Considering your unusual position for someone widely regarded as a radical, perhaps we should begin with the ultimate problem of any radical journalist – how to avoid being marginalized.
There is definitely a dose of that, but then again, radicalism is a relative concept. Most of the positions I take are within the mainstream of British and European public opinion. The difficulty is, though, that often, the press is so skewed towards serving the interests of the powerful and the Right that people get a completely distorted sense of what is “central ground”. If you look at the opinion polling, the majority of people in Britain believe in, say, not renewing Trident or much more drastic redistribution of wealth from rich to poor or all sorts of things that are considered kind of radical leftwing positions, but they’re actually completely mainstream positions.Hugo Chavez is considered radical, but actually some seventy percent of the Venezuelan people vote for him. I think there is certainly a danger that there are certain positions that are hard to articulate on certain newspapers. But I’m very lucky in the Independent. The “Indy” is a place where I really can say what I want. I can’t imagine ever writing anything where they would say you can’t say that.
But on the other hand, the “Indy” has probably the smallest readership among the national dailies.
Its true, and I could not work for the Times and say what I say. But I’m not going to stop saying what I say in order to work in other newspapers. So there is definitely a challenge to that. And also, there’s a problem with so many people that start as left wing journalists. If anything I’ve become more left-wing in the five years I’ve been a journalist. An awful lot of journalist are on the opposite trajectory. So really distinguished left-wing journalists, do things like Nick Cohen did. And I like Nick, I like him as a person a lot, and I still think he has some valuable things to say, but I think he’s just gone too far..
“Did a Hitchens”?
I know Christopher Hitchens and I love him, but I disagree with the trajectory he’s taking . I’m just writing a big piece, actually, for an American magazine called “Dissent” about this, how there were three readings to the pro war left. One was the reading of Islamic fundamentalism which said that Islamic fundamentalism is profoundly antithetical to the values of the left and all left wing people should oppose it. I completely agree with that. The second was a reading of the left, which is to say the role of the left is to show solidarity with suffering strangers wherever they are. But the third and disastrous reading – I think those two readings were boarderly persuasive – the third reading was a reading of neo-conservatism, which was to say that neo-conservatives were sincerely interested in spreading democracy, and that they where, as Nick notoriously put it, fighting the last battles for them. I just think you just can’t sustain that in relation to what actually happened. The last battles are not fought with cluster bombs, IMF structure adjustments, and mercenary armies that operate above the law.
You famously supported the invasion of Iraq at the time, also citing similar reasons.
You see, I visited Iraq and made a lot of Iraqi friends. Before I went there, my position was, basically, the common one on the Left – Iraq has nothing to do with 9/11, the WMD arguments are transparently absurd – indeed if they had WMD that would be a very good reason not to invade – and that George Bush can’t be trusted to do anything. After I went to Iraq I came to the conclusion, on the basis of speaking to Iraqis, that the majority of Iraqis would rather take their chances with an Anglo-American invasion, terrible as that was going to be, than with the certainty of Saddam and his sons ruling for generations. And that turned out to be true, in the sense that when there were opinion polls after Saddam fell, they showed that the majority of Iraqis did want the invasion to go ahead. Even though they were very worried and they thought it was about oil, they thought it was about Israel, they thought it was about all sorts of things, they still wanted it to go ahead. Even the guy in the famous Abu Graib picture, with the leash – he said after he was released, “yeah, I have supported the invasion”. What was disastrous in the position I took is that I grossly underestimated and got wrong that an invasion motivated primarily by the taking over the oil supplies was ultimately going to be a vicious imperial occupation, as indeed it turned out to be. The mistake Nick and Christopher Hitchens had made and I never made was to assume almost that the American Army had become the armed wing of the Amnesty International, and was motivated by benign causes. I never thought that, but I thought in choosing between two bad options, the American invasion was the better one. It turns out that that was a terrible misjudgment. I mean, to give you just one example, I think the catastrophes of the military occupation are quite well known but one of the really underrated things about all this is how bad the economic occupation has been. I mean, Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist, put it very well. He said, “Its like they looked at post-Soviet Russia and thought ‘that worked really well, lets do that!'”. The only problem is they didn’t go far enough. You know, they imposed upon Iraq a program of such extreme economic readjustment that you’ve got now a situation where you’ve got in most parts of Iraq eighty percent unemployment. Well, if we had eighty percent unemployment in Britain with a relatively stable democratic tradition, we would have bombs going off. So to do it in Iraq, was just madness, and I think almost everything else stems from that disaster.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you did credit Tony Blair’s decision to join the war with some good intentions.
Yeah, and I think that’s true. I think for Tony Blair the absolute formative intellectual foreign policy experience is Kosovo. The paradigmatic example of Blair’s good intentions, that they existed to some degree was Sierra-Leone. Sierra-Leone – no one has yet been able to find an explanation for why Britain acted in Sierra-Leone other than the fact that British troops happened to be there and Blair said “Oh, we could stop these disgusting hand-chopping folks taking over the country with relatively little cost,” only one British solider died, I mean obviously its horrific for the British soldier’s family, but more people would have died had there not been that intervention. And even Noam Chomsky accepts that that was a humanitarian intervention.
Chomsky did rather furiously respond to your interpretation of his position..
He still didn’t deny that he thinks it was a humanitarian intervention. It was a very strange response I thought…It was so abusive, wasn’t it? I mean, it was bizarre. But back to Sierra-Leone, and I think that that emerged with the experience of Kosovo. I’ve yet to hear a persuasive explanation of why Blair did Kosovo, other than that he was appalled by the inactivity of the British Government. Well, actually, the inactivity is not really the word for it: Everyone says that the British government didn’t do anything in the Balkan’s all through the Nineties, while, actually, we did do something, we effectively helped the Serbs murdering everyone else, because we imposed an arms embargo. If you surround a serial killer’s house and impose an arms embargo, you’re helping the serial killer cause the victim doesn’t have an axe to hit back with. This went even to the point where the Bosnian government considered taking the British government to the World Court for denying them the right to self-defense, and quite rightly, if they were effectively accomplices to a genocide.
Let’s look at the alternative explanations given to Blair’s action in Kosovo. Harold Pinter has given the most facile, he says, “Blair likes killing children,” which is just silly. The second is the Chomsky explanation, that NATO needed a new purpose for his fiftieth birthday, and this is why he did it. I don’t find that persuasive. It would have been very easy for Blair to continue the strategy that the British government had taken, of basically blocking it off and pretending it didn’t happen. I think broadly Blair thought, you know, this is an opportunity to do some good in a very complex world. And broadly, although, the situation in Kosovo is certainly extremely problematic – we’ve seen the kind of ethnic cleansing of Serb civilians to a very significant degree since the war ended, which is horrific. There are suddenly a hell of a lot problems in Kosovo. But back then it ended with, you know, civilians cheering, refugees going home, and Blair thinking ‘Well, that worked well’. And I think he took that mental template and applied it to Iraq, not realizing that Iraq was such a drastically different situation. And I’m not saying that Blair wasn’t also to some degree implicated in the much worse motivations for the war. At the very least he willfully deluded himself.
Coming back to journalism – you say that your writing is more about reflecting a prevailing public sentiment rather than trying to change it.
But it does produce a sort of change, because hearing a view expressed in the newspaper makes people realize they’re not crazy.I certainly remember that my family who did not consider themselves very political used to get quite a right-wing newspaper. And I remember thinking, as I read as a kid, ‘Oh, that must be what you’re meant to think then’. Hearing a view expressed, makes you realize that actually it’s legitimate. And the more times people hear it, the more they realize it’s a realistic option .
The Independent, on the other hand, has a very clearly defined and a very certain kind of readership. Is there much of a point voicing those opinions for the already strongly opinionated?
It’s difficult because one of the questions for a journalist, generally, is are you trying to influence the public so that they will in turn influence power or are you trying to directly influence power yourself. My feeling is that if you see yourself as a power-player, and you’ll get a lot of journalists who do that, you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster. It just corrupts you. I try to meet politicians as little as possible. Because generally when I like Labor politicians, or Liberal-Democrat politicians I find it much harder to be nasty about them, so I try to just not meet them anymore. So, you know, there is a kind of soft corruption of journalists who believe they have access to power and therefore can sway it, and therefore enter into this very complex nexus. From my experience, what you get from access to politicians is very limited anyway. They can’t tell you something that you can’t find out by just reading the official documents. So I just try to avoid that whole game. You know, I mean, I really agree with I. F. Stone and all the stuff he says about, you know, you just find out from reading the documents, from reading the stuff.
Do you think there is a point in trying to return to a very kind of loud, populist, screamer-headlines leftist journalism?
I think we underestimate the intelligence of people generally. And I always try to write in a simplest style as possible. One of the other curses of political journalists is they end up writing for an elite. There’s a famous story about one of the BBC’s economics editors, who had a column. A reader wrote to him and said, “I couldn’t understand what you were saying”, and he wrote back saying “since you are neither the Prime-Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer , nor the governor of the bank of England, you were not one of my target readers, and therefore it doesn’t matter to me that you didn’t understand what I said”.
It’s like the reverse of “the girl that works at “Boots””…
Exactly. Both my parents left school when they were fifteen and never went back into education. I always ask myself, could my mom and dad understand what I was saying if they read this? And even really quite complex ideas can be expressed in a fairly straightforward way. So I think you should always be as populist as possible. I’ve never understood why the world populist is used as a term of abuse. The Populist movement in the 1890’s was one of the greatest movements in American history. So I think we should reclaim populism.
How would you estimate the general condition of the British press in terms of the scope of opinion it allows? Alexander Chancellor recently spoke at a panel at SOAS to suggest the fact of himself writing in the Daily Mail is a token of the media’s liberality..
If anything, we overestimate the liberality of the British media. The Daily Mail is a very good example. The Daily mail really is, and I don’t mean this as an insult to Russian people, really is as strictly controlled as Pravda. There is nothing that goes into the Daily Mail that does not confirm to the very extreme, very creepy world-view of Paul Daker, which is wholey divorced even from the reality even of Middle England. I mean, this is, there’s this myth – i think Paul Daker said it, “politicians fight elections every five years, I fight one every day”, millions of people agree with what I put in my paper, and so on. It’s just not true. If you look at the people who read the Daily Mail, it’s people like my mom, who could not disagree more with the Daily Mail’s politics, but she buys the Mai because she likes the women section. The idea that people buy tabloid newspapers for their political views is a misconception. But so is the idea that the British press is liberal. Harold Wilson’s press secretary expressed it very neatly when she said, “the liberal press in Britain bends over backwards to include the voices of the Conservatives and to be nice to the Right, and so does the right-wing press”. In the Independent we have our range of right-wing voices, which I think is commendable. The Telegraph doesn’t have, you know, someone like me. The left wing press bends over backwards to be fair, and the right wing never does. Now, if most newspapers are owned by right-wing billionaires, don’t be surprised if they end up writing like right wing billionaires think. The Independent is a very honorable exception – we are owned by a billionaire who does appear give us some kind of editorial freedom – a very significant degree of editorial freedom, actually. But that is very rare. I think Chomsky’s model of corporate propaganda is to a large degree true.
There are some things that the fascination they hold for the right wing press is to me bewildering – for example, all those homophobic columns at the Sun…
This is interesting, because it’s actually changing very quickly.. I remember reading homophobic stuff when I was a kid, just as I was gradually realizing I was gay, and it was naturally very dispiriting. Now it’s a lot less – also, because, I think that unlike the US, Britain doesn’t have a very wide homophobic constituency. Even right-wing Middle England people have gay cousins, have gay kids, and don’t necessarily want to read about gay-bashing all day long.
So who does Richard Littlejohn write for?
Well, Richard Litteljohn has a mental disorder. He is profoundly mentally unwell. No normal heterosexual man thinks of gay sex as compulsively. Richard Littlejohn thinks about gay sex more than I do, and I’m gay! You know? He’s got a serious problem. There is this very right wing fringe that thinks that gay people are an archetype of everything that’s gone wrong with the world, but if you look at the opinion polls, 80% of the people in Britain supported civil partnership. When it comes to homosexuality, this is an amazingly liberal country. And the right wing press is picking up on that. In the last ten years, the Government had basically introduced almost full gay equality in Britain, and the opposition to that was very limited. Even the most right wing parts of the press like the Telegraph and the Mail didn’t put up that much of a fight, because they knew they lost. And besides, the British Right doesn’t have this frenzied, foaming religious character that much of the American Right has.
* * *
Why the extraordinary security in the lift and at the door?
Oh, that’s because the lovely flat above mine once housed those three lovely brazilian girls who turned out to be running a brothel. I always thought they dressed a bit strangely for the London climate, but they were very nice. I personally do have an emergency button in the flat though, because of all those death threats..
How serious does it get?
I always work on the assumption that if they say they’re going to kill you, they’re not going to kill you. I mean a murderer will hardly ring you up to warn you in advance! So I just tend to ignore it, you can’t just sit there cowering in fear all the time. They get quite serious though and I get a lot of them. They started sending dead animals to the Independent at one point, it was really awful.
Any particular threats that stand out in mind?
There are those really elaborate ones where they tell you exactly how they’re going to kill you: I’m going to kidnap you, take you to the middle of the ocean, take the skin off of you and dip you in the water – it’s like aww, you really put some thought to it, didn’t you? It’s touching, almost.
Drawing on that, would you care to reflect on the basic kinds of pressure on a journalist? Let’s say, official censorship, corporate censorship, readers’ pressure and self-censorship?
In terms of official censorship, there is virtually none in Britain, unless you breach the Official Secrets Act. Corporate censorship is more complicated, but then again, the Independent happily takes on corporations, so I never get this thing of “ooh, don’t write about Nike”. Where it does get in the way is in the libel laws, and we are very lucky to have this superb team of lawyers working for the Independent. From my limited experience of working with American press it’s amazing how easy it is over there. I think we need privacy laws but much easier libel laws. The readers – well, the only thing readers can really do is threaten to kill you. My dad, incidentally, always becomes incredibly proud of me when I get death threats, because I never was much of a macho kid in school. Whenever someone is saying something my dad is going “Ah, my son, they are trying to kill you! I’m so proud!”. He found a website called “Shoot Johann Hari”, and he was really pleased. Sometimes you get death threats when writing about, say, Islamic fundamentalists wanting to kill gays – and in that case it’s “thank you, you’ve proved my point”. I think if I had children, I would be more intimidated. In terms of self censorship – if I was not very secure at the Independent, and I am, I understand how I would always have my eye on “where else would I go to work?”. Because the more radical you are, the more you rule yourself out of various places of employment. There was a period when I was in favor of the invasion of Iraq, and people misjudged me and though I was lot more right-wing than I was, and I would get occasional offers from quite right-wing outlets, and you think to yourself “no, you don’t understand – I couldn’t be me and write for you”. But I can understand how it can be very tempting to people, and there are many journalists who are much more liberal than their public face. I think corporate censorship and self-censorship are densely interconnected. I think people censor themselves because they internalize what is sayable.
There is one area of criticism which is particularly difficult to get across – that of the State of Israel. It’s not at all as powerful here as it is in the States, but…
There is far less criticism of Israel in the American press than there is in the Israeli press. I mean this is just bizarre. If you look at Jimmy Carter – I mean, Carter is just such a moderate – he’s just fed to the wolves for writing a really straightforward book. What’s astonishing about large parts of the American Right which support a Likkud view of the world (I wouldn’t say support Israel – I support Israel in terms of wanting it to be peaceful and happy alongside a happy and peaceful Palestine), this faction is so dishonest. Say, for example, Jimmy Carter writes a book titled “Peace not Apartheid”, and makes it very clear – I think on the first page of the book – that the term “apartheid” is applied not to Israel itself, but to the Occupied Territories. They just ignore that! And off they go, “how dare he say that Israel is an Apartheid state?!”. He’s not talking about this, he’s talking about the Occupied Territories! I wrote a piece when I was in Gaza and the West Bank last, talking about some of the women who have given birth at checkpoints and whose babies died. I interviewed a woman whose son died at a checkpoint. Her village was gated by the Israeli military. She wasn’t allowed out, they said you’ve got to stay here until 6am, she went to give birth and the baby died. And just the lies that were told about this story! One of the websites, WorldNetDaily, very popular in the American right published something by its founder who told an outrageous lie. He said “Johann represents this as a story of that woman whose baby died – well, she was trying across the border into Israel to get into an Israeli hospital only because the Palestinian hospitals are so terrible – of course they’re not going to let her in. But this isn’t even what had happened, he obviously doesn’t know anything about the West Bank, nobody would even dream of doing that – she was just trying to get to a hospital inside the West Bank. Or a guy in the Jewish Chronicle – I quoted a completely innocent UN statistic that was even reported on Fox News, that 38 women and babies have died in the last four years at checkpoints. The Jewish Chronicle guy goes, “Johann Hari’s view of facts is very slippery. For example…” and he gives this statement. So he wrote saying that ll my facts were wrong, and the only example that he gave was that fact – which was right! I mean, couldn’t he have Googled for a bit? Another website put up an “alert” about me describing me as a supporter of Islamic fundamentalism. I’m sorry? I’m completely opposed to Islamic fundamentalism, I wrote so much against it I’m constantly being smeared as an Islamophobe. I get death threats from these fucking people. It’s incredible the way people that try to criticize critics of Israel seem to just float free of any facts at all.
How about co-opting, absorbing dissent into the system as safety valves, as it were?
Well, I think Chomsky would say that, that if you allow a small degree of dissent you actually make your system a lot stronger. This is probably true to an extent. But I don’t think you need to underestimate the value of gradual reform. For example, there are still horrific inequalities in the States – young black men’s life expectancy in Harlem is lower than in, say, Nairobi. But on the other hand, young black men are no longer blocked from going into bars, or banned from voting. There is the argument that the Conservative Party and the Labor Party are one and the same thing, there isn’t a cigarette paper between them, and all the rest of it. I think they are fare too close together – I’d like a much more radical Labor Party – but this is simply not true. John Lennon had a good line about it – he said, are just a few inches between the political parties, but a lot of people live in those few inches. And if you think of the kind of government Cameron would have if got in power, well, he would probably abolish family credit of the kind that my sister gets, which allows her to take her kids on a holiday once a year, and for a lot of people it’s living in poverty or not. So for a lot of people this is a major difference, and it’s insulting for them to say that it’s not a difference. Gradual reform has its place. Obviously, when you have insufficient traction in a system, you need to have more radical reform, and the position should always be trying to get there constitutionally, gradually, as best as you can.
But in terms of media, there is still the feeling that 70% or so of the media are vaguely to explicitly supportive of the current course...
Oh yes, more than 70%. A lot of the British press is very much skewed towards the Conservative Party, to the point where they find David Cameron, who is actually very right wing, too liberal.
So how do you challenge that?
You can have very simple laws, for example, that would allow one organization to only run one newspaper or one TV channel. The consolidation is very dangerous. But this is a genuine and difficult question – how do you democratize the media? it’s really hard, and there are very few models to show you how you can do it better, other than having very strict rules on who can own, having as strong diversity as possible, protecting things like the BBC and making sure they stick to the things they are meant to do, rather then becoming as right wing as they are now. Publicly owned broadcasting is a good model, but it’s really hard to come up with one solution. I mean about my work – some of my left wing friends will say, you became a part of the system, a safety valve. But then you ask – what’s the alternative, to have no one in any newspaper, arguing for nuclear disarmament, arguing for keeping us the right side of two degree centigrade so that we don’t end up in an absolutely horrific nuclear warming situation, to have no one arguing about the grotesquely super-rich in Britain or writing about the war in Congo. How does it benefit anyone, not having any of this reported? It’s not going to bring the system crashing down if me and George Monbiot go on strike, sadly.
How do you view “radical” papers, like the Socialist Worker?
The Socialist Workers Party is a cult, sadly enough. Again, they are doing some remarkably good work – they are trying to keep asylum seekers from being deported, and this is fantastic, but unfortunately they are a deranged cult. I much prefer the Alliance for Workers Liberty, who are smaller but not insane. I mean it’s self-discrediting politics to hark back to Lenin. It’s just grotesque. Lenin and Trotsky were deranged gangsters who built a tyranny. The whole idea that the problem comes with Stalin is just not true. Niel Harding, the great scholar of Leninism, said that Leninism would have found its Stalin sooner or later. So any valuable critique they make, and they do make a lot of valuable critique, just gets lost in this stupid harking back to the early Soviet Union.
And then there is George Galloway…
George Galloway is a psychopath – I’m not sure I can say this legally. George Galloway is a profoundly evil man. The role of George Galloway is primarily to discredit the Left in the eyes of anyone who bothers to listen to him.This is a man who, when asked whether Saddam Hussein was hated by ordinary Iraqis, said “not at all, not at all”. This is a man who describes Hussein’s genocide of the Kurds as a “civil war”. This is the man who blamed Salman Rushdie for getting people trying to murder him. He also describes the day the Soviet Union fell as “the worst day of his life”. Unfortunately, he’s my bloody MP. Just don’t engage with him, don’t give him the attention he wants. He’s not worth it.
What do you think of the journalism school system? Up until quite recently it was still cadetship, and many journalists even today don’t go to journalism school – yourself, for instance.
I generally don’t agree with journalism schools. I think the one valuable thing they teach which I wish I had is shorthand. Other than that I think that people who went to journalism schools wasted their time and money. I don’t know about the specific City course but I’ve never really met anyone who went to a Journalism course and genuinely benefited from it. I think that generally you’d be better off spending a year learning another language, or history. In a way, the skills of journalism are very general skills that an intelligent person can pick up in a few months on a job. But even so, at the moment, we have this very major structure problem in British journalism: just to get started you are expected to work for up to six months, unpaid, in the middle of London. This automatically rules out most people. I was in a very lucky position when I graduated, because my family would quite simply laugh in my face if I said, I would live for a year for nothing. I was lucky because I contacted the editor of the New Statesman when I was a student, and said – look, you believe in left wing principles, my dad’s a bus driver, I don’t have the money to start out – give me a job. Nothing very fancy, but enough to live on, and I promise I will write loads of stuff for you. And he said yes. But in most cases, if you are guaranteeing that most young journalists are children of the rich, well, you naturally discriminate in favor of the people who are already quite right wing – obviously there are shining exceptions, but most of them are people who are quite happy with the status quo and want to preserve it. This is just a scandalous problem we have in the British media, which is actually very bad for the media itself – children of the very rich don’t tend to get insights into how ordinary people live, so you get a very divorced media. There’s a big problem there.
What do you make of citizen journalism, cellphone reporting, blogging and so on?
I think the problem is you’ve got to have filters. The newspapers filters are partly those of quality, and partly those of “do conform to the views of our corporate advertisers”. So in self-published journalism you do away with the second filter but not really with the first. And what you get sometimes wonderful stuff, and sometimes it’s the pure, unfiltered bloke-in-the-chip-shop “I saw this happen”. It’s not very interesting. I think citizen journalism is at a very early stage. There are certainly amazing not-for-profit outlets. If you watch Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, they are among the best news sources in the world: accessible, populist, but also absolutely factually impeccable. This is professional citizen journalism. But I think the idea that now that everyone have a mobile phone with a video camera on they can be journalists – that’s not going to work.
Can journalism today really cause dramatic change, more than the occasional “sleaze assasination” of individual politicians?
I think that basically yeah, whether it’s the Pentagon Papers…
The Pentagon Papers were forty years ago…
Well, yes, fair enough I guess. But you can still change public opinion by enlarging and informing it. Take global warming, for example. Global warming is quite a complex subject, and quite difficult to get our heads around – what, we’re changing the weather- it sounds bizarre. I think journalism made a lot of difference on this. Even media moguls like Rupert Murdoch have been forced to accept the reality of this. A tipping point comes when even the Right has to accept some things. The certainty, at any rate, is that if we don’t write then certainly nothing will happen. What we write may or may not make a change, but if we stop…
Coming back to the influence of journalism, especially radical journalism – you make it sound a little like one option is not writing at all, and the other is writing more or less within the status quo – so how do we move on?
But in this status quo things can change so quickly! If you told my grandfather that his grandson will be able to be openly gay, to be married to another man – it would have seen the most ludicrous thing from a bad book of science fiction! And yet here we are, it happened. Pe ople can force things onto the news agenda. There is a right wing filter, sure enough, but you can push things past it. One very good example is the misnamed anti-globalization movement. They literally forced the IMF and the World Bank onto the news agenda, before that they were just taken for granted as parts of the international architecture. Now they are seriously contested, due to all those “ordinary”, average citizens, who went out and just made a fuss about it. Major changes can still be forced by ordinary people.