Unrepentant polemicist

Published

James Maxwell talks to Johann Hari, The Independent’s award-winning columnist, about life on the front-line of political journalism

In six years as a political commentator and columnist at The Independent, Johann Hari has assembled a list of enemies the length of the Thames.

Peter Mandelson, the Dalai Lama, George Galloway, Daniel Craig, Hizb Ut Tahrir, the Socialist Worker; in some form or another, he has upset or insulted them all.

I wonder, though, scrolling through this impressive catalogue of opponents and detractors, if Hari ever regrets having taken such a confrontational approach to his work?

Apparently not. “Nothing. Worth. Doing”, he tells me, punching each word out into the air, “will not attract opposition. If no-one’s going to oppose you doing it, it probably didn’t need to be done. Broadly, in politics, the things worth doing require standing up to powerful vested interests. So, I’m not embarrassed to have enemies. And, you know, I’d be even more worried if someone like Abu Hamza or Richard Littlejohn were saying nice things about me.”

He can rest assured they never will. Hari (gay, liberal, atheist) is a class-A heretic who has made no secret of his hostility toward militant Islam and its shady British sponsors. He has also frequently, and somewhat ruthlessly, targeted Littlejohn, the Daily Mail’s wildly intolerant chief contributor.

“I mean there are some right-wingers that I do actually hate. I don’t hate Richard Littlejohn, I actually feel sorry for him. This is a man who has said in print he almost never leaves his house; who is terrified that, as he put it, gay people are going to come and bang on his door and try to recruit him. That’s the sign of a serious underlying psychological problem. That’s not bigotry, that’s a psychiatric disorder.”

It is lacerating put-downs like this that have helped establish Hari as one of the most popular and successful journalists in the mainstream print media. Since he began working, at just 24, for The Independent, he has collected a plethora of accolades and awards, including the prestigious George Orwell Prize for Journalism, of which he is the youngest ever recipient. He has reported from all over the world, including from Afghanistan, the Congo and Venezuela, and been published in the New York Times, Le Monde and El Pais, among others.

Despite having been showered with praise for most of his twenties, Hari keeps his ego firmly in check. When I ask if he has had to grow a thick skin to deal with his myriad critics he refers me to the experiences of his mother, who used to work in a hospital for victims of domestic violence, and his sister, who is a psychiatric nurse. “That’s tough,” he says, “that’s difficult. Having a couple of bloggers slag you off is not hard, and having Richard Littlejohn slag you off is an active pleasure”.

In conversation, he is articulate and slightly excitable, punctuating his arguments with flashes of pitch-black humour. How seriously does he have to take the jihadist death threats made against him? “Well, I take them seriously in that I always forward them to the police, but generally I take the view that if someone is going to kill me, they’re not going to e-mail me in advance.” And on Littlejohn again: “He thinks about gay sex more than I do, and I’m gay!”.

Hari is positioning himself as a leading voice of opposition to the incoming Conservative administration. Boris Johnson’s short tenure as Mayor of London, he says, has been a catastrophe, while George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, lacks any understanding of the realities of life for the majority of the British public.

“[Osborne] has said that the people who will benefit from his tax cuts will be people who live in former council houses. That reveals that he does not know, by a factor of five, what a former council house costs. That reveals that he does not know very basic facts about Britain and how the people in it live. That will affect his policy making, inevitably”.

Further, David Cameron’s attempts to re-brand his party as progressive and egalitarian are absurd, given that he has packed his front bench with ultra-privileged Eton alumni and is himself a beneficiary of the class system.

“This is a man who wants to give a tax cut to the richest 3000 people in Britain, who are pretty much all people he knows and of the class into which he was born. At the same time he scorns educational maintenance allowances — he’s described Sure Start centres for kids as ‘a model of failure’. He, you know, doesn’t know how many houses he owns!”

Hari balances his polemicism with sensitive and insightful profiles of major political and cultural figures. Three of his most effective, compelling pieces are lengthy interviews with Gerry Adams, Martin Amis and Gore Vidal. In the last of these, he delicately topples the emotional barriers Vidal has built up around himself, revealing a diminished and dissatisfied old man, formerly a great writer and activist, now “swimming alone with his ghosts”.

“I actually very seriously wondered whether I should have run that interview because I think he may…” Hari trails off. “Well, he’s 83 years old. I would not want someone to go and interview my grandmother because she’s not the person she was. I wondered if it was unethical to do it … it was very sad.”

He sounds genuinely disheartened by Vidal’s decline. “I mean the thing is, as some one who loves and reveres Gore Vidal … there are flaws he’s always had … but when I interviewed him … the amazing wit and the forensic intelligence seemed to have faded somewhat.”

He carefully navigates past the defensive mechanisms of Amis and Adams too, leaving you with the sense that both these men, influential and talented as they are in their respective ways, are struggling to conceal a whole host of insecurities. Is it the aim of these pieces, then, to investigate the weaknesses of his subjects and draw out elements of their vulnerability?

“I try to give a kind of psychological portrait of the person. I try to figure out how their mind works, how they tick, and I suppose part of that would be vulnerability. [Vidal and Adams] are both people who present themselves as very hard and very tough and actually really didn’t like me trying to make them engage in introspection, and got very resistant to it. And, you know, if someone really doesn’t want you to talk about something in an interview, then that’s the thing you’ve got to talk about.”

Hari has his own vulnerabilities, of course, having grappled with depression for most of his adult life, but I suspect there is very little he wouldn’t talk about. He scythes through my questions, answering each one honestly and comprehensively, never flinching, hesitating or equivocating.

Much of his success as a writer and polemicist stems from this capacity to explore any issue, regardless of how dark or discomforting, without letting it deplete his resources of empathy.

In the heat and the dirt of political journalism’s front-line, empathy is a resource in short supply. On Hari’s account, however, even the loathsome Richard Littlejohn is a victim. Well, almost anyway.