How the cult of Vice came crashing down

The irreverent Bible of hipsterdom became a tiresome mouthpiece for woke capital.

Heydon Prowse

Topics Culture Politics World

Thirty years after it was founded, Vice magazine is finally finished. Last week, parent company Vice Media Group announced that it will no longer publish anything on and it plans to cut hundreds of journalism jobs.

In recent years, Vice has become an object of much ridicule. This was a magazine that cut deals worth millions with the Saudi Arabian government, while simultaneously publishing woke guides on ‘How to shop for jeans as a nonbinary person’ and ‘How to deal with the “ally” in your friend group who’s actually a huge jerk’.

Yet once upon a time, Vice was seen as the coolest media organisation on Earth. In London, in the mid 2010s, it was a cult that my entire social circle was desperate to join. The cool kids who worked there wore gold Vice rings. When they told you about their job, they found it physically impossible not to sound smug. ‘Oh right’, you’d say, trying with every fibre of your being to sound unimpressed (and failing). I made some films for them as a freelancer in those days but never fully made it into the inner circle.

Those who couldn’t get jobs there applied to the American Apparel shop on Curtain Road in Shoreditch purely because it was close to Vice’s office on Leonard Street, which was like a kind of hipster frat house. Failing that, you could always go for a pint and a line of meow meow at the Vice-owned Old Blue Last pub on Great Eastern Street. And as you stood there pretending to enjoy the vaguely melodic whingeing of the Black Lips (a band signed to Vice Records), it felt almost as if you were in the warm inner circle of the coolest people on the planet. Except, it was an illusion. The kids with the gold rings were actually all partying upstairs in the flat above the pub, where the UK editor lived.

To the uninitiated, the cult of Vice might seem as inexplicable as the ‘dancing plague’ of 1518 or the Tanganyika laughter epidemic, but it actually made a lot of sense. Because at the time, Vice was really the only major ‘alternative’ media platform out there for budding journalists and filmmakers to cut their teeth on.

Friends of mine who started as Vice interns were all of a sudden flying off to Medellín in Colombia to make documentaries about cocaine cartels, even if they had little-to-no filmmaking experience. In 2013, Vice sent me to the Venice Film Festival to make a surreal video series about a camp Israeli man named Nimrod Kamer. He tried to sell drugs to Willem Dafoe. He tried to get a distribution deal for a Pierce Brosnan sex tape from Harvey Weinstein. And he offered to finance feature films in return for – literally – a pound of flesh.

For young people trying to break into TV, pitching to every other media outlet, from the BBC to Channel 4, felt like an endlessly demoralising grind. Patronising boomers would asphyxiate any remotely fun idea you dreamt up. Meanwhile, Vice was covering cannibal warlords in Liberia and sending reporters to see what it was like to do stand-up comedy on acid. It even had a dedicated drugs correspondent called Hamilton Morris!

Vice’s genius strategy was to offer salaries way below industry standard to hungry young journalists and filmmakers. This meant that its offices were packed to the rafters with privileged kids who were happy to pass up a decent pay cheque in exchange for the infinitely more valuable social currency of working there. To pick just one example, Hamilton Morris was the son of Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris.

At its height, Vice was the most contrarian and unconventional publication out there. Much of this is owed to co-founder Gavin McInnes. He fell out with co-founder Shane Smith and left Vice in 2008, long before I was trying to become part of the cult. Still, it was undoubtedly Gavin’s irreverence that gave the magazine its unique flavour. When it launched its British edition in London in 2002, McInnes said: ‘We will have no taboos. Vice has never been about shocking people, we’re just shocking in nature.’

By the 2010s, that punk attitude forged by McInnes had attracted huge corporate interest. The style was re-packaged and sold to advertisers for millions, via its in-house creative-services agency, Virtue. I made some adverts for the commercial arm. This was a far more cut-throat operation than the gonzo magazine.

Other creative agencies at the time would take a brief from a brand and then eagerly pitch in their little ideas. In contrast, Vice sales staff would swagger into boardrooms and make stuffy corporate execs feel so uncool that they would simply pay for whatever Nathan Barley-esque nonsense the gold-ring wearers had dreamt up at 1am the night before above the Old Blue Last. Such was their cultural cachet that, for a period, Vice sales staff convinced the entire consumer-goods market that they had discovered a Rosetta Stone to translate corporate messaging into youthspeak. Naturally, they charged through the nose for this.

Eventually – inevitably – the money took over. Investment flooded in from the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, the Walt Disney Company and private-equity firm TPG Capital. Like many other online media platforms, Vice struggled to turn this into profit. The multiple #MeToo settlements it faced didn’t help either. Amid its financial struggles, it signed a deal with Mohamed Bin Salman’s regime to make films promoting Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, editors repeatedly blocked stories that might offend the Saudi government.

From that moment on, any pretence at edginess just felt like LARPing. No one is going to take the journalistic rigour of your ‘Guide to radical polyamory for Latinx long-Covid sufferers’ all that seriously when one of your biggest funders likes to chop up journalists and put them in suitcases.

Perhaps it was this hypocrisy that ultimately turned Gavin McInnes into a right-wing extremist. He quit Vice in 2007, citing ‘creative differences’. He later complained that commercial goals had compromised his editorial independence. I met McInnes in New York in 2012 and I remember feeling sorry for him. The man whose brainchild became a $6 billion hipster monolith was bumbling around Brooklyn half-drunk in an ill-fitting suit.

In 2016, McInnes founded the Proud Boys, a group that describes themselves as ‘Western chauvinists’. When contrarianism runs so deep in your veins that you are ‘just shocking in nature’, the temptation to troll the media establishment must have been irresistible. After all, that is what Vice ultimately became – the very establishment that it once railed against. When the multi-billion dollar corporate machine has become so performatively ‘progressive’, where else is there for the ultimate antagonist to go, other than to become radically regressive?

In a weird way, maybe the ‘6 January’ attack on the US Capitol was all Vice’s fault? I firmly believe that for McInnes, the Proud Boys started as a joke to troll everything his former magazine had become. But, at a certain point, it got out of hand and became real, with several members being convicted for their role in the Capitol riots. (McInnes left the Proud Boys in 2018 after it was designated an extremist group by the FBI, though he did not renounce the views it espoused.)

In any case, there was only ever so long Vice could continue masquerading as the enfant terrible of media after getting into bed with America’s biggest corporations and a theocratic state. Its underdog image was irrevocably tarnished, for audiences and advertisers alike. Perhaps it was always destined to be cursed by its own contrarianism.

Heydon Prowse is a satirist and director. Listen to his latest series, Wokewash, on BBC Radio 4 here. Follow him on Twitter: @HeydonProwse

Picture by: Facebook.

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Topics Culture Politics World


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