Johann Hari

[This interview was conducted a few months before the scandal that erupted around Hari.]

Johann Hari shifts uneasily in his seat. The camera flashes, and he winces theatrically. It’s clear he’s more than a little uncomfortable. Yet this awkward shyness seems somewhat strange, given that he has gained a reputation over the past decade as one of the most confident, outspoken and intelligent journalists in the country, and has long been a regular on programmes like The Review Show, 10 O’Clock Live and Question Time, and it becomes downright baffling when you consider his new, trim figure. Once a podgy, rotund lover of junk food, Hari vowed to turn his eating and exercise habits around when he was presented with a special loyalty card by the staff at his local KFC, and even wrote an extended article about his new fitness regime. Nonetheless, the slimline Johann still dislikes the camera, and after sipping his smoothie timidly from a straw, makes the solemn request: ‘Don’t ever let me see these pictures!’

This marks just one facet of Hari’s intense self-awareness, and while he might dislike how he looks, he’s far more comfortable with how he sounds. While he admits, ‘My default mode is just whiney, preachy,’ this is an indispensable part of his appeal. His penchant of pointing out uncomfortable truths and giving a voice to the disadvantaged has made him one of the most renowned columnists in the country, and has earned him praise and disdain in equal measure. His list of accolades is eye-wateringly impressive, but he dismisses this with an uncertain shrug. ‘Most of these awards are kind of bollocks… The times when you feel good are not that kind of thing, but when you get a fifteen year old gay kid writing to you saying, “I’ve been treated really badly and your article gave me hope to carry on,” or something. That’s much more powerful than any of those things… The degree of interaction with your readership now is just amazing and incredibly enriching.’

However, the positive feedback he receives from readers is invariably matched by the regular arrival of vitriolic hate mail. ‘I get loads. Well, I always feel like I’m not doing something right if I’m not getting loads of hate mail.’ Does it mostly come from very right wing readers? ‘They come from an incredibly broad spectrum of people who hate me… It can be really random. Like after I criticised the Dalai Lama, I got the world’s first ever Buddhist death threat.’ In fact, death threats are not out of the ordinary for Hari, and he’s almost casual about receiving them. ‘I forward them to the police and they deal with it.’ Is it, in a perverse way, quite encouraging? He pauses, before laughing, ‘It’s a sure sign they don’t have a very good argument if they’re threatening to kill you.’

Since reading Christopher Hitchens’ infamous exposé of Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position, at the age of 15, Hari knew he wanted to be a journalist, and spent most of his time at Cambridge pursuing this goal. ‘I did a lot of student journalism… I remember at the start of my second year, the leader of China came to Cambridge, and the university just absolutely fawned, rolled out the red carpet, and I just remember, in my quite naïve student way, thinking, ‘Ooh, but what about all the people he’s killing?” I remember being quite startled just trying to get anyone from within the university – God knows how naïve I was – to even criticise the Tiananmen Square Massacre.’

From here, Hari progressed rapidly. He left Cambridge with a first – though dismisses this accolade with a shake of the head, saying, ‘I did Socio Political Science, which is quite an easy subject’ – quickly made his way onto the New Statesman, and by the time he was 23, had been given a twice-weekly column in The Independent. I recite this list, only for him to respond with another shrug. ‘I was very lucky.’ Though his talent is evident, it seems somewhat surprising just how successful he has been, given that so much of what he writes is so far to the left of the media discourse. ‘Yeah, well the media discourse is shaped by the fact that newspapers are… paid for by billionaires and corporate advertisers, and the degree to which you can diverge from the interests of those billionaires and corporate advertisers is very limited… Most British newspapers would never employ someone who says things like me.’ Has The Independent ever refused to run one of his articles? ‘No. Actually, I’m quite proud of this. The Independent has literally never once, ever, said, “You can’t say that”. The one time ever they didn’t run an article of mine, they said, “We can’t run this for another week.” The last Pope was about to die, and I wrote an article that was going to be headlined, “Why I will not grieve for this evil Pope,” and they said, “Look, he might actually die tonight, and then people will wake up tomorrow and that will be the thing in the newspaper. Just give it a week”.’

As a journalist, Hari’s focus is almost always acutely fixed on the more serious and important issues of contemporary life, and he is continually confronting difficult truths. However, he spent much of his earlier career covering more light-hearted fare, including an interview with Busted. ‘That was my idea. I kind of suspected I’d dislike them and I thought it would be a funny interview, but I did not suspect I would loathe them as much as I did. I thought they were absolutely hateful.’ More recently, there was the extremely popular article on his weight loss; I ask if this is a sign of a new, less serious direction in his writing, but he denies it. ‘I wouldn’t want to be someone who was writing every week on how I learnt to stop eating Big Macs. Although there’s a place for that kind of journalism, it’s just not what I want to do. I think everyone’s got a responsibility to talk about things that matter.’ Yet in highlighting the hypocrisy of others, isn’t there a danger of failing to meet those standards yourself? ‘I know what you mean, but I don’t think so, because I definitely never present myself as a kind of moral paragon.’

He’s as unforgiving of his own faults as he is of other people’s, and currently is one of the government’s most vocal critics. Is he at all optimistic about the future of the coalition? ‘I’m optimistic they might lose… They’ve been even worse than I thought they’d be.’ Does he view Clegg as beyond redemption then? ‘Well, if you think about the whole Cleggmania during the election, now it seems like those Christmas number one singles that everyone buys as a joke. It’s like Blobbymania, isn’t it? You just think, what the fuck was that? We look back three years later and think, my God, why did we buy this shit?’ I ask him if there’s a danger of seeming too downbeat in his views, and he agrees that this is a concern. ‘The worst thing you can tell people is, “The world is shit. Bye!” You know, I’m not a pessimist… I think it’s always about trying to say, here’s a problem and here’s how it can be resolved.’

It seems that Hari’s own principles won’t let him avoid certain issues, and if that means making a few enemies, then so be it. In fact, I get the sense that he rather relishes the combat: as the interview draws to a close and he asks for the bill, he is happy to pour scorn on some of his fellow journalists, including Giles Coren – ‘I think he’s fucking repulsive… I really loathe him’ – and Toby Young – ‘He’s such a bellend.’ Has this ever led to any awkward encounters? ‘I met George Osborne once. It was a really weird experience… There was a dinner for Andrew Sullivan, and George Osborne was there – this was about three years ago – and he completely blanked me. This hasn’t happened to me since I was a teenager. I don’t mean he mostly ignored me, I mean literally, I said hello, and he blanked me repeatedly throughout the whole night. Whenever I spoke, he just looked away. It was absolutely bizarre, and I thought, how unbelievably thin-skinned he must be.’

It is little wonder than Johann Hari gets up as many people’s noses as he does. He’s made a career out of sticking to his principles, and seems to almost enjoy the hostility that he elicits in others. As we get up to leave the restaurant, he reflects, ‘I feel like I’ve been unusually unobnoxious in this interview…’ He’s as unwilling to compromise in person as he is in writing, yet throughout our chat remains unfailingly polite and friendly. Is he uncomfortable being confronted in person? ‘The first person who ever recognised me on the street was the worst time this has ever happened… It was about six months after I’d started at The Independent, I’d just got off the tube and a woman came up to me and said, ‘Excuse me, are you Johann Hari?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I am!’ I was really chuffed, and she said, ‘You make me sick,’ and spat at my feet and stormed off, but didn’t say why!’ Buddhist, probably. ‘Yeah, exactly. Bitch.’

[Originally published on 20/04/11 in Cherwell, in print and online]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Follow me!