Do you remember buying a newspaper for the first time? It’s a big deal, a conscious decision to grow up and start engaging with serious subjects. I don’t recall this rite of passage. But I do remember picking up my first copy of Vice, because it practically made me keel over. I stood flicking through it by the counter of the record shop I was in, my jaw hanging slack as the Greek economy.
The cover was a photo of a bloke eating a baby’s arm, and it was just about the least offensive thing in it. This was revolting — amoral, crude and nasty. Even the adverts were borderline pornographic. I couldn’t believe what they were getting away with it. It was outrageous. But it was also very, very funny. I took about 30 seconds to go from thinking ‘I can’t believe I’m reading this’ to ‘I’m going to buy this for the rest of my life.’
‘H-how much is it?’ I asked the guy behind the till,
‘Look at the cover. No price. Vice is free, you plonker.’ Oh wow, I thought, stick it to the man!
And so I continued reading. For about two years, I took Vice and took its ‘Dos and Don’ts’ section as life instruction. Yes, I was a clearly a moron (what teenager isn’t?) but I regret nothing. It was a golden age which peaked in 2006 with the ‘Verdad’ issue — which, if you hadn’t guessed, contained not a word of truth. Highlights included a claim that Vice had discovered Osama bin Laden in China and an entirely fabricated report on the jihadi crack dealers of Brick Lane. Perverse? Of course. Entertaining? You bet. It took facetiousness to an unexplored horizon and staged a gangbang when it got there.
And then something awful happened. Vice began taking itself seriously. The gross-out photos and the sweary style guide were still present and incorrect, but there was something else, too: self-regard. There were interviews with activists, ‘immersive’ pieces on biker cults and reports from war zones. It had an entirely new agenda — as UK editor Alex Miller put it last year: ‘News is more interesting than frivolity.’
You can’t disagree with that. But I used to go to Vice for style fascism and knob gags, not earnest investigative journalism. I get enough of that from everywhere else. With the exception of a couple of first-rate exclusives (its extraordinary coverage of the Islamic State, for example), its current affairs focus isn’t actually all that interesting, at least not for a brand that prides itself on subversion.
Last year, Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox paid $70 million for a 5 per cent stake in Vice Media. It wasn’t news anyone would describe as surprising, (remember MySpace?) and founder Shane Smith was quick to crow about his coup. He still controlled 95 per cent of voting rights, but was now at the head of a company valued at $1.4 billion. Not bad going by anyone’s standards — it’s hardly compatible with the brand’s seditious schtick.
I’m not crying ‘sellout!’, but I do object to them playing the outsider card. ‘We suck less than most other companies,’ one of their Twitter bios claims. What is this supposed to mean? That throwing a ‘fuck’ into every third sentence somehow equals moral superiority? Come on.
In its print incarnation, Vice is essentially an above-average lads’ mag with aspirations to seriousness. The brand as a whole, for all its success, is a business like any other. Granted, they employ some of the best writers around — I can’t be the only person convinced that UK Vice’s Clive Martin is a generational one-off — but still something about it doesn’t sit well with me. The modus operandi of all of Vice’s various incarnations is smugness.
All opinion about anything beyond sneakers and hip-hop mixtapes is sealed firmly within inverted commas. It’s easy to be self-righteous when apathy is your default line, but the more serious the subject, the more pathetic you look. Shane Smith defends Vice’s position thus: the mainstream media does not tell ‘the whole story’, instead competing for scoops and internet traffic. Pots and kettles don’t get much more talkative.
Besides that, I think it’s reasonable to say that Vice is the ‘mainstream media’. For sure, it’s targeted at millennials, but there are a lot of us out there. Consider this: the website attracts 44 million hits per month and its YouTube channel alone has only slightly less than 5 million subscribers. Nothing wrong with being ‘mainstream’, of course — but as I see it, a major news source cannot realistically pass off ironic detachment as an ethical position. If it were to drop its smirking outsider guise for BBC-style ‘objectivity,’ would anyone still pay attention?
The implication that there is somehow something more worthy about Vice’s ‘immersive’ journalism than a newspaper report is as annoying as it is absurd. What’s clear is that this smart-aleck offspring of Viz and the Modern Review is now having a moment of teen identity crisis. The filth, the fury and the Bad Brains tattoos are still there, but they’re ballast for a new strain of sanctimony. It wants to have its cake and eat it before puking it up and running it all as a photo spread. And as I see it, it can’t.