Owen Jones is a journalist who “never really wanted to be a journalist”, a writer who “[doesn’t] really enjoy writing”, and a prominent political activist who “[doesn’t] want to make it about [him]”.
Yet, the self-styled “activist who writes” has managed to wind up as a columnist for the Guardian and an author of two books. At university, Jones confesses, his brief stint with journalism had only been to fill a sparse CV.
But following the success of his first book Chavs, Jones has been in the thick of it, touring with Paloma Faith, appearing as part of Joey Essex’s foray into politics, and sitting on ITV’s panel during the general election. “The general election being on ITV all night was the worst night of my life, surrounded by people having the best night of their life,” he spits sardonically. “So that was fun. All on national television.”
Owen would probably agree that his views are polarising. Dogmatic in his beliefs, he has become a prominent activist figure, whether he likes it or not. Before starting on the subject of the now infamous Sky News interview concerning the Orlando shooting in which he walked off set, he clarifies, “It wasn’t like a big political statement that I devised, it was an instinctive thing that I did and the last thing I wanted to do was be the story.” Having said that, he launches into a vehement speech, insisting that it was the media’s responsibility to acknowledge the specific circumstances of the attack.
Declining to attribute any motives to Sky News, he reiterates, “When people suffer, a certain group of people, then you should spell out that it’s that group that’s suffering.” He quickly qualifies: “That doesn’t mean other groups aren’t suffering. It’s not a competition. But whether that be the disproportionate ‘stop and search’ of young black men, or whether it be LGBT people killed in a massacre, we just need to spell out who suffered and why rather than deflecting.”
“It’s not about claiming ownership or anything like that, it’s just that LGBT people will be particularly affected because it’s people like themselves who’ve been targeted,” he explains to me after I broach one interviewer’s comment that you couldn’t claim “ownership of the horror of this crime because you’re gay”.
He continues: “The whole point of a gay club — it’s supposed to actually be a safe space where you’re free from all those prejudices. And that’s quite a rare place for an LGBT person where, in much of society, they can’t do that. And for them to be targeted in that way, an LGBT person has a unique horror, there’s no question about that.”
He repeatedly evades his own involvement in matters, not wanting personality to dilute debates and discussions on issues. But as he encourages people to “talk about their experiences and the lived experiences of the people they know”, he acknowledges that individual narratives are a powerful tool.
Education isn’t just about textbooks, it’s about fighting for your futures as well.
A prominent figure on social media, he laughs as he observes of his critics: “You get this on Twitter, where people […] say something kind of outrageous and then if you respond by saying, ‘That was an outrageous thing to say,’ they’ll go, ‘You’re attacking my right to freedom of speech.’ Like how? I’ve just exercised my freedom of speech … [or] you block someone for abusing you and then they go, ‘Oh, he clearly doesn’t believe in freedom of speech.’ It’s this idea that freedom of speech means like you’re forced to listen to someone.”
He is aware that there is much to be afraid of, but he has an enthusiasm fuelled by his unrelenting hope that is both infuriatingly stubborn and appealingly contagious. When asked what he found most challenging, his answer is particularly poignant: “Obviously, there’s not many people in the mainstream media with my political perspective and that’s obviously hard because it’s like swimming against a very strong current.”
Oscillating between youthful exuberance and cautious contemplation across the interview, this provides a particularly revealing moment as he paradoxically appears very young – passionate, spirited; and very old – weary, tired: “You know, I’m driven by faith things can change. It’s not easy.”
Reflecting on his time at Oxford, he admits, “I was from Stockport and it was a massive culture shock because I had never met anyone from a grammar school, let alone a private school.
“It’s not a personal comment but [there was] a lack of awareness that they had all the odds stacked in their favour from birth and other people have the odds stacked against them.”
In an instance of clarity, he reasons, “Everyone wants to think that, that you get there off your own steam. If it’s pointed out to you that well actually, a big reason why you’re there is basically all the odds were stacked in your favour, that can make people quite insecure. So they justify it going, ‘No, no, no, the people at the top are there because they’re talented, and people at the bottom because they’re lazy and stupid.’ And that’s the way people rationalise inequality.
“See education in the broadest possible sense,” he advises sagely, “Not just doing essays and research, or being in a lab, but also it’s about engaging with issues that affect you, your friends and your future.
“And that means getting involved politically and that’s what I’d say. Education isn’t just about textbooks, it’s about fighting for your futures as well.”