts for a story.  Three stories I’ve been very glad to have broken, even though they didn’t travel far, were:

– The not guilty verdict in the case of two students alleged to have pulled a policeman off his horse.

– A serious breach of privacy by the Crown Prosecution Service.

– A privacy cock-up by the DWP.

One that did go a way – global, in fact – was a story about the UK Government looking at removing gender from official documentation.  That’s not actually a big story if you are familiar with the IT and legal issues around identity and legal name and gender, but it stirred a certain amount of 'PC gone mad' commentary (which I was not altogether happy about), but also got the issue out into the open.

And I know I broke it, because it all arose from a chance conversation with someone at the Home Office: I asked an open question, expecting the usual spin; got back an answer that made me go, "huh –did you really just say that?" And when they confirmed, I had the story.

What interview or feature would you love the chance to do in the future?

Over the last two years, the UN has for the first time begun to assert sexual orientation and gender identity as a human right. That has not been without difficulty: there is a significant bloc of countries, including many Islamic states, and many in Eastern Europe (including Russia) that have resolutely opposed this to the point that it is possible we are now seeing a backlash in some of those areas. Russia and several Eastern European countries, especially, are passing laws that come close to making it criminal even to talk about being gay or transgender.

I don’t think we are very aware of this in the West – and this is therefore a story I would like to give more exposure to. That is likely to involve visiting those countries, talking to representatives of organisations concerned and (not for the first time in my life!) dodging local police as I go.

I have started discussions with groups who would like to see this happen, and I am hoping that at some point in the next year I will be able to put together the necessary funding and support.

Can you tell us a bit about winning the title of UK Erotic Writer of the Year in 2010?

The award was for a fairly academic piece of work on the politics of discrimination in respect of sexual preference and sexuality. It was taken up equally by campaigners and activists – and I was quite chuffed when one academic fed back that it was recommended reading for students doing a course on the law and sexuality.

Having said that, I do write and perform poetry and literature that can best be described as 'erotic': you’ll catch me on the London circuit at occasional venues such as the Velvet Tongue. I aim to be amusing and sexy too, which feedback suggests I more or less manage. And I tend to write for women – though, I think that if something is a 'turn-on' for women, it will be so for a fair proportion of guys as well.

My tip: write about how you experience things. The smells, tastes, sensations that an event, an encounter evokes in you. Write from the inside out – not vice-versa. Because while I will never deny that there are some incredibly good observational journalists out there, in the end you can usually spot the difference between someone writing about what they’ve been told, and those writing about how something feels.

About your other work

Tell us a bit about ‘Beyond the Circle’…

It’s a short work: the basic premise is that discrimination law ought not to be based on some sort of “protected characteristic” (such as being gay, trans or similar) but be even-handed. Effectively, a rights-based approach under which everyone has a right not to be discriminated against at work, in service provision, etc. for personal characteristics. If that includes ginger hair, or believing the earth is flat, so be it.

In the end, it's less radical than it might sound. Some UK Equality law is based around domains (gender, race, etc.) and some around protected characteristics. If we look at gender, we can see that even though it is equally possible in law for a man or a woman to complain about discrimination, in practice, there are far more cases involving women – simply because there is far more discrimination against women.

So, enlarging the law to take in irrational discrimination on any ground would make little difference, since the big categories would end up being those (already covered) where most discrimination already takes place.                     

Along the way, I looked at how we censor material in the UK: and the 'charmed circle' view of life: that is, the presumption that there are certain 'proper' sexualities (straight, white, lights on, non-commercial, non-kinky – and some less proper). That is the essence of heteronormativity.

Do you think more journalists should be writing on heteronormativity and its restrictions?

About it? No. It’s a very academic concept. But they should certainly be aware of it, because it’s an approach, an attitude that utterly imbues the work of many people, often unconsciously. It’s the prevalent societal view of sexuality, which leads to some very lazy,  unthinking reporting of any topic with a sexual slant, with plenty of nudge-nudge appeal and a dismissal, shared with the average reader, of anything outside the norm.

Fair enough, where that bias is understood and allowed for: not at all fair when reporting is so skewed by that bias that journalists don’t even realise they are doing it.

Did you learn anything from researching and writing the book?

Trivia-wise, there is plenty to laugh at when it comes to writing about the various laws we have passed to control and monitor sexual expression in the UK: not least the DPP’s collection of 'dirty postcards', assembled in the first half of the 20th Century as exemplars of what was considered to be 'obscene'. More seriously – and legally – it was about the way that laws tend to creep: starting sensibly to cover real social dangers, then slowly extending outwards to cover supposed 'loopholes' – actually matters the original lawmakers felt should not be covered by the law.

On the personal front, it underlined how much I hate (and therefore, probably need) to be sub-edited, especially when aforementioned sub (you know who you are!) insisted on my referencing everything correctly, academically. I’m not entirely a detail person: happy to stand up anything I write – but not altogether bothered as to what format references are parcelled up in, so long as they are recognisable.

Do you plan to explore this subject further in other work?

Absolutely. We are coming up to the fifth anniversary of the passing of the law on extreme pornography, which broke new ground in making the possession of material depicting wholly consensual 'extreme' acts unlawful.

Having followed this issue as it has evolved in the courts, I don’t think the law is working the way it was intended – but it has had the effect of criminalising thousands of individuals for doing something that was never intended to be anything other than a 'bit of a laugh'.

How did you get involved with the Consenting Adult Action Network (CAAN) and the Brighton and Sussex Sexualities Network?

The first is an activist network: the second an academic one, although it also attempts to negotiate the thin line between academic study and activism. The second fell, rather naturally, out of the fact that I was and am researching sexuality, IT, the law at a level that most journalists don’t.

The fact that I have written even one short book on the subject, and am considering a second is probably a good clue. And the added fact that I have presented papers on subjects related to my research at academic conferences (where I have been really chuffed to receive a badge noting me as an 'independent academic') also adds to my interest.

I actually think this is a difficult area to know well and to remain neutral over. It is clear that the internet is changing perspectives to sex and sexuality: some of those changes are for the better, some not. Hence the big debate about 'sexualisation'.

However, the kneejerk reaction from politicians and columnists goes far wider: by seeking to clamp down on interests and activities they see as immoral or undesirable, many states are putting in place a control apparatus that could very easily be turned to much darker purposes.

There is a big debate that needs to be had over these issues. I do have my own views – though what I hope I can contribute more than anything else is information and insight into the likely consequences of particular measures.

About your blogs

What kind of stories are you most interested in covering on your blogs?  How do you decide the content? How does a potential story grab your interest?

I’m going to finesse my answer to this question, because the answer you’ll get today is different from what you would have had a year back and equally very different from what you will get in six months.

My own personal blog dealt with a particular phase in my life and a very personal issue. I won’t say that that part is “over”: but I have moved on, from those areas I am happy to write about to areas that are much more difficult, personally, and expose a lot more raw emotion. So that side MAY be back – but not until I’ve had a good think about things. At its height, it was getting between 1,000 and 2,000 hits a day – with peak days closer to 5,000.  Even now, adding almost nothing to it for almost six months, it is still scoring around 2,000 hits a month.

In the next six months, the blog is likely to change into a series of different blogs designed to tackle quite different news issues.

The main one – Sex Matters – will be about reporting on issues of sex and sexuality without the spin that usually goes down in the tabloids. I will be running that more as a newsletter and will be supported by a number of academics and experts in the field. It is also likely to have something of a focus on psychiatry and will act as a critique of current trends to expand psychiatric diagnoses ad nauseam, thereby pathologising all manner of quite ordinary behaviours.

I do a fair amount of deconstruction of news stories, often reporting what actually happened, as opposed to what was reported once and rehashed by newsdesks thereafter. That’s not dissimilar to what tabloidwatch does, and I may create a blog focused around that particular aspect of what I do.

Last off, I am very interested in the legal and IT issues around identity – and this may form the focus for a third blog.

About you and PRs

How can PRs be useful to you? Do you find press conferences, trips, parties and other events useful or an interruption?

For the most part, I am not interested: as above, my focus is on finding the story or angle no one else has. The essence of PR, by contrast, usually seems designed gently to enforce a genial consensus around an issue. That said, where an event includes actors around an issue as well as PRs, I am more interested, since meetings lead to conversations and conversations lead, often, to stories.

About you

How would you pay the bills if you weren’t a journalist?

If I wasn’t a journalist, I hope I’d be a writer of some sort – though I also have, and have exercised for some years, an alternative skill set around IT, systems analysis and statistics. All the same, if I couldn’t work in journalism, I think I’d look to play a leading (paid) role in a charity, a cause I truly believed in.

If we gave you £1000, how would you spend it?

This will sound so shallow, but: pampering, clothes, make-up and a LONG beach-lying weekend in Languedoc.

What books are on your bedside table, magazines in your bag, or blogs on your screen?

Very few books nowadays. I used to have a liking for crime procedurals, but that dried up almost overnight a couple of years back.  Possibly because I do so much reading in the day job. Again, guilty pleasure: but I am most likely to be reading magazines packed with real-life experiences.

On-screen, what I’d call the contentious bloggers such as JackofKent, a smattering of political and current affairs, and a fair few feminist ones. I’m a big fan of circlesunderstreetlights, whose author has a way of expressing herself creatively that I find instantly appealing.

Do you tweet? Why, why not?

I tweet because I’m bored, interested, opinionated, in a mood, want to share, want to connect, want to keep in touch. I probably tweet too much.

Jane Fae can be found tweeting @JaneFae.

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