University Challenge has had its fair share of idiosyncratic figures over the past couple years. Just think of Ted Loveday of Hapax Legomenon fame, or Eric Monkman or, of course, Kaamil Shah, memorable for his matted vests and lustrous chains. Before all of these very minor celebrities, however, one student shook the broadcasting bureaucracy like it had never been shook before. David Aaronovitch, now a journalist at The Times, then undergraduate at Manchester, and his fellow teammates suffered a catastrophic loss in the first round, entirely due to their stubborn refusal to answer any question except with the name of a prominent Marxist, be it Trotsky, Lenin, Che Guevara, or even Karl himself. I ask David why he adopted such a radical position.
“It had been conceived from the start that it would be a two-fold protest. One against the fact that Oxbridge had so many teams that no polytechnics did. Whilst you had some arsehole college with 60 theological students with a team all of their own, these polytechnics weren’t even invited to be a part of the show. We were also a part of a major campaign to get the university to disinvest from South African companies because of our hatred of the apartheid government. We only formally had 16 guest tickets for the recording, but we managed to forge 200 hundred more, and the security couldn’t do anything but let everyone in, banners and all. As you can imagine, the show was quickly stopped.”
Aaronovitch does not make any specific comment on the selection of the Marxist icons, except in a passing comment that other revolutionary leaders would have been just as symbolically adequate. Nevertheless, I was curious to ask him, especially given his former Eurocommunist position, about his experience with the radical left, and its persistence in student politics.
“The first prejudice we held was a default radicalism towards the left. When I went up to university in the mid 70s, there was still a residue from the famous years of rebellion, those being 1968 and 1969. Very, very few people were on the right. The other thing was a hostility towards business. I can’t remember anyone saying that their ambition was to be wealthy or to become an entrepreneur. The assumption was that these were ignoble aspirations. The right wing for us began at the centre of the Labour party. That’s probably what the majority of people around Corbyn now believe. It’s almost as if you’ve had a takeover of the Labour party by people who resemble student radicals of the early 70s. It’s very weird.”
In 2004, Aaronovitch sat down with the late Christopher Hitchens, a man who in his memoirs bitterly criticised the modern left for losing their perspective and political vision. I mention Hitchens, curious to see whether Aaronovitch too believes the concerns of the left have ultimately become trivial.
“Some of the things that left-wing people used to campaign for have now become common place. I find it difficult to generalise, but I do think there’s a particular kind of rarefication that can happen inside of universities, in which the debates you feel you’re having don’t actually have as much resonance on the outside. I think that may be more true now than it was when I was at university.”
Predictably, the conversation verges towards the issue of free speech. I reference his appearance on Newsnight in 2015, where he debated a representative from the Leeds Student Union on the banning of controversial speakers on university campuses. He addresses my question about the psychological motivation behind no-platforming and its targets with sceptical indignation, but also a fair amount of disappointment.
“Part of it is what Phillip Roth called the ecstasy of sanctimony. One of the things you should do as you get older, as you understand that the world is complex, is to allow people their mistakes, unless they are egregious, repeated and not really mistakes. I thought social media would make us realise that people have feet of clay, and that we should allow people to apologise when they need to apologise, and then to move on. Instead, what we have had is the pile-on, the Twitter storm, the mass condemnations, and it’s exhausting. I don’t think many people realised that this is the way social media would go, and therefore we haven’t built up the defences to fight against it. I’m not talking about shoving everyone off Facebook and Twitter, but just changing our attitudes towards what we see and read.”
Continuing down this line of thought, it seemed appropriate to mention his time on Question Time with the ever-divisive Jordan Peterson. He chuckles at the allusion, lightly mocking Peterson’s slightly foppish nature.
“He’s rather dandyish, but he’s pleasant enough. Why shouldn’t a man be well-dressed? It tells you something, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As far as I can see, he becomes another one of those polarising figures, even though I’m not sure if he is one in and of himself. He sort of deploys a shield and a sword. If you like him, you are to be attacked for it. If you like him, you seem to attack others. I’m not really interested in that anymore.”
From one grizzly, pallid figure to the next, Aaronovitch has been hotly reproving of Julian Assange over the past couple years. When I enquire about the cause of such disdain, he sighs and lightly nods, as if recalling an old friend. In reality, he shows very little sympathy to the recently arrested Australian. With a structured but impassioned attack on Assange’s activity, I sense this is a question he has answered before.
“When he first came along, what WikiLeaks did was entirely novel. Before you had the connected internet, it was just not possible. Journalistically, it was rather impressive. After all, a lot of journalism is about getting information from people who don’t want to give it to you. However, one of the problems with the data dump was that all of the information was coming from one side, and not the other. In other words, it would all come out of US sources, because they were less protective of their data. When the state department files were leaked, some of the things that came out compromised the safety of people who were working for democratic powers in authoritarian places. And he didn’t seem to care. I remember debating him about it when it first happened, and he just wasn’t interested. One of the patterns that became clear through his own utterances was that his dislike of authority was incredibly selective. It was by and large the Americans, and by and large what you might called liberal interventionism. He was uninterested in Putin and the Chinese – he was quite willing to see these people as allies. His greatest contempt is for liberals, which is paradoxical because it is most likely liberals who will assert his rights. If he was Russian he would probably be dead by now.”
What becomes apparent to me throughout our interview is Aaronovitch’s deep-rooted interest in unpacking the mysterious, be that the illusive individual or the multifaceted social system. It is no surprise, therefore, that he has long been fascinated with the phenomenon of conspiracy, writing a book titled Voodoo Histories: The Role of Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History in 2009. Four years later, he sat side-by-side with a wide-eyed, raving Alex Jones, a guest who Andrew Neil directly labelled the “worst person I have ever interviewed.” I ask him about conspiracy in general, and how individuals like Jones affect the way we see history as well as contemporary events.
“When I wrote that book, I was just so curious about why people would choose to believe conspiracy theories when there were more plausible explanations. What’s the fun in it, why would you be seduced by it, and how damaging can it be? I think we are really getting the answer back now, which is that it is fantastically damaging. It lies behind a lot of the far right’s success in Europe and America. To give you a little example, the penultimate chapter of Voodoo Histories concerns ‘birtherism’ and Obama. It was finished in 2010 and published in 2011. A year later Donald Trump embraced ‘birtherism’ in his attack on Obama. So now we have a president who used one of the conspiracy theories I wrote about. Not a candidate. The president. This is really serious stuff. I’m not really sure he believes it himself, but he intuited that a great deal of the militant Republican base believed it, and would therefore begin to support him.”
He goes off on a little tangent about Trump at this point.
“He’s an incredibly intuitive person rather than a strategic person. In fact, in some ways, you could argue that he is a dark, intuitive genius, not even understanding his own nature himself. He kind of knows what is really bad about us, because he is a genuinely terrible person. One of the biggest liars to be elected as the leader of a democratic state, ever. That’s not some ‘I don’t like him’ hyperbole, but just analytical truth.”
We jump to another individual that Aaronovitch has discussed at length: Shamima Begum. Interestingly, he shows a great deal of sympathy towards her.
“Firstly, we have a distinction between a child and an adult for a reason. If Shamima Begum at fifteen, instead of going to Syria, had slept with someone, the adult would have been prosecuted because she was a minor. We have these rules for a reason. She got seduced into thinking that it would be a good idea – she’s a kid. She has also been pretty much pregnant since she got there, and has seen three kids die. There’s one more thing: she’s British. She went to Syria, and made a nuisance of herself to people who really didn’t need any more bloody nuisance. We then turn around and say that it’s her problem. That’s immoral. It’s also immoral towards the people there, the Kurds especially, who have to deal with it. It’s so easy to say that we should leave her there, to neglect it and forget about it. Where does that take you?”
I ask him whether the situation is complicated by the fact that Begum has showed little remorse up to now.
“It is complicated by that. It just goes to show how completely hopeless she is in creating a case for herself. What does one expect? Do we expect them to be brilliant person-to-person intellectuals. One other thing that we have to take note of is that we have created rules that protect the minority from the majority for a reason. We could all be a minority at some point or another, who find themselves in the shit. We require in a democracy not the rule of the majority, but the rule of the law. The rule of the majority is no guarantee of human rights at all. Think about Myanmar.”
Having touched on individual cases, I could not help but discuss perhaps the most polarising political problem of them all. Aaronovitch does shy away from Brexit; in fact he seems to intellectually revel in all its twists and turns. Frustrated though he seems, he refuses to stop fighting for what he believes in. An ardent Remainer, a wholehearted European, it is here he becomes most vivacious.
“It turned out that people who wanted to leave didn’t have the faintest idea what leave meant. The politicians have significantly changed their minds about what Brexit means without ever acknowledging it, and I find that remarkable. For example, Nigel Farage always used to speak about how Norway was doing pretty well outside the EU and were setting an example for how we could be. When we came out, he said if we followed Norway’s system it would be treachery and betrayal. This is not hyperbole. That is literally what happened. I think that’s a sign of the weakness of their argument.”
At this point the pace of his speech increases, his eyes feverishly lighting up.
“This is the one that would get me going. This is the one that will really affect your future, a decision formed on an ultimately cavalier basis by a group of ancient politicians who really didn’t give a bugger. The people’s whose future depends on this question are overwhelmingly against the thing we have decided for their future. That’s a problem. Why is nobody talking about that problem? All we are doing now is talking about a bunch of old people getting cross. One of the things that is really driving me around the bend at the moment is this sort of liberal defeatism, the idea that the right is on the march and we can’t do anything about them. We’ve got bloody irons in this fire, we’ve got horses in this race. Why is everyone else allowed to be angry?”
As the mere student journalist, I’m a tad taken aback by the sudden vigour. I attempt to moderate the matter, stressing the difficult complexity of Brexit. He responds curtly.
“I don’t think it’s particularly difficult. To be honest Darius, if I were your generation, I’d be so fucking furious about the whole thing that I’d burn the place down.”