Oyster Interview: Jane Bussmann
"I'm surprised that they haven't got every refugee on the planet on their own Facebook page by now."
Jane Bussmann was a talented English comedy-writer living in LA who inadvertently found herself writing puff pieces on Hollywood starlets — until she became mildly obsessed with devilishly handsome human-rights activist John Prendergast, followed him to Uganda, and wrote a book about it. The Worst Date Ever investigates the crimes of the Lord's Resistance Army and its leader Joseph Kony, whom you might remember from the short film Kony 2012 — currently sitting at 92 million views on YouTube.
On finding her social conscience in Hollywood:
First of all, coming from a North London left-wing family, you always sort of vaguely think… well, I think most people are vaguely aware of politics, but I didn't quite get that sort of gut-wrenching need to be doing something better. Los Angeles is sort of like a jail of fluff with sugar walls, and your part in it is so obvious that you are propping the whole horrible thing up.
I do believe that it's one thing having a lovely glamorous Hollywood that gives us all wonderful hopes and dreams to aspire to, because old-style Hollywood was driven by important uplifting stories about people being nice. Nowadays Hollywood is largely depressing stories about waiting for thin girls to go mental — it should be a magazine: Waiting For Thin Girls To Go Mental — and my job was to write articles about how happy and not mental these thin girls were… until they went mental. You did articles on, "Oh, look how thin she is!" before, "Oh, she looks a bit too thin, but she's not really." It's like, "Oh, fuck off! They look awful; they look really awful. They're not happy."
So no, I didn't feel very good about it. I think it was sort of a natural progression to be interested in finding humanity. But it started out as an idle hobby — I literally would be googling 'genocide' to sort of take the edge off what I was writing about Paris Hilton, and I just got into worse and worse and worse shit. A combination of that and John Prendergast is how I stumbled across the LRA [Lord's Resistance Army]. It just seemed like the absolute worst shit — it was almost as bad as Britney Spears' publicist, but not quite. It was blatant therapy.
On getting into trouble:
The closest I came to serious trouble is when I did this show of the book in London [Bussmann turned her book into a live show] and the LRA's London wing turned up and stood right in front of the stage shouting, "This is lies!" I really was frightened. One of the women was mates with Joseph Kony, and she personally sabotaged a peace process in which they were going to hand over some kids. She was a really dodgy person. And the guy standing nearest the stage was holding a golf umbrella like a gun [laughs], and they were in army uniform — like, shitting hell. The next day my shirt was covered in salt from sweating. So, yeah — that was probably the closest I've come to a kerfuffle. By the way, at the end of the show they came up to me and said, "The comedy lady made some good points," and asked me to sign a book for them. Thumbs up from the LRA — terrific!
On the Kony 2012 video going viral:
When I met those people [who made the film] I was quite sad at the way that it was being used as a way to have a go at them — it all became about them, rather than the issues. And there were also people saying, "They're backed by the CIA." Yeah, that's right — if the CIA want to get into Africa they underwrite a nine-year student video campaign and wait till they've recruited various stars of Melrose Place. No! If the CIA want to go to Africa they turn up at the airport and say, "We are the CIA." … And at the end of the day the Kony thing is in the Democratic Party's bid to get re-elected at the moment — it actually says, "We will take this very seriously" — and when I started out on this thing you couldn't get arrested for talking about it, so I really think it's brought it into the spotlight.
Yes, you can say it's horribly weirdly happy-clappy, but at the end of the day they tried everything else. And thanks to Bono and Bob Geldof's industry of charity, Africa is regarded by the media as profoundly depressing unless its got lions and elephants in it, so it was really hard to get that story across.
On how social media has changed the way charities work:
[Kony 2012] was very interesting because it showed that by putting it in the hands of the punter, rather then the people in power, it became such a huge thing that it forced the people in power to acknowledge the punters. It proved how quickly and effectively you could change what was important just by using the internet the way it's meant to be used — instantly and powerfully and reaching everybody that you can.
Seriously, when I went to the British government and asked them what they were doing about Kony before Kony 2012 they were saying things like, "Jane, don't worry. He will be found — accidentally, perhaps, but he will be found." I said, "Well, could Britain not take the lead?" and he said, "Well, the trouble with taking the lead is that it can lead to expectation." I thought, "You're fucking kidding me! Is that where we're at? What a snivelling bunch we are," and now it's sort of like, "Oh yes, we're taking it terribly seriously." I think you can really show politicians that you are actually aware of bigger issues, and put things on their agenda.
But in terms of how charities use social media, they use it to shake the public down for money in more and more pushy ways. I find the industry of poverty really, really evil and malevolent, and I'm surprised that they haven't got every refugee on the planet their own Facebook page by now. If you look at the way the UK Disaster and Emergency Committee is pimping out X Factor winners … I've had someone leak me a fantastic email from the Committee: "I wondered if you could find a telegenic opportunity for the X Factor winner. I'm aware how this may look in the middle of an emergency, so I'm sure you'll keep it to yourself." Fuck you! Fuck you! Haiti is fucked, and you're flying in X Factor. Fuck off! It's vile; it's absolutely vile.
So, anyway — yes, I think it's a fundraising tool for a bunch of crooks, but also a really exciting and powerful way to make politicians acknowledge and work for you.
On the theory that Joseph Kony is a nonexistent media invention:
He really does. I think Kony is someone who has kept going because he's an industry. I think so many people have become rich off the 'war against Kony', which in my mind was and is still largely a fake. He's not a figment of anyone's imagination, but he is an extremely convenient bogeyman. I call it 'Kony Rapes Incorporated' — I wrote a thing for the Huffington Post on turning Kony into an industry, which read:
Ask yourself this question.
If you discovered that a rapist kidnapped somewhere between 20–66,000 children, would you:
a) Pay the rapist's associates over a hundred dollars a day to persuade him to stop raping. And keep paying them, when they are still trying to persuade him over a year later…
This is in a country where the gross national capital income was 420 bucks, and you're paying someone a hundred and something bucks a day… and he's a mate!
b) When priests offer to try and rescue the children for free, wait until children have assembled and then bomb the area.
It's an industry! I'm coming up with some really good stuff I'm hoping to be able to prove before I speak in Sydney, about how he's a nice little earner for so many different people. And then there's charities as well — would you:
c) Fund a rehab center for children who have escaped the rapist and pay the rapist's chief strategist, himself an outstanding practitioner of rape, to run it.
You couldn't make this shit up! It's beyond satire; it's just satire with the word 'rape' all over it. So, he's not a figment of the imagination, but he's also not what they think he is. He's not an impossible force, by any stretch of the imagination.
On using the internet in a Third World country:
It was pretty good [when I was last there]. I was sending emails through my iPhone — before it was nicked [laughs]. It was a lot better than it has been. When I was there the first time — that was 2005 — you would stand on a street corner paying some bloke who had a phone on a table to make a phone call. You'd be really going mad — it took you all morning to make a phone call, just going nuts. And every time you'd try to send an email the whole fucking town would go black and you'd go, "Oh, bollocks," and some bloke would say, "It's alright, you saved your email." I didn't save my email! I don't save emails! Christ! So, yeah — and every email I was writing was a twelve-page diatribe, so it was like, "Oh, I'll start again on my twelve-page diatribe that was probably shit in the first place."
On how technology has changed the publishing industry:
The technical side of it has got so much easier. I remember when I started out I was writing pieces for The Guardian and we were phoning them in, and it was about trying to find a working payphone and having enough coins to tell the whole story down the phone. I remember the first time they had computers but I wanted to do it in longhand — we were writing articles in longhand and physically cutting the piece of paper into strips and rearranging the sentences with a glue stick.
As for research, when I worked at the BBC as a gag writer I remember sitting in the BBC Research Library and it was incredible; it was so exciting. I remember I was doing a thing about whether Prince Andrew was illegitimate, and looking up the Queen's gestation period and what she was doing nine months before he was born — on microfiche! It was like, "Wow. This is comedy!" and I'm, like, 22 or whatever.
So, the technical side of it is a lot easier — although you don't get as many excuses to bugger around — but I think it's interesting as a whole how the industry has changed, because I think there's loads more of it. There's loads more written words, but they're not as good — and there's not enough jobs. Newspapers make these staff writers write everything rather than commission expensive other writers. In the old days you really used to try and handcraft an article because it was going to be around forever in some nice-looking magazine, and you got paid a reasonable sum of money for it, and you didn't have to feature a plug for Paris Hilton's handbag.
I really think a lot of what's out there is just… If you look at the average women's magazine, I'm not saying that it should be full of investigative reports by Marie Claire, but there is a fucking load of old shit in there; really dreadful stuff. 'Never mind the width, feel the quality,' you know? It's gone.
At the time of our interview, Jane was preparing to speak at the Sydney Opera House Festival of Dangerous Ideas. During her talk, which is titled 'Bono & Bob: Get Out Of Africa', she told me she was going to "promise, for a million dollars, to stop calling them cunts." I hope no one gives her the money.
Follow Jane on Twitter.