Peter Hitchens - News is what somebody, somewhere, wants suppressed.
Updated: Feb 21, 2018
I talk to Peter Hitchens, not exclusively of The Mail on Sunday, about integrity, and fitting in
A hallmark of your work is that you despise political violence; why is your prose so combative?
I’m almost always in the position of challenging conventional wisdom. I have to start by getting up, by standing out from everyone else and saying: “I don’t accept, this”. If you haven’t got anything particularly new to say, if you’re just one of what Bob Dylan memorably called the rat race choir, you can gargle on without ever having to do anything exceptional or make an impression – you’re just there. And an awful lot of people in commentary journalism are repeating what everyone else is saying, and indeed what they’ve been told by their contacts. But that’s not what I do.
I think there is absolute truth, and it can be discovered
I used the parallel because the best way to avoid violence for you might have been to be as combative as possible on paper.
Well I strongly believe in an adversarial parliament in this extremely divided country for exactly that reason. If very deep disagreements and discontents in the country are not reflected in its parliament, then the danger of violence in our society is increased. And I’m very worried about the horrible consensual parliament we have at the moment; that it is making that danger greater all the time. It’s one of the reasons I was so pleased that Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, because it did tend to make Parliament more genuinely adversarial than it had been in some time.
And I get a sense that you admire his political honesty.
Very much so. I think his courtesy is very creditable, and his straightforward, unambitious holding to principles has to be given credit. And we’re always saying that we want people to say what they mean, and we want people in politics to have a clear idea of what they want, and for people to lead rather than follow – and here we’ve got one. So, we can’t really complain can we?
What is the place of respectfulness in journalism?
Well I don’t quite know how you define respectfulness. To some extent you must respect office; because people have obtained office through processes where they’ve put themselves before the approval of others. I’m not a great enthusiast for universal suffrage democracy, but it is what people believe to be the way of conferring authority on politicians – and if they’ve got that authority you have to respect the position. You don’t have to respect the person all that much. I’m not as polite as Jeremy Corbyn. But I’m not actually in direct parliamentary politics. And in my view, sometimes it’s not just necessary but virtuous to demonstrate contempt for the contemptible.
Is that a key part of writing political commentary?
No, I think it’s just something you will find yourself doing if you are an outsider and not a follower of conventional wisdom, and if you have principles that you see being violated – and not just violated, but sometimes dishonestly, self-deceivingly violated by people who think they’re doing something good at the time.
I’ve always been an outsider since the earliest days I can remember
Well as one of the few journalists who opposed the New Labour project from the start – you accused them of “suborning the media” into acting as a kind of propaganda arm for their administration.
Well I knew perfectly well that’s what they were doing.
How does the media of today measure up?
Oh they’re the same. What Alistair Campbell did to political journalism was copied in almost every detail by the Conservative Party; and what they found is that with very few exceptions, the parliamentary lobby were willing to play the game. Which is fundamentally ‘if you do what we want you to, we will feed you stories that advance your career’. I describe this in detail in my widely unread book The Cameron Delusion; I wish more people would read it because if they did they might understand what’s going on when they read the political columns of the newspapers, but at the moment they have no idea at all.
It’d be pointless to suggest that you might be partisan, I think, as you seem to find all our political figures either useless or contemptible. Instead I’ll ask: what is the point of a journalist writing in favour of an ideology that no longer exists in public life? I.e. Your Burkean Conservatism.
Oh it’s quite simple: my morals are based on the Christian religion, which is about eternity. And I judge how to do things not on the basis of their immediate temporal impact, but their deeper, more profound and more permanent impact. And it seems to me that telling the truth, which is what I think that I do, is a virtue in itself. And if it doesn’t advance any temporal political cause – or damage any political cause, then that’s too bad.
Would you agree that that’s your own truth rather than the truth?
No. I think there is absolute truth, and it can be discovered. I think it’s perfectly possible to divine the truth about the wars in Syria and Libya. It’s certainly possible to divine the truth about the economy, and the scale and nature of mass immigration and its effects. If I didn’t think there was any truth I wouldn’t spend so much time trying to find out what actually happened.
Do many other commentators today write disingenuously?
Look. I think what most commentators do is what most people do most of the time, and what I’ve never been temperamentally suited to: which is that they fit in. And I’ve never fitted in. I’ve always been an outsider since the earliest days I can remember, I don’t fit in. And this is not necessarily a convenient thing – it makes you enemies, it gets you disliked, as I have found. But I actually hugely enjoy it so that doesn’t matter. But every fully civilised society has to have people who don’t fit in. Now in uncivilised societies, one of their characteristics is that outsiders are clubbed to death fairly early on. But I haven’t been, so I continue to be a nuisance. On the other hand, quite advanced societies can become uncivilised – and then you get clubbed to death by the government.
Do other commentators tell the truth of convenience then, to fit in?
Well, first of all: a lot of the insider commentators are telling the truth about what they’ve been told. The failing in them is that they believe that it’s the whole truth, or they collaborate in the telling of partial truths which help their contacts. Or they’re just gullible. Any specialist journalist has, to some extent, be in cahoots with his contacts – if you aren’t, you haven’t got any contacts. And I understand that. I think the key corrective is a genuinely various press.
When I was an industrial correspondent I remember the day I went into the Peckham Liberal Club, where the right wing members of the executive of the Union of Engineering Workers used to meet. And the horror with which this was greeted by left wing members of the industrial correspondents group. So it’s fine for me if other papers were talking to the left wing members of the executive, and my paper had stories that came from the right wing members. That’s as it should be. It’s only a problem if you become a total mouthpiece. One of the problems of having a non-adversarial parliament is that the previously diverse press becomes less diverse and more consensual – and that means quite often you read the same story about the same event, and that’s very bad.
In 2013 you quoted a former editor of The Economist to report that: “the point of journalism is to first exaggerate – then simplify”. Is penning scandalous yet easily digestible commentary really your raison d'être?
What do I do in the way of scandal? There are scandals; the principle scandal I’ve been involved in exposing was the besmirching of the name of Bishop George Bell. That’s scandal. But it’s been shown to be a scandal by the Carlile report and I was right to do it.
You’ve critiqued idealist attempts at societal improvement by saying “Utopia can only ever be approached across a sea of blood – and you never get there”. Isn’t your own work a similar attempt to proselytise and ‘improve’ your readers?
If anybody takes any notice – that’ll be great. For instance, here I am for decades saying I think this country shouldn’t belong to the EU, and yet I’m almost completely separate from what everybody calls ‘Brexit’. I think the referendum was a disaster, and I don’t want people to take up what I say in a stupid, crude fashion.
Until 2010, I had an illusion that possibly I might be able to influence events. But in 2010 I understood something very important about British politics: that the Conservative party could at that point have been destroyed as the principal opposition party, possibly being replaced by a genuinely conservative formation. And I urged everybody, if the Conservative Party can be brought down then we have a chance to really change British politics. And nobody took a blind bit of notice. And since then I decided, OK, I tried, nothing came of it; let’s not make ourselves unhappy.
You wrote your book The Abolition of Britain because “If you really want to be part of the national discussion – you need to show that there’s more to you than a few columns or articles”. What isn’t enough about newspaper journalism to influence the nation?
I think people will always want some depth of knowledge, perhaps experience – which a newspaper column by its nature is not going to demonstrate. You can write a weekly column which is, say 1100 – 1200 words, and in a year you’ve written more than 50,000, which is a good way towards being a book. But the nature of it, the weekly changing of the subject, the necessity to concentrate and encapsulate, the inability to show references and depth of knowledge, doesn’t do the job that a book does. It can’t.
I realised when writing my questions that so often I want to start by quoting something you’ve said. Is your eloquence merely an aid to your purpose, or an end in itself?
It’s nice of you to say so, and what I’m about to say sounds vain but is the opposite. I think it’s a gift. It’s not me. I can’t summon it up – it’s something that happens. Whenever in my life I’ve tried to write for effect, it’s been a complete failure.
I've lived... I can tell my grandchildren, yes, I talked to Margaret Thatcher. She stared at me so hard I thought my suit would catch on fire.
Can you not improve upon your skills then?
Sitting there trying to contrive a supposedly more eloquent phrase isn’t going to work. These things come unbidden to the fingertips. A lot of them come from the fact that I do a lot of actual verbal debating, and I think the best test of any written work is how it sounds if spoken out loud.
You are a skilled orator, how does that differ from your writing?
Oh completely. The other day I was asked to go and speak to a group in Copenhagen, and I thought the least I could do was actually write a speech. But I hate delivering written speeches, because it makes things a lot stodgier. There’s a terrible risk when you stand up to speak that it’ll go hopelessly wrong; but at the same time, if you stand up without a script and it goes even slightly well, it’s immensely better than reading from a script. When you’re writing you’re not on the same precipice.
Is your writing style similarly theatrical?
I wouldn’t have said it was. Theatrical implies falsehood really doesn’t it? You’re performing the thoughts of somebody else to portray an invented story. And that doesn’t seem to me what I do.
Another quote: You described your earlier student-self as completely “Insulated from reality” is this an enduring disease of young readers?
I can’t say. I’m very careful not to hold opinions about things I don’t know about.
You started out as a Trotskyist writing for The Socialist Worker, and now write for the Mail on Sunday – do you foresee another change of heart in the future?
I would think it unlikely; but once you’ve changed your mind you know it’s something you don’t have any control over. It’s the Maynard Keynes thing – when the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do sir? Changing of the mind begins with a discomfort about what you think – which you then try to suppress. I haven’t got that at the moment.
What would you change if you could about how people talk about politics?
I would want people to stop using phrases such as “centre ground”, and claiming there was a place where all the sensible people gathered, and outside which there was nothing but extremists and fanatics. Because then they would begin to understand that ideas should be judged not on whether they’re fashionable or held by powerful people but whether they’re good. If a political party is described by the BBC as centre-left or centre-right, you know that’s the party they approve of.
What’s the role of a national broadcaster?
Well the role of our national broadcaster is as defined in the Charter and Agreement, which is to uphold impartiality. Which the BBC does not do.
What is impartiality?
Treating opposing opinions with equal respect, but much more importantly – equal criticism. I don’t mind if I go onto a BBC program and the presenter gives me a hard time. Why else go? What I object to, is that I am given a hard time but the other person is treated as an honoured guest.
You often introduce yourself as “The Hated Peter Hitchens”, do you think a good journalist is disliked?
I should hope so, yes. The proper relationship between newspapers and politicians is that between a dog and a lamppost. News is what somebody somewhere wants suppressed.
John Rentoul (Chief Political Editor of The Independent), was one to notice that you have thousands of followers on Twitter – but follow nobody. Why don’t you?
Why should I? I read newspapers, I attend debates, I listen to Radio 4, I travel the world – why should I search Twitter?
Is it a pointless medium?
No, I use it to publicise my columns, my articles, my books. If I want to find out what people are thinking, the last place I’m going to look for it is on Twitter. I ought to have, and on this I am completely shameless, at least one weekly broadcasting spot. And I don’t have one because I have the wrong politics. And for me the instant communication Twitter provides is a pretty good substitute for the broadcasting I’m not allowed to do.
Everything’s a story. That’s the way human-kind absorbs the world
What sort of books do you read?
Thrillers, history. I’m almost completely unmoved by serious literature. I’ve made five attempts to read Middlemarch but can’t get beyond page twelve. Being second rate myself I don’t despise second rate, I’d rather read Somerset Maugham than Ian McEwan any bloody day of the week, or indeed rather than George Eliot. I like Dickens. But Thackeray… I stare at the pages, I read the words and think: what was that about? The same with Hillary Mantel as well, she wrote this immense book called The Place of Greater Safety which I tried to read and I just couldn’t. I thought perhaps there was something wrong with me, but decided it just wasn’t any good.
If you don’t like something does that mean it isn’t any good?
No of course it doesn’t. It might mean that; but I wouldn’t be in a position to say. D. H. Laurence who was obsessively beloved and admired by the Lit Crit industry when I was doing my A Levels, has now pretty much faded out of sight. There are fashions, and they pass. So maybe people who are now much praised aren’t any good. Is it Francis Bacon’s saying that ‘Truth is the daughter of time’, and the same is true about literary value. If it lasts, if people are still reading it a hundred years, four hundred years later (there's truth there) Shakespeare endures, some of it. Dickens endures.
Do you see geopolitical events as stories?
Well everything’s a story, that’s the way human-kind absorbs the world.
Do you write stories?
I am now a writer principally of opinion. I come to that from many years of having been a newspaper reporter, during which I was telling people stories. The first time I ever developed a noticeable rapport with readers was when I was in Moscow and I did a weekly column about what life was actually like there. Which was one of the many things about being in Moscow that changed my life. But fundamentally back then I was very much telling stories as the best way of conveying what the Soviet Union was really like. In the jargon of the newspaper world, we refer to the item which the reporter produces as a story – and that’s a good reminder.
What’s the role of journalism in private life?
I’ve never thought about it. You’ll have to rephrase the question.
Do you tell people what to do in some sense?
Do I? I urge people. I have no power or authority to tell people what to do. I often urge governments to let people alone rather than telling people to do things. What government has done over the past fifty years has interfered hugely in peoples lives.
How do you feel that your brother Christopher operated as a journalist in contrast?
Very differently from me. I was an indentured apprentice. I learned shorthand, I went to magistrates’ courts, golden weddings, and flower shows – the slow grind apprenticeship that was required to work on a Fleet Street newspaper. One of the funniest moments of our joint lives, was when I went to visit my brother in a wine bar in High Holborn, and I said I'd just got a job at the Daily Express. His jaw dropped, “what?!” He said, “so have I!” And he’d got there via the route of the New Statesman, a congenial Oxbridge person’s office off Chancery Lane, doing Oxbridgy things. And I’d got an engine room coal-shovelling job coming up the other way. We both ended up doing similar things, but from a completely different perspective.
Why have you done what you have?
Originally I was a Bolshevik who wanted to infiltrate Fleet Street. And this didn’t work out as I stopped being a Bolshevik – I found I enjoyed (writing). And look what it’s done for me. I’ve lived abroad, I’ve lived in Moscow – I’ve seen things nobody else will ever see. I’ve learned so much more than most people could possibly know, I’ve sat across the table from Margaret Thatcher as close as I’m sitting to you. I can tell my grandchildren, yes, I talked to Margaret Thatcher. She stared at me so hard I thought my suit would catch on fire.