Mehdi Hasan: ‘Most people ask the question and move on. I don’t’

The political interviewer on how he made it in the US and his anger at the deference the media has for Donald Trump which could cost lives during the pandemic

‘We all know that the president is a pathological liar,” Mehdi Hasan says from his office in Washington DC. “But the lies he’s been telling about the coronavirus – they’re no joke; they cost American lives. The US media’s failure to call Donald Trump out on those lies in real time makes part of the media, I’m sorry to say, partly complicit in those deaths, too.” Hasan, who moved from the UK to the US in 2015, is that rare species of TV interviewer: not in it to make friends, to network or to gain access. His passion for grilling his subjects is only matched by his frustration at his peers who do not do the same.

When the White House press corps turned on the comedian Michelle Wolf after the 2018 White House correspondents’ dinner and defended Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, it was the last straw for him. In that moment, he realised that the US media is almost “irredeemable”.

“If not now, when?” he asks. “If they’re not going to stand up against this administration’s secretary, then who?” A credulous New York Times headline in the wake of the 2019 El Paso shooting, “Trump Urges Unity vs Racism”, was, to him, just another stitch in the pattern of this submission. “The American press doesn’t want to rock the boat, and so things are just reported straight.”

Such forthrightness has served Hasan well. Not only have his hard-hitting political interviews become regular viral hits, he has also become a fixture on the high-profile US cable news circuit. Rumours are beginning to circulate on the east coast about offers to host his own show on a US network. On such approaches he is coyly amused when I ask him, maintaining only that he very much loves his job at the moment.

As an interviewer, he is relentless, a quality that boosted his profile after Trump came to office and the US media seemed unable to land a glove on the new president or his surrogates. As a columnist for the online magazine the Intercept and the host of UpFront and Head to Head on Al Jazeera English, Hasan has developed a reputation for somehow managing to nail dissimulating politicians by being forensic and refusing to move on until his point is made. His technique is simple. “Most people ask the question and move on whether they get an answer or not,” he says. “I don’t.”

Hasan, 40, was already a successful journalist in the UK when he moved to the US to host an interview show for Al Jazeera English. An established pundit and political analyst with a diverse journalistic background, he has worked in TV at Sky News and Channel 4, co-authored a book about Ed Miliband, and served stints as the political editor of the New Statesman and political director of the Huffington Post UK. For all that it seems like a charmed career, Hasan describes it as “random”. He started out on the bottom rung as a freelance news assistant at ITN and puts his success down to those “willing to take a chance” on him.

But it was in the US where he really began to cut through. Clips of his Al Jazeera English interviews began to catch fire online. A clash with the Trump adviser and Fox News regular Steven Rogers in November 2018 heralded Hasan’s arrival in the mainstream. In it, he questions Rogers on Trump’s lies on birth right citizenship, among other falsehoods. Rogers starts out with bluster before quickly squirming and deflating under Hasan’s barrage.

Mehdi Hasan interviews Steven Rogers on Al Jazeera English
Mehdi Hasan interviews Steven Rogers on Al Jazeera English. Photograph: Al Jazeera

To date, a clip of the interview in which Hasan pummels Rogers has had almost 8m views on Twitter alone. It brought him to the attention of Seth Myers, who, when interviewing Hasan, called the Rogers interrogation “the template for talking to people within the Trump-sphere”. Hasan has recently also developed a following among Hollywood stars with an activist bent. Mark Ruffalo tweeted the Rogers interview saying: “There is such thing as the truth, even today. This is how a journalist does their job to uncover it.”

Hasan seems an unlikely figure to break America. And he has done it thanks to online word of mouth; shares, clicks and endorsements from high-profile figures. He is a practising Muslim and unabashedly leftwing. He is abrasive and pugilistic, with an endless appetite for Twitter beef that is often beneath him. He sees these “outsider” qualities, as he calls them, not as weaknesses but as strengths that enable him to transcend the pitfalls of a US news media paralysed by an old-fashioned courteousness towards those in political office.

But despite the rough edges, he is a public school boy, and he admits that the confidence his private schooling and Oxford education (he studied that favourite of future prime ministers, Politics, Philosophy and Economics), has been invaluable in compensating for the fact that there are very few people like him in the British or US media. The “outsiderness” was from being a Muslim and the son of immigrants.

He describes the household he grew up in as, although conventional, “disputatious”. And Hasan certainly enjoys sparring, but one gets the sense that it is not just this that holds the key to his interviewing technique. It is a lack of respect for power, for default authority, that animates him. “When I used to watch American TV religiously during the Bush and Obama years,” says Hasan, “I would joke about if you parachuted in a John Humphrys or a [Jeremy] Paxman, what would happen? The British press, the British media, for all its flaws, does not have this culture of deference when it comes to interviewing a person in power. I am amazed that the press stands up when the president enters the room. They don’t do that for Boris Johnson.”

Even in the US, he says, the interviews that create a buzz are those by British interviewers: Emily Maitliss talking to Sean Spicer, or Andrew Neil to rightwing controversialist Ben Shapiro. “Shapiro lives on US TV, not just on Fox, on CNN, on Bill Maher and all sorts of shows. Why did it take Andrew Neil to come along and poke holes in the complete facade of Ben Shapiro? There’s a culture of deference not just to people in power, it’s the politeness. You have to get in people’s faces.”

It is something he advises British journalists to do with Johnson, for whom Hasan interned at the Spectator, when the now prime minister was the magazine’s editor. He recalls a genial and polite Johnson, but remembers how the “untucking of the shirt and the ruffling of the hair” was clearly a deliberate act before meetings. While he does not believe that Johnson is as bad as Trump (who he says is “unique’ in his pathologies), he sees the danger of Johnson’s populism and the media’s complicity in both creating him and continuing to be soft on him. “I use the L-word, ‘lie’, I use the R-word, ‘racism’. In the Trump era, you have to be able to use these words. In the Brexit era, you have to be able to use these words. And there’s still a real shyness and reluctance for journalists to do that.”

Mehdi Hasan being interviewed on Late Night with Seth Meyers in 2018

The tables are turned … Hasan being interviewed on Late Night with Seth Meyers in 2018. Photograph: NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Hasan’s righteousness is infectious, but it has not always served him well. A zealous address he made over a decade ago to a Muslim congregation in the UK has cast a long shadow. The remarks are recycled and used against him by his opponents on a regular basis. His observations, caught on camera, on non-Muslims (“cattle”), homosexuals and atheists, are hard to style out. He has addressed these comments often, most recently on Twitter, where he said: “Like a lot of journos (humans?) I’ve said things years ago that I now deeply regret.”

When I ask him about this, he is prepared. “Dumb comments,” he says. But his contrition is laced with a defiance, because he believes that non-Muslims are not held to account in the same way. “Boris Johnson’s comments haven’t stopped him from being prime minister, ones he hasn’t even disowned. Why?” he asks. “Because I’m Muslim; there’s no debate about that.”

His argument is borne out by an incident last July when Marco Rubio posted a clip of a 2018 Hasan interview with Ilhan Omar, aggressively edited to make her appear racist against white people. “It increases abuse and death threats to her, and to me. I wish I could switch off,” he says. The political climate in the US is one of constant threat to public figures such Omar and himself.

Despite the prejudice and scrutiny that he says he and other Muslims and minorities in the public eye face, he sees a counterintuitive solidarity with Muslims developing in the US. Trump has been so nakedly Islamophobic and xenophobic that it has pushed “many people off the fence”, he thinks. The “silver lining” is that the open season on Muslims and immigrants has created a group of Trump’s opponents that is happy to support them. Hasan’s American experience is of a country that is becoming less Islamophobic and less anti-immigration, even as Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric intensifies. He maintains that he has been embraced warmly by many in the US media, and is often asked for interview tips.

Mehdi Hasan on UpFront
Hasan on UpFront … ‘You have to get in people’s faces.’ Photograph: Al Jazeera

When talking about this welcome, an earnestness and warmth creeps into his voice. Hasan has clearly been on a journey over the past few years, and when he talks about what really drives him, the professional interlocutor tenor, which sometimes feels like a hammer dropping relentlessly on an anvil, changes to a softer tone. “Fundamentally it’s about one thing, it’s about avoiding the dehumanisation of other people,” he says. “The No 1 issue in my lifetime right now is tribalism. I’m going to be there for human rights and civil rights. When I see the stuff I said in my 20s, across the board should I have been more careful? Yes. Because you cannot speak about people in sweeping terms. That is the No 1 lesson of life.”

That, however, doesn’t mean he holds back on sweeping terms when criticising the rest of the US media. Despite his success, Hasan’s style of journalism is in the minority. The media “gave Trump a free pass in 2015”, he frets, and Trump’s ongoing bigotry is still treated with “both sides” equivocation. “My biggest worry, frustration, regret, annoyance, is that they don’t seem to have learned many lessons and we seem to be going down the same path for 2020.”

The media’s handling of Trump during the Covid-19 pandemic has given Hasan little reassurance. “When the president turns up at the White House briefing room and falsely claims there’ll be 5m tests within a month or that Google will be involved in the testing or that people are being tested at airports coming into the country, isn’t it shameful that even now, no reporter stands up and says: ‘Mr President, why should we believe a damn word you say?’”

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