In this interview with Press Gazette, Mehdi Hasan talks about how he has made his name in the United States and calls for the American media to heed the lessons of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Fun fact: Mehdi Hasan, the UK-born American television anchor, was given one of his first breaks in journalism by Boris Johnson.
In 1998, Hasan (then a left-wing student) met Johnson (then editor of the right-leaning Spectator magazine) on an Oxford Union debating panel.
“I kind of made fun of him in my speech,” Hasan recalls. “And afterwards, I brazenly went up to him in the green room and said: ‘Can I have an internship at The Spectator?’ Because I thought it would be fun. And he weirdly said yes.”
Hasan did two weeks of work experience at the magazine in December of that year. Any recollections? What was Johnson like as a boss?
“I remember him singing Christmas carols and signing Christmas cards in the office,” says Hasan. “And I just felt it was a little bit over the top, a little bit excessive.
“There was always that sense with Boris Johnson – does he ruffle his hair up before he comes into work in the morning? How real is that whole, ‘Ha ha ha, I’m just a bit of a clown, bit of a joker’? I’ve always thought that there’s a much harder shell underneath all of that, a much more cynical and ruthless person and operator.”
So, I ask Hasan over a Teams video call, you don’t retain any soft spot for the man who showed some early belief in your journalistic potential?
“No,” he answers, without any hesitation. “As with Donald Trump in the United States, I can’t forgive world leaders who allowed tens of thousands of people to die on their watch.”
Johnson may be pleased that Hasan – who established himself in the UK as a confrontational political pundit on Question Time and through his writing for the New Statesman – is nowadays largely focused on the White House rather than Downing Street.
‘I think people are craving some outsider thinking’
Today, as the host of his own primetime television show, Hasan stands as one of a rare breed of British journalists who have made their name on American television.
His show now airs during primetime five nights a week – Sunday on MSNBC and then Monday-Thursday on Peacock.
So, what’s the secret of Hasan’s appeal to American audiences?
“Americans love a British accent, so that’s never been a problem,” says Hasan. But he admits he did have some concerns about whether he could make it in the US.
“I think that there was a worry on my part [about whether] someone like me – being an outsider, being an immigrant, being brown, being Muslim, being left-wing – is there a place for me in this media landscape? It was something I always worried about before I moved here.
“My wife is American and she said for years, let’s think about moving to the US. And I always said: ‘What would I do there? Who would hire me?’ And I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that there’ve been many places for me here…
“And it’s been interesting to see that people have actually come to me because I’m an outsider, I believe. People appreciate the fact that I don’t come with the same take and approach and analysis and conventional wisdom as a lot of my peers in this industry.”
As well as bringing “outsider thinking” to US television, Hasan also believes he’s been successful because “I’m pretty good at being on TV”.
“I’m a very hands-on host,” he adds. “I have very strong views, not just on topics and what I’m saying, but the structure of the show, the format of the show, the guests, the flow, the topic selection, even staffing and who does what. I have very strong views because I know what I like, I know what works for me.
“What I bring to TV is, I would like to think, that I’m inquisitive – no matter how strong my views are, I’m always interested in hearing new views, other people’s views, contrary views.”
And when Hasan hears a view he disagrees with, “I love challenging people. I’ve always been like that.
“My wife would say it’s not a very useful thing to have in the house, but it’s great to have professionally. It’s worked for me – being able to speak, being able to challenge, being able to ask questions, being able to push against conventional wisdom and consensuses. That’s how I’ve always defined my journalism. And on TV, I have a lot of energy.”
Hasan says he gets his energy from adrenaline alone – “I don’t drink tea or coffee, so that surprises people, I don’t have the caffeine boost”.
“I am just passionate about news and politics and current affairs. I tend not to switch off. Again, that’s both a pro and a con. It’s a pro professionally, a con personally.”
How popular is Hasan’s show? According to Nielsen figures, it had around 522,000 viewers in February 2022. This was the show’s highest rating since its launch month, March 2021.
And on Peacock? “We are not told,” says Hasan. “I do not know and my executive producer does not know because I’ve asked them several times – ‘What are the ratings for my show?’ They don’t tell us for whatever corporate reason they have. You can take that up with Peacock.
“But what it means for me is actually there isn’t that same pressure that I have maybe on the Sunday show where I’m constantly looking at the ratings.”
From Swindon to DC
Hasan was born in Swindon and grew up in Harrow, North London. His mother, a doctor, and father, an engineer, immigrated to the UK from southern India.
Despite Hasan’s success in journalism, he quips that he remains something of a disappointment to his parents because he does not work “in the classic South Asian professions – medicine, engineering, etc.
“To this day, my mum says: ‘Well, you could have done law if you like to have an argument!’”
After graduating from Oxford in 2000, Hasan started his career as a newsdesk assistant at ITV News. “I didn’t really enjoy it, and I thought I would never come back to TV news once I left it and went to do Sunday morning political programmes.”
He suffered a career low while working as a researcher and producer on ITV’s Sunday morning Jonathan Dimbleby show. “George Galloway was a guest and an audience member accused him of taking money from Saddam Hussein. He threatened to sue the show, and during the ad break he shouted out my name to Jonathan, saying: ‘Your producer’s the one to blame!’ I was like 24, 25, and I thought: ‘I’m going to be fired. My career in TV’s over!’ I was distraught.”
Hasan survived, and spent much of his 20s off-camera at ITV, the BBC, Sky News and Channel 4 News. “But eventually someone like me – I guess being behind the scenes wasn’t enough for me.”
Hasan left Channel 4 News, where he was news and current affairs editor, for the New Statesman magazine in 2009. As well as writing for the NS, Hasan used his new job as a platform to establish himself as a TV pundit and commentator.
Following a stint as political director of HuffPost UK, Hasan landed his first full-time on-screen job at Al Jazeera, a broadcaster that is owned and funded by the Qatari government.
What was that like? “Loved it,” says Hasan. “People say: ‘You work for Qatar!’ Well, indirectly you do. But the Qatari government – I know it sounds strange – don’t actually dictate the editorial agenda or the contents of the shows.”
Hasan relocated to Washington, DC, for the Al Jazeera job and also took up work as a columnist and podcast host for The Intercept, a non-profit news organisation co-founded by Glenn Greenwald.
Hasan left Al Jazeera and The Intercept for NBCUniversal in 2020.
‘The American media has a certain approach to people in power…’
Hasan, 42, is not short of self-confidence. Pinned to the top of his Twitter profile is a video of him challenging Steven Rogers, a 2020 campaign adviser to Donald Trump. Hasan’s accompanying tweet reads: “Hey US media folks, here, I would argue immodestly, is how you interview a Trump supporter on Trump’s lies.”
He believes the US media has improved, especially since the 6 January insurrection. But how will it fare come the 2024 presidential election?
“I think what Trump did is he forced journalists – belatedly, towards the end of his presidency – to start using words like the L-word (liar), the R-word (racist) and now even the F-word (fascist). Still not enough.
“But I think he was so egregious and so ridiculous – and by the time of 6 January, so openly enamored by violence – that it forced even the most devoted of fence-sitting journalists to get off the fence and say: This is wrong, this is bad, this is unprecedented, this is not normal.
“It took a long time but a lot of them came round. My worry is twofold. Number one, stuff like that doesn’t change overnight. This is institutional, this is cultural, this is systemic… The American media has a certain approach to people in power, that’s not going to change overnight.
“The second point is that people have short memories in this country. It’s one of my great criticisms of fellow Americans – we have a short memory. And it’s amazing to me that we are barely a year on from 1/6 and, according to the polling, Republicans have a very good chance of retaking the House of Representatives…
“I think it’s deeply frustrating when we keep resetting the clock,” he says. “And I worry that the US media, come 2024 – Trump’s the candidate, social media companies will welcome him back on to Twitter and Facebook saying, ‘Well, he’s a presidential candidate’ – and media organisations will say: ‘Well, we have to ask him questions about certain random things and not about certain other things, and we have to let him set the agenda again with his ridiculous tweets and press conferences.’ I worry that not enough lessons will have been learned.”
‘Right now, I feel intensely American’
Since October 2020, Hasan has been a citizen of the United States. I ask whether he now feels more British or American.
“Ahahah, that’s a dangerous question,” says Hasan. “How do I answer that in a diplomatic manner? Do I consider myself more British or American? Well, I have to do the cop-out and say both in different ways…
“Obviously, Britain is where I was born and raised. On the other hand, right now I feel intensely American because I am here in America on the ground trying to raise two American kids in a country which is in absolute chaos – in the fight of its life, in a major moment in American history… I’m American right now because right now it’s the American fight that I’m involved in.”
But, Hasan adds, he and his two children are dual citizens of both the US and the UK.
“I used to make that joke back in the day – if all goes pear-shaped some liberals will head up to Canada, I can head back to the UK,” he adds.
“But you know, that joke is actually a dangerous joke these days. Because really that was a joke in 2016, 2020. Now we’ve got 2024, and I think those of us who are Americans, working in the media in particular, have a great responsibility to cover accurately and realistically what is going on because this is an election like no other…
“If Donald Trump runs for president in 2024, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the most important election in 100 years, if not more.”
Quickfire with Mehdi Hasan
Favourite film? Die Hard
Book? The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Newspaper? The Guardian
Magazine? The New Statesman
TV show (apart from your own)? Succession
Favourite interviewee? Noam Chomsky
Career low point? George Galloway legal threat (see above)
High point? Appearing on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. “That was so much fun, because I spent years in England watching the old Daily Show and I never would have thought that I’d be living in the US and going on The Daily Show to talk about the US presidential election.”
Photo credit: William B. Plowman/NBCUniversal