An Orwell Prize Winner in his twenties, Johann Hari is a model of what aspiring young writers can become. He started writing for the New Statesman soon after leaving university and by the age of 23 had a twice-weekly column in The Independent.
Despite his rise, he is cautious in his understanding of what someone in his position can achieve. He speaks, in our quiet Aldgate café, of two types of political columnists: those “who think they’re talking to politicians and ones who think they’re talking to the readers.”
He recounts a story of former Times columnist Antony Jay: “A reader wrote to him and said, ‘I didn’t understand what you were saying,’ and Jay wrote back to him – ‘Since you’re not the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Governor of the Bank of England it doesn’t matter whether you understood what I was saying. It wasn’t written for you.'”
So Hari understands that to effect change, he must persuade readers and put them in touch with pressure gorups. “Some of the things that I say aren’t things you’d normally read in a newspaper. A lot of times people write to me and say ‘Oh I’m so glad, I thought I was mad for thinking like that but actually now I realise it’s quite a rational thing to say’.”
But in the era of podcasts and blogs, is his role as a traditional newspaper columnist under threat? Not only are newspapers seeing their circulation and profits drop, but their authority as the nation’s news-breakers is being cut away by every internet exclusive.
He claims not to be worried by the financial future of the press: “I cannot make newspapers more economically viable than they are. So, I don’t spend a huge amount of time sweating about it”.
Hari is combative regarding the relative quality of new and print media: “When blogs first began I thought they would be like columns: with a fairly rational argument. I thought the medium they would most resemble would be column writing. Actually I think the medium they have ended up most resembling is talk radio. It’s consumed in small bursts and there’s a premium on aggression, shouting and being more extreme than the last person.”
He bemoans the declining standard of Nick Cohen and Melanie Phillips’ writing: “People who actually write blogs are quite atypical of your readership, but someone like Nick Cohen gets congratulated for his most right wing views by blogs, so he will air them more and more and get more and more positive comments. It’s like a sort of electronic circle jerk, where you get trapped in it.”
True newspapers boast not only quality control but also the willingness to pay to send writers across the world to report, something Johann recently did in Bangladesh. His experience of the impact of climate change left a deep impression. He talks of seeing trees emerging from the sea where just two years ago there were houses. “The biggest island in Bangladesh has lost half its mass in the last decade”.
A creative analogy demonstrates the nature of the threat and the imperative to deal with it: “Imagine if tomorrow we discovered that Osama bin Laden had a machine that could flood some of the most important global cities, make the oceans more acidic, cause the ice caps to collapse and drown Bangladesh.
“Then we’d do everything we possibly could to stop Osama bin Laden from using this machine. We are that machine. We are doing that. But somehow it’s not personified in the form of an enemy. If it’s all of us doing incrementally it’s much harder to deal with.”
He mentions Bill McKibbin, an American environmentalist author who explains human inability to deal with climate change as a function of evolution: we are not evolved to think that “we do the weather to ourselves”.
Our conversation moves on to another man-made disaster, according to Hari, the ‘War on Drugs’. Opposition to drug prohibition crosses traditional ideological lines, including libertarians and conservatives. Hari, a self-proclaimed social democrat, is another joining the calls for legalisation.
“There was a great line of Milton Friedman, not someone I’d normally quote approvingly: ‘Drug addiction is always a tragedy for the individual addict but drug prohibition makes it a tragedy for the whole society’. Drug prohibition causes more problems than drug addiction. It doesn’t actually stop very much drug addiction.
“We know that in the US when, in the 1970s, they decriminalised cannabis in three states, cannabis use did not go up, it stayed the same. We also know that countries that are the most prohibitionist, like the US and Britain, have more drug addicts than liberal countries like the Netherlands.”
But this is an issue in which the actual words used by those advocating reform are working against them. “If you look at the opinion polls, in the Daily Mirror for example, the word ‘legalisation’ gets very little support. If you ask people if they support legalisation about 10-20% of them do.
“If you ask them ‘Do you think drugs should be taken away from criminal gangs and handed to off-licenses and pharmacists?’ about 80% of people say yes. So I think the word ‘legalisation’ has a certain contamination around it. Which is unfortunate.”
Consistent in his other views, Hari has radically changed his mind on the Iraq War. In the months leading up to the invasion, he was one of a number of left-leaning writers who supported the removal of Saddam Hussein. But almost six years later, he regrets his initial position.
“What I got horrifically wrong and should have known in advance, as some people did, was that because the American invasion was motivated primarily by a desire to monopolise the oil resources it would be an invasion that was run in the interests of the oil resources, not in the interests of the Iraqi people.
“If you look at what happened in Venezuela, another country I’ve reported on, a year before the invasion they [the US] supported a coup against Hugo Chavez, the democratically elected President, because he was trying to control the oil supply himself, and use the profits not for American multinationals but to enrich people in the barrios [slums]. So I should have looked at evidence like that.”
In abandoning and apologising for his pro-war position, Hari has parted company with Christopher Hitchens, the man whom he credits with inspiring him to become a journalist after his denunciatory ‘The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice’ was published in 1995. “I remember being absolutely exhilarated by it and thinking ‘well I want to do this.'”
Hari’s secularism is as strident and assertive as that of Hitchens. “70% of the British people never attend religious ceremonies. But the people who are religious are very concentrated. 70% of British people think faith schools should be abolished, but the 30% who support them really really fucking support them and if the faith school is shut down will go crazy and lobby and hold protests.
“Whereas the 70% who are against them are just mildly against them because they’ve got better things to do with their lives because they’re not superstitious lunatics.”
With his witty writing and combative agenda, Johann Hari shows us that real, traditional column writing is alive and well.