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"Richard Littlejohn is mentally ill"

Will Heaven talks to Johann Hari, the firebrand left-wing columnist who won last year's Orwell Prize

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For Johann Hari, 2008 was a good year. He became the youngest ever winner of the Orwell Prize for political journalism, aged just 28. But for many of his fans his finest moment came four years earlier, when he appeared on Richard Littlejohn's Sky News show to speak about the BNP. Hari didn't take any prisoners.

He pounced on the Daily Mail columnist, strafing him with well-chosen statistics. "In your novel To Hell in a Handcart", he began, "which was accurately described as a 400 page recruiting pamphlet for the BNP, you described a single asylum seeker receiving £117 pounds a week. In reality they receive £33." Raising his voice to the right-winger - who by now was sweating profusely - he accused him of propagating "anti-asylum seeker lies."

I asked him whether it had been a planned ambush. He shook his head, saying that although the BNP are "obviously disgusting", it's journalists like Littlejohn that "pump out the sewage the these rats feed on." But is Littlejohn really that evil? Hari answered adamantly: "I feel very sorry for Richard Littlejohn. He is mentally ill. He's absolutely obsessed with homosexuality... I mean, he thinks about gay sex more than I do. He actually thinks gay people are going to come and try to convert him. He writes most of his Mail columns from a gated mansion in Florida. He hates this country and knows nothing about it."

Johann Hari has made a name for himself as a firebrand left-wing columnist. He writes polemically for The Independent, the Huffington Post and Attitude, Britain's best-selling gay magazine. He was born in Glasgow but was raised in North London by his father - a Swiss-German bus driver - and his mother, a Glaswegian social worker who specialises in working with victims of domestic violence ("battered wives").

We meet up in the East End, near Brick Lane. Johann appears slightly dishevelled. He apologises, but tells me that he's been looking after his nephew. "My family seem to think", he laughs, "that I'm available to babysit because I work from home."

We go into a hotel bar, and Johann asks me what I would like to drink. "A Coke please," I say, still eager to impress - I'm sure he wrote a column about how much he likes Coke. Johann orders apple juice. Fuck. I suddenly remember that his column was about giving up Coke because of the evil practices of the Coca-cola company in Colombia. It's too late, we sit down and begin.

One of Hari's earliest political influences was George Orwell. Aged just 13, he had been dispatched by his father to Switzerland to live with his grandparents and learn German. A Londoner through and through, he was not looking forward to it, and took a stack of books. One of them was Down and Out in Paris and London, which, he said, "I must have read about 15 times while I was there".

How much does he identify with Orwell, I ask him, who wrote that a writer must be "vain, selfish and lazy"? He laughs, "I love Orwell but I am always nervous about people who claim Orwell as a mentor. I think it's hubristic." He continues: "There's been a generational shift with Orwell. People in their fifties and sixties tend to revere the Orwell of Animal Farm and '1984' - that tends to be what brought them to his work. But they touch me least because when I was born the Soviet Union was almost gone. Those novels were written to make important points which have since become obvious."

Clarifying this, he adds that "being a left-winger after communism is a bit like being born into a family where you had a granddad who everyone says they loved. But when you learn about him it turns out that he beat the shit out of granny, murdered the other grandchildren and buried them under the patio. You think, what the hell was it that everyone saw in this nutter?"

He might not claim Orwell as a mentor, but Hari's prose is fluent and - in argument - he's convincing. Unlike it was in Orwell's time, the world of newspaper journalism is less assured now. Given the choice between buying a newspaper or reading its content online for free, the reading public doesn't shun gut instinct. Now the credit crunch is losing newspapers advertising revenue fast - as someone who is primarily a newspaper columnist, does Hari ever feel like he is on a sinking ship?

"You're right", he starts quickly, "being a print journalist in 2009 can sometimes feel like being a coal miner in 1976. But I believe people want to understand what is happening in the world and I think there will be some sort of mechanism for delivering that which will be financially viable."

I ask him to elaborate, so he adds: "There are structural forces at work that an individual journalist will find very hard to deal with. But if you want more people to read a newspaper you've got to produce the best damn product you can. You've got to make sure your writing is accessible. I'm amazed at how much journalism is just unclear. Or is written in a cliquish way that is only interesting to a tiny number of people." He begins to get more animated: "the whole way that we cover politics in this gossipy Westminster way is totally uninteresting to the vast majority of people. What you write has got to be comprehensible to the average reader - it's got to matter to them."

Johann begins to explain some of the issues that are affecting modern journalism and complains, "There's very little that I can do to change those tectonic shifts. It's a bit like becoming one of those monks who were paid to write out the bible, then the Guttenberg press comes out. Well, you can't really do much. Improving your handwriting isn't going to help."

Sitting up, he moves on to the international press: "One of the reasons American newspapers are going bust is partly because of all these structural changes, but also because they are so fucking boring. If you compare them to British newspapers or French newspapers, they are just a lousy product - they are badly written, bland, horribly presented... and they have shit columnists."

This comes as a surprise. Hari writes for The Independent, which is criticised by many journalists for similar reasons. It's doing so badly - with huge losses and a flagging readership - that it recently was forced to move into the same building as the Daily Mail, politically speaking its arch-enemy. Does the Indie really come close to his version of the ideal newspaper?

He replies confidently: "I think it's one of the best. I'm really proud and privileged to work for it. There are people like Patrick Cockburn who I think is one of the most extraordinary journalists in the world. The paper is really is good to me - very few editors would let a writer go off for a month to Congo or Bangladesh to cover what seems to be an obscure, off-the-agenda story. I'm very lucky like that."

Hari has covered a lot of obscure stories in his time: he won the Orwell Prize for pieces about a 'pleasure' cruise with American Republicans, multiculturalism and women, and another on France's "secret war" in the Central African Republic. But as a part-time foreign correspondent, he also covers stories which are very much on the agenda. A week before the interview, when I rang him to confirm the meeting place, he told me there might be a problem. "It looks like I might be sent to Gaza," he said, "you better ring back on Sunday to check I'm still in the country." The Israeli army, however, wasn't letting journalists into the war zone, so he was ordered to stay put.

His column recently declared that Israel was "self-harming". Sensing an oncoming tirade, I ask him to explain. "What's going on there is a tragedy for both sides," he starts. "Primarily, it's a tragedy for people in Gaza, because they are the ones who are being killed in huge numbers. But it's condemning more Israeli civilians to die horribly as well." He pauses, before adding: "Basically at the end of this there's going to have to be a two state solution along the 1967 borders. Someday, somehow that has to happen." Johann's tone has become quietly emotional. But he remains focused, moving onto why this solution hasn't taken place. One reason is the return of Palestinian refugees. He declares: "There's polling that shows that the vast majority of refugees don't want to turn to Israel proper. They want to return to a free, independent Palestine."

Hari has visited Gaza before, and attempts to explain the difficulties of living there: "It's hard for people to imagine. It's this tiny little place with one and a half million people living in it who've never left. You stand on a tower block and you can see the borders of their world. You can see the Mediterranean Sea and the Israeli barbed wire. If you live in that situation, cut off from the world and blockaded, with 60% unemployment, real hunger kicking in and suddenly you start getting bombed..."

Moving back to the political, Hari says: "At the moment there is a majority on both sides for a two state solution. I don't see how this bombing gets us closer to that. This is a lot of dead and injured people, a lot of people made angrier, more hateful, and it's not going to stop the rockets. It may cause a brief cessation to the bombing of Ashkelon and Sderot, but the long-term solution has to be two states."

When I bring up Hamas, Hari is quick to define his position: "Look. I hate Hamas. They are an Islamist fundamentalist organisation...But this conflict has crippled all the Palestinian moderates, emboldened the most extreme end of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And if even we break Hamas completely, this idea that you'll get a return to Fatah is ludicrous. You'll actually end up with a complete implosion of Gaza and the rise of other, really crazy, Islamist groups. I've met representatives from those groups and they are not the people we want in control of Gaza."

Shortly before the interview, Barack Obama - then president-elect - gave his first statement on the crisis in Gaza. Although stating his concern for the political situation, Obama claimed that until he was president he would not be able to speak out. I ask whether Johann thought the statement had been weak.

He replies: "I think Obama was right. There's not a lot he can do until he is president. There is this convention that you only have one president at a time." Hari has been a supporter of Obama from early one, and he is not one for criticising the first African-American president. But I'm interested to know how he thinks, as president, Obama will approach the problems in the middle east.

"We have to be depressingly realistic about Obama," he says slowly. "It's still ambiguous as to what he'll to do about the Israel Palestine situation." He continues, talking about "hawkish" Jewish lobbies in America who claim to speak for American Jews but actually don't. "After African-Americans American Jews are the group who are most in favour of the two state solution." He adds: "It's actually these nutcase Christian evangelicals who are most pro this fanatical view of Israel."

Hari is an outspoken critic of religion. One of his favourite writers was Christopher Hitchens, author of God is not Great and the critique of Mother Teresa's practices, The Missionary Position. Hari's publicly listed Facebook profile states: "Sometimes I chide Richard Dawkins for being too soft on religion", so I ask him if he thinks some religions are less offensive than others.

He agrees: "Of course. Not everyone is Osama bin Laden. I don't think all religious believers are evil - if you believe in an imaginary sphere, sometimes that imaginary sphere will tell you to do good things as well as bad things. And I don't agree with some of the militant atheists who say that moderate religion is like a gateway drug and that actually it provides cover for extremism." He adds, laughing: "I have lots of friends who are moderate religious believers and we can have civilised, intelligent arguments- they are not going to try to kill me."

Like Hitchens, Hari despises Mother Teresa. They both accuse the 'saint of Calcutta' of being a religious fundamentalist who converted the dying to Catholicism. I ask him who he would rather send to hell - Mother Teresa or the King of Saudi Arabia? "The King of Saudi Arabia just here because if there is a hell Mother Teresa is already there...oh no, that's too nasty. Er...the King of Saudi Arabia because although Mother Teresa was a disgusting fraud and a hypocrite she didn't kill or torture people. The King of Saudi Arabia is in a whole other league."

Johann clearly isn't fond of monarchies. He has written a book, God Save the Queen?, about how the British should abandon the Royal Family. He claims that Prince Charles has been victim of child abuse and is a fierce critic of his badly informed science, calling him a "strikingly stupid man" who, every time he has been judged academically, "has been a disaster."

Surely he sees eye to eye with Prince Charles on global warming? "He is personally one of the worst polluters in Britain", Hari shoots. "His reasons for being opposed to global warming are gibberish. Global warming it not a spiritual crisis. It's a problem because we've got too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere...The things Prince Charles says about global warming are used to discredit the rest of us who are genuinely worried about it."

There's time for one more question. Is global warming the biggest crisis facing the world in 2009? "Yes. People think this is a long-term problem. It's not. I'm worried about myself and people who are alive now. This is imminent: if the planet warms by two degrees we've lost Bangladesh. We are quickly heading towards the point of no return."

Johann Hari has proved two things: his intelligence, and his ability to form polemical positions on any subject. We stand, and he asks me if I am stressed about exams. We walk outside. "God it's like the arctic", he says, shivering. "I'll walk you to the tube."

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6 Comment

TC Cahill Posted on Saturday 28 Mar 2020

If Mr Hari thinks Mother Theresa is in Hell, just think of the ghastly creatures that must be in Heaven! No, it's interesting how men who have their minds closed to spiritual things get so angry when they see or read of genuinely holy people like Mother Theresa. Real love and absolute humility are so rare in our world nowadays that they seem almost unbelievable, as if they must be "a disgusting fraud" or hypocrisy. The real fraud is to think we can do charity without God, to think an amelioration of our circumstances on Earth is the be all and end all of life.

The tenth precept of Mother Theresa's Sisters of Charity is "Accept contempt, being forgotten and disregarded". Her reputation doesn't need my help. Ironically, all these snide attacks are probably gaining her great merit in the eyes of God and His Church.


MJ McCusker Posted on Saturday 28 Mar 2020

Definition of hypocrisy

1. The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.
2. An act or instance of such falseness.


On what grounds does Hari accuse St. Theresa of Calcutta of hypocrisy?

Did she claim to help the sick and the dying and not do it?

NO. She served others selflessly for decades, sacrificing herself daily in a way not usually associated with Hari, Dawkins, and Hitchens.

Was she hypocritical in her attempts at conversion?

NO. She openly professed the Catholic faith and sought to save the souls of the dying, the final and greatest of her charitable acts to those under her care. I myself have heard a recording of her speaking openly in Rome about giving the dying 'the ticket to St.Peter' i.e Holy Baptism.

Does her 'dark night of the soul' mean that (as Hitchens argues) she didn't really believe in God?

NO. Such experiences are common in saints, they are evidence of great faith. A faith that continues despite no sensible consolation.

Thus on what grounds does Hari accuse her of hypocrisy?


Perhaps I may offer another definition:


1. A false statement maliciously made to injure another's reputation.
2. The utterance of maliciously false statements; slander.


Will Heaven Posted on Saturday 28 Mar 2020

"Did she claim to help the sick and the dying and not do it?"

Hari would claim that she did not do it as well as she might have done.

The house for the dying in Calcutta offers no medical care beyond basic painkillers for those with a range of illnesses, some of them treatable.

Would it not be better to use the millions of dollars donated to the Sisters of Charity to create and fund a working hospital?

At the moment the dying are taken off the streets and given love and attention, by all accounts, but very little hope of survival.

It is worth reading Christopher Hitchens' book, 'The Missionary Position', if you want to understand the criticisms levelled at Mother Teresa more fully. The media hype surrounding her is less than objective.


MJ McCusker Posted on Saturday 28 Mar 2020

Of course it would be good to see more hospitals. However the charism of the Sister's of Charity is clearly to look after those who are dying and would otherwise die alone and uncared for. That they do that, and never professed to do anymore, is alone sufficient to acquit Mother Theresa of the charge of hypocrisy.

The failings of the Indian healtcare system cannot be laid at Mother Theresa's door. Johann Hari and Christopher Hitchens are welcome to work for more hospitals and better healthcare for the poor.

The reason Hari finds her 'disgusting' is perhaps because he objects to the very idea that a good death is the most important achievement (to the extent that grace can be 'achieved') in a persons life. That is understandable for someone who does not believe in the Four Last Things but even if he cannot bring himself to respect such a work at least the care offered to those who would otherwise be left to die in the streets and back alleys of Calcutta should be a sufficient reason to refrain from such abuse, especially about someone who is dead!


Will Heaven Posted on Saturday 28 Mar 2020

I understand your position well MJ McCusker, as I am sure you are aware.

However, there is evidence - from Hitchens and other sources - that Mother Teresa's nuns allowed some patients to die who, given the right treatment, could have been cured of their ailments. Some needed antibiotics for fairly unremarkable infections. And they were often young.

I worked for the Brothers of Charity (same organisation but active monks instead of nuns) back in 2006, in the Calcuttan orphanage for disabled boys. Over the course of the week it became clear that very good work was being done for these boys and that, without the orphanage, they would be in dire straits indeed.

Yet one of the boys was heavily bandaged, and when I asked why, I was informed that another child had "set him on fire with matches." In British childcare, this would be seen as disgraceful. How could they let the young boys get hold of matches and leave them unattended for so long that one of them managed to set another on fire? I was also told that, when one of the brothers lightly smacked a young boy (who had severe learning difficulties), that that was pretty much how things happened there and that I was not to question it. Again, in a British orphanage this sort of "discipline" would be unthinkable.

It is patronising and naive to assume that Calcutta - because of its endemic poverty - should not expect better standards of care from people attempting to solve these sorts of problems. Standards for health and childcare must be universal. It must not be forgotten that there are available funds, too - millions of dollars a year are donated to the religious order.

I think that unquestioning high regard for a charitable organisation which supposedly serves the poorest of the poor, while allowing them to die or suffer unnecessary pain, is a very dangerous thing indeed.

The poor of Calcutta deserve to live free from the constraints of poverty. Where Mother Teresa's order contributes towards the alleviation of their suffering, I commend it. Where it glorifies it due to a belief not shared by all, I denounce it. There are other charities based in Calcutta which I believe do more. Some of them, needless to say, are Catholic.


Marianne Posted on Saturday 28 Mar 2020

I don't know if the jury is still out on Mother Teresa but Hitchens was not alone in condemning her. You can see a very interesting discussion about her online. It is an episode of 'The Big Questions'. One of the contributers - is it Mr Chatterjee?- has also written a book setting out the bad side. Some chapters are also available online.

I am not qualified from personal experience to say if Mother Teresa thought suffering was good and redemptive but that is something that Christian theologians often say.I am not saying that all nuns are alike but I'm still tramatised by my encounter with a long dead nun in a so-called place of education. Many people hav suffered much more at the hands of nuns.I can't remember now who said all saints should be considered guilty until proved innocent, but remember, until recently Jimmy Savile was seen as a saintly philanthropist.

It's easy for unscrupulous people to use the aura that religion gives in order to manipulate the unwary. My partner heard a lecturer on psychology say ''Psychopaths often become vicars''. Everyone laughed but he said ''No, I mean it.''

We accept that cult leaders are generally bad people. But the only difference between a cult and a religion is size.


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