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Sunday 20 October 2019

Journalist Jon Ronson on investigating the American porn industry, being shamed online and spending time with Ian Paisley

Journalist Jon Ronson talks to John Meagher about his documentaries investigating the American porn industry, being shamed online and spending time with Ian Paisley in his church in Belfast

Jon Ronson. Photo by Steve Ullathorne
Jon Ronson. Photo by Steve Ullathorne
John Meagher

John Meagher

In an extensive newspaper survey on sex some years ago - featuring more than 12,000 respondents - four out of every five Irish people said they had watched pornography. Some 96pc of men admitted to accessing porn compared to 69pc of women. Eleven per cent of men said they used porn on a daily basis.

It's a subject that is rarely talked of, but those findings - among others - suggests pornography plays at least a small part in the lives of most of us.

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Yet, beyond the erotic titillation, few ponder just who produces the pornography, who the actors are, how much they're paid, what risks they take. But Jon Ronson - the distinguished Welsh journalist, documentary maker and author - thinks about such matters and over the course of a pair of compelling podcast series, he brings us closer to the realities of a world we sort of know - yet don't properly acknowledge.

First, there was The Butterfly Effect - which lifted the lid on an industry that's far less glamorous than some might imagine. Then came The Last Days of August, which tells the story of the life and death of the young porn actress August Ames - 23-year-old Canadian Mercedes Grabowski. Some feel she was driven to death by suicide by the online abuse she received after tweeting that she had declined to work with an actor who had made gay porn.

"I felt very drawn to her story," Ronson tells Review, speaking from his home in New York. "I had spent a lot of time in the porn community, so I knew that world, and I had written a book about being shamed online [So You've Been Publicly Shamed] so I thought I was in a really strong place to make it and to approach August's husband, Kevin [Moore]."

Kevin is an intriguing and divisive figure in the podcast - and rather than detail his story here, it's far more rewarding to immerse yourself in The Last Days of August, currently available on the Audible app. "Life isn't black and white," Ronson says. "Often, things are not as clear-cut as they might seem at first. I find stories with lots of grey really interesting."

Both The Butterfly Effect and The Last Days of August have been critically acclaimed and, now, Ronson is bringing them on the road for a podcast-meets-stand-up show with a difference. "There'll be audio and video and me talking, and I hope it will work for both those who have heard the podcasts and those who haven't," he says. "I want it to feel like a live documentary unfolding on stage."

He says he was inspired by the American film-maker Sam Green. "I saw him doing one of his live documentaries in New York and I was really transfixed by it. There was a big screen and a band providing a live soundtrack. It felt very immediate.

"Podcasting," he adds, "is a really great way to tell complicated stories. In the past, I might have wanted to make a television documentary on this, but it can be a very long, painstaking process - even getting something commissioned can be torturous.

"I used to go into Channel 4 and they would be really dubious about the idea I had, and it would take so long to convince them that I could either have podcasted the whole thing during that time, or written a book. And, yes podcasting is far more nimble. You can go out and make them yourself."

He has a voracious appetite for listening to podcasts and affords special praise to West Cork, the 13-part series which looked at the infamous 1996 murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. "I loved West Cork. I thought they did it beautifully."

While the relative affordability of podcast-making suggests anyone can do it, in truth great skill is required to properly tell stories such as that of August Ames. And besides Ronson's scrupulous journalistic approach, it's the empathy that he brings to all his works that makes the listener - or reader - cling to every word.

Ronson is a difficult figure to categorise. Ostensibly, he is a journalist and first became known for quirky, off-the-beaten-track stories in The Guardian - but he has also written movie scripts. There's been Okja, something of a cult hit in 2017 and the Lenny Abrahamson-directed, Domhnall Gleeson-starring Frank from 2014. The latter was based on the mercurial musician, Frank Sidebottom, whose band Ronson had played in in his youth. He says he really enjoyed the film, but once he had delivered the script, he had no further part.

The Men Who Stare at Goats, starring George Clooney, was adapted from a Ronson book of the same name and it centred on deeply strange outliers in the US army who want to adapt New Age concepts and the paranormal for warfare purposes. He talks excitedly about the time that Stanley Kubrick requested a copy of a radio documentary he had made in his early 20s, but he heard nothing more from the legendary film-maker. Years later, after his death, he made a documentary - Stanley Kubrick's Boxes - about the director's obsessive planning for the film he made and those that he wanted to make.

Ronson says he has always been attracted to projects that are out of the ordinary. "If there's mystery in something and it provokes curiosity in me," he says, "I want to take a look at it more closely. I'm also drawn to stories that are both small and big at the same time - so something that works on its own as a small, intimate story, but one with much bigger resonances."

Ronson's breakthrough came in 2001 with a book, Them: Adventures with Extremists, and an accompanying Channel 4 series, The Secret Rulers of the World. He looked at secretive organisations like the Bilderberg Group as well as Ian Paisley and the then little-known conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

"I was just thinking of that time I spent with he other day when the DUP rejected Theresa May's Brexit deal," he says, "and it's been strange to watch people like Alex Jones become this sort of mainstream figure, in spite of his malevolent world view. It's very strange that Them is full of people who nowadays have a level of power that perhaps they shouldn't have."

Ronson's bestselling book is So You've Been Publicly Shamed which looks at those people who lost everything when an ill-advised tweet went viral. Working on the book has helped curb Ronson's own tweeting habits.

"I've become much more cautious about what I say on Twitter," he says. "The problem is, there's very little room for subtlety and you can be taken up the wrong way. It's scary the way something tweeted off-the-cuff can have lifelong ramifications when it comes to people losing their jobs and struggling to get another one."

Ronson has lived in the US since the start of the decade and counts the Irish New York-based comedian Maeve Higgins as one of his closest friends. He says he "knows less about Brexit than most Brits" and has resisted any urge to develop a new project about this most divisive of issues.

"My head has been full of Trump for the past few years," he says. "There's only so much more that it can take!"

'Jon Ronson: Tales from The Last Days of August and The Butterfly Effect' is at Vicar Street, Dublin, on May 29 and the Cork Opera House, Cork, on May 30

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