An interview with Katharine Quarmby

Katharine Quarmby is a writer and journalist known for deeply reported campaigns about marginalised groups in Britain. She recently published a book on the historic and continuing discrimination against gypsies and travellers.

What story or campaign are you most proud of?


I’m so proud of the way in which so many disabled people came together to work to highlight disability hate crime. It’s been a very long campaign and it isn’t over yet.

My part in it started in 2007. I had just started as news editor of Disability Now when the killing of Kevin Davies, a young man with epilepsy, and the subsequent sentencing of his attackers sparked my interest and disquiet. I felt that the sentences in no way matched the brutality of the attack against him. Nor did his family members, who were extremely helpful as I started to investigate.

Kevin’s case, and many others that I collected that year and the next, led me to conclude that the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and judiciary were missing, time and again, cases of disability hate crime. I wrote over 50 articles, a report called Getting Away with Murder for the UK’s Disabled People’s Council, Disability Now and Scope, and then covered the issue in my first non-fiction book, Scapegoat: Why We are Failing Disabled People (Granta, 2011).

My work, in conjunction with the work of other journalists at Disability Now (most notably the brilliant John Pring, whose writing on institutional violence against disabled people has been ground-breaking), formed just one part of a grassroots campaign, led by disabled people, to awaken the criminal justice system to this crime.

The support we received from certain key people, such as the then Director of Public Prosecutions, now Lord Ken Macdonald, Paul Giannasi of the Association of Chief Police Officers, and a few others inside the system, was also key in changing things from within. scapegoatbyKatharineQuarmby

But nothing would have happened without disabled people doing it for themselves. The campaign goes on – I’m one of the pro bono co-ordinators of the Disability Hate Crime Network but there are also many other campaigners against disability hate crime around the country in disabled peoples’ organisations and charities doing brilliant work to challenge the attitudes that fuel discrimination.

I’m also very pleased to be involved with the on-going civil rights campaign for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers to be recognised as equal citizens in the UK – it’s been a long time coming. My book, No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers, which was published last year by Oneworld, played a small part in demonstrating just how dire the housing and health situation for so many people from these communities is – and how much casual racism there is against them. It’s still far too acceptable, in the mainstream media, to sneer at these communities. That’s also an ongoing campaign and I’m proud to be part of it.

Why did you choose to become a journalist?

I always knew that I wanted to write from around the age of five, but it was really at university that I decided that I wanted to direct my writing into journalism. This is probably a good thing for humanity – I found the first poems I wrote recently and showed them to my children, who were horrified!

I’ve always been plagued by intense curiosity and a very low boredom threshold. I’m not great at sitting in meetings. I love being on the road and talking to people about their lives (more and more I also like getting them to write about their own lives, in a process which the disability movement calls co-production). I do think journalism, at its best, is about uncovering the truth. At its worst that end becomes perverted into peering into peoples’ private lives. I think there is a difference between privacy and secrecy. I think that humans have a right to privacy and we, as journalists, should respect that. The line we walk is how we tell people’s stories –or support them to tell their own –without infringing that right. We should uncover wrongs –that’s our job.

What path did you take?

I started writing for a student magazine in my first year at university, and the editor asked me to become the deputy editor. I really only wanted to write, rather than take on managerial responsibility, however, so I became the features editor instead, which gave me much more time just to write, write, and write. I may have commissioned pieces and laid out the odd page (with a scalpel, natch) but my first love was always getting words down on a page. My first ever piece was about Berlin, before the wall came down. A friend had taken some great photos on his gap year, and I had been there with a German friend, so it was a joint effort, as most good journalism tends to be.

But I am not hugely ambitious and I didn’t have a plan – I get excited about individual projects, campaigns, books, articles and films, rather than career progression. This may explain why I am not hugely successful and have certainly not climbed up any career ladder as such – that, and my aversion to meetings, probably explains why I spend a lot of time sitting in a small room on my own, or talking to old friends with whom I still collaborate on projects, years after we first met.

I think most of us have sent that email: “Can I have an extra 1000 words – please?”

I am, at the moment, a contributing editor at Newsweek Europe, which I combine with book writing and writing for other newspapers and magazines. Newsweek is a very exciting place at the moment, as it is investing in long-form journalism, my real love, as, like most journalists, I like opining and investigating at length. I think most of us have sent that email: “Can I have an extra 1000 words – please?”

I’m also finishing off a book on honour-based violence, which has taken up most of this last year, and has been fascinating and very sobering – my third non-fiction book for my agent, Andrew Lownie, but my first step into ghost-writing. Andrew is very good at pushing me to trying out new genres.

Speaking of which, I have also have published three e-books – Kindle and Thistle Singles – another way of exploring the genre of long-form journalism and of short-story writing. One is a short memoir of my search for my Iranian birth father, Blood and Water. The second, Aftermath, is a lightly fictionalised account of my filming trips to Rwanda after the genocide. The last is a fictionalised account of the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip, and the part in it played by my great-grandfather, Dean Kosta Bozic.

Like many journalists, I am constantly exploring new genres because if you can diversify at this time you may stand some chance of surviving in this very tricky market-place for journalists and writers. I’m also working with an old ex-Newsnight colleague and a young Roma film-maker on a film about a community of Christian Romanian Roma. We don’t have any funding yet but we are trying to make an intimate film about their lives (with their permission). blood-water-an-anglo-iranian-love-story

I did my first degree in Modern Languages but graduated and realised I wasn’t ready for the world of work (I had spent a lot of my third year reading up on feminism, rather than studying for my degree), so I stalled and got some funding to do an MA in Latin American Studies at Liverpool, mainly in grass roots social movements, something that has interested me ever since. That gave me the breathing space I needed to get a bit more work experience in writing and journalism. I volunteered at some local radio stations in Liverpool and started applying for journalism traineeships. I got offered a traineeship at Euromoney as a financial journalist.

I am constantly exploring new genres because if you can diversify at this time you may stand some chance of surviving in this very tricky market-place for journalists and writers.

I left a few months early to work for the Labour party as a researcher, both in the Commons and the Lords, during the ’92 election. I then went back into journalism via indie TV, as a researcher, then an assistant producer, finally ending up as a producer on Newsnight, working as a politics then science producer, as well as abroad, covering the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and terrorism stories in Europe. My foreign language degree definitely paid off. I think my understanding of hate crime stems from those two filming trips to Rwanda, after the genocide, for Panorama and then for Newsnight.

I left the BBC, as many women do, when I had children and went into print journalism, and thence into freelance work and book-writing.

Are there set ingredients to success?

I don’t know, but I do know that the journalists I most admire all work very hard and possess a real moral sense about their work. They have good contacts and most do use social media to keep abreast of developments and to talk about what they are doing. They are honest – and they also praise the work of other people who are doing good work. And they are trustworthy. Most journalists have a sense of humour as well… a friendly mention here to the folks at Private Eye, who manage to combine integrity with wit, every fortnight.

What have been the biggest obstacles for you in building a career as a journalist?

I found it impossible for me personally to combine motherhood with long-form film-making at the BBC (I know very few women of my generation who are still there and have children and think that is a structural problem still to be analysed and understood) and migrated into print journalism. In fact one of the last things I did before I left was to write a report on part-time and flexible working at the BBC, where I interviewed senior managers (series and executive producers) about their attitudes towards such practices in News, Current Affairs and Documentaries. Whilst a few had integrated part-time producers and directors into their departments, few could see that producer/directors could be creative programme-makers and be creative about the way in which they worked. I think this is part of an unfinished revolution – not just for women, but for fathers and for carers of either gender as well.

I wrote a report on part-time and flexible working at the BBC. This is part of an unfinished revolution – not just for women, but for fathers and for carers of either gender as well.

So, becoming a mother (and then taking on caring responsibilities for a seriously ill member of my family) could be seen as real obstacles in a career in journalism. However, I think there is much to be said for turning perceived weaknesses into strengths. Having more understanding of other peoples’ difficulties has made me a better social affairs journalist, although at times I have missed doing the foreign affairs stories I used to love. The fact I’m much poorer than I was when I started as a journalist (this is probably true of most journalists) means that I do actually understand, on a visceral level, what it is like to find it challenging to pay the bills.

Having to find childcare in the mornings before doing a story (the Dale Farm eviction comes to mind) means that I have to do a story in a different way from a correspondent who can stay all hours; I listen – and hear – in a different way and then narrate a different story. I also go back a lot more times than other journalists I know. Returning to visit people, after an event is over gives a wholly new perspective. Interviewees often open up in surprising ways.

How has the industry changed since your first job?

I started in financial journalism and my first job was well paid – £11,500 a year, as far as I can remember, back in 1990 (and that was a trainee position). When I went back into journalism, after working in politics for a few years, I was employed by an independent production company in Denmark Street in Soho, and was also well paid. I was never asked to work unpaid, even when I was gaining new skills. That, of course, is not the case today for a new generation of journalists. The Internet has disrupted – some might say destroyed – journalism, as we know it.

When I migrated into print journalism after TV, I was writing a few paid pieces a month for Guardian sections that do not even exist as separate entities anymore (Guardian Society and Guardian Education) as well as writing well paid pieces for the New Statesman, doing bits of TV and trade journalism. I was then paid well as a correspondent at the Economist. Ten years on, it is much harder to make a living, particularly as a freelance journalist.

I wrote my first non-fiction book in 2011, and since then have written two more (the third is yet to come out). Those books provide a small income stream, as do my Kindle Singles, which are an emerging form of both long-form journalism and short story writing. To survive these days in the industry you have to diversify.

What is your advice to others considering journalism?

If, despite all the difficulties, you really want to do it, make sure you at least have some craft skills to offer: touch type, shorthand, good filming skills, a very good understanding of the law, editing skills, coding, and/or photography, languages. And practice your writing – both for print journalism and writing to picture. Be humble about this career –lots of people want to do it. If you really have something to say, and you ache to uncover wrong-doing, you might be in with a fighting chance of making it.

Of course, if you are a woman and you want to have children, you have to progress even faster, work twice as hard and probably be more qualified to have any chance of making it. The same applies if you are a disabled person or from a minority ethnic group. But your perceived weaknesses are also niches you can exploit. If you have caring responsibilities – there’s a subject you know backwards. If you are a disabled person – ditto. If you are adopted, as I am, you have a subject – yourself. That doesn’t mean you need to be pigeonholed forever and only examine yourself (how boring) – but it gives you a jumping off point.

Stories about an injustice make the headlines one day, and the next day, very often, little changes, what then, is the point of your work?

I actually think that things do change and determined campaigns do shift public attitudes, and even reform laws – most legal reforms come about because determined individuals feel that something is wrong and set out to do something about it – Elizabeth Fry on prison reform, many individuals on slavery, both in the US and in the UK, Gandhi and of course many others against colonisation in India, the list goes on. Clare Sambrook’s extraordinary and tenacious work on child detention is also a testament to how one determined individual can change law and practice – though of course the government is slipping back on its public declarations. 

On disability hate crime, the main campaign in which I have been personally involved over the last seven years, I have seen real and sustained change, although as Clare has also seen with child detention, it is an on-going campaign and one has to be vigilant.

We started with a situation in which we had a law that established a crime of disability hate crime but it was honoured in the breach. That meant that disabled people were being failed by the criminal justice system. Society at large, the media and politicians, therefore, did not believe that the crime existed. My task as a journalist was to demonstrate that the crime did exist, and it was being missed. Once the crime was being identified and prosecuted, we could show that it was a problem. Reporting has increased steadily ever since, although convictions have levelled out, which is disappointing.

The rhetoric from politicians against disability benefits, which creates a sense that many disabled people are scroungers and fakers, is also problematic and has created a poisonous atmosphere in which more disability hate crimes could be committed. This is not a good time in which to be a disabled person in the UK. So while I am very proud of that campaign, I’m not complacent about the work that we did – it continues.

Katharine Quarmby: a potted biography

Katharine Quarmby is contributing editor for Newsweek Europe and an award-winning writer, journalist and film-maker specialising in social affairs with an investigative edge. She has made films for the BBC, worked as a correspondent for the Economist, an associate editor for Prospect magazine and contributed to British broadsheets, including the Guardian, Sunday Times and the Telegraph. fussyfreya

In 2012 Katharine was shortlisted for the Paul Foot award for campaigning journalism, by the Guardian and Private Eye magazine, for her five years of campaigning against disability hate. Her second non-fiction book, No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers, was published by Oneworld in 2013 and was shortlisted for the Bread and Roses Non-Fiction award.

She also writes books and short plays for young children, with her first book, Fussy Freya, published in 2008, and a school play, Rosy Gets The Plot, touring in 2014 with the Little Angel Puppet Theatre.