Interview: Robert Harris

Best-selling novelist and former journalist ROBERT HARRIS tells NATALIE GIL what it’s like working with Roman Polanski, how he insulted Prince Phillip, and why he wishes The Tab was around when he was at Cambridge.

Cambridge Conrad Black Daniel Craig Dreyfus Affair Ewan McGregor Facebook Fatherland jeremy paxman jimmy savile newsnight Panorama Pierce Brosnan Pompeii Prince Phillip Robert Harris Roman Polanski Selwyn social media tabloid The Daily Telegraph The Fear Index The Ghost The Ghost Writer twitter Varsity

Robert Harris is the epitome of what a good writer should be: clued-up on current affairs and able to scrutinise their underlying meanings. He’s stuck his fingers in numerous media pies over the years – making waves in the journalistic, literary and film worlds.

His first foray into fiction came in 1992 with ‘Fatherland’, a huge international best seller. Most famously, in 2010 his political thriller ‘The Ghost’, thinly based on Tony Blair’s involvement in Iraq, was adapted onto the big screen, starring Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor. If these successes weren’t enough, his most recent novel, ‘The Fear Index’, is already making its way through the machinery of 20th Century Fox.

While an undergraduate at Selwyn, he successfully combined his English degree with being president of the Union and editing a once popular newspaper. After graduating, he joined the BBC and was The Observer’s political editor by the time he was thirty.

You worked for both Newsnight and Panorama at the start of your career, both of which played key roles in the recent Jimmy Savile scandal. Do you feel like the BBC has been scapegoated?

How Jimmy Savile ever came to be so prominent on air in the first place is a mystery to me, because I’ve never met anyone that liked him. It was an appalling lapse of taste that the BBC even considered putting out a series of tribute programmes to him. Newsnight’s failure to air their investigation into him was just due to general incompetence, rather than malice. But the BBC is always an easy target.

You wrote a column for The Daily Telegraph in the early noughties. Its former owner Conrad Black was released from prison earlier this year after serving three years for fraud and obstruction of justice. What do you think about his attempts to reinvent himself as an innocent victim?

He’s in the great tradition of egocentric press lords and I’m not sure his acquaintanceship with reality is as firm as it should be. I met him once and his wife said, ‘Robert writes a column for you’; he said ‘I know’, and that was it. He obviously disapproved of me. But he was a good proprietor, with a love and knowledge of newspapers that is rare nowadays.

In a recent interview, Black referred to your friend Jeremy Paxman as a ‘priggish, gullible British fool’ and scandalously alluded to a desire to ‘smash’ his face in. Would you consider adapting Black’s colourful character for one of your novels?

I spoke to Jeremy the next day and he was just amused by it. You can’t put people like Black into novels because no one would believe their crazy kookiness. The same can be said for the Murdoch and Miliband family feuds. These situations are very Shakespearean – power collides with personality and blood ties, making for great drama.

What’s your favourite kind of novel to write and from where do you draw your inspiration?

Historical fiction. I’m writing about the Dreyfus affair at the moment, set in 19th century France. I like to get hold of maps and architectural plans and newspapers, to smell the air and imagine myself there. Inspiration can come from anywhere: my first novel, Fatherland, resulted from an unhealthy teenage obsession with the Nazis.

Has there been a correlation between how good you’ve thought your books are and how well they’ve been received?

Despite it being the book that I most enjoyed working on, I thought I was heading for a commercial and critical disaster with ‘Pompeii’. It’s not the best written of my books, but it got the best reviews. I was very lucky with Fatherland, as the Berlin Wall was coming down while I was writing it and there was a great interest in Germany and Berlin becoming the capital again. Success depends on novelists being able to pick the right moment.

What was it like working with Roman Polanski, who directed ‘The Ghost’? 

Roman is stimulating company and very intelligent. We recently spent a week in a chalet in Switzerland, just the two of us morning, noon and night. We’re working together again on the Dreyfus project and doing it in an odd way, simultaneously imagining it as a novel and writing it as a film. The novel will come out first and the screenplay is acting as a sketch at the moment. It’s an interesting experience that I might write about afterwards. I prefer to be my own boss and if it weren’t for Roman I wouldn’t want to do it.

You continue to write for national newspapers. Do you think the rise of social media has come at the expense of good rigorous journalism? 

Just because lots of people say something, it doesn’t mean it’s true. For instance with Dreyfus, everyone thought he was guilty. If Facebook and Twitter had existed in 19th century France, it would have been even worse for him. We need cool, steady analysis based on facts. This is being drowned out by a tide of moronic, ill-informed chatter. Anyone who thinks we’re better informed because of Facebook and Twitter is idiotic.

If The Tab were about in your time would you have considered writing for us instead of Varsity?

Yes, definitely. I like punchy journalism and would have written for something with impact. That’s one of journalism’s pleasures: to cause mischief and trouble. I was nearly sent down in 1977 – the Queen’s silver jubilee and when Prince Phillip was made University Chancellor – because I edited an anti-jubilee edition of Varsity. I put an unflattering picture of him on the cover and said he was an establishment stooge who knew nothing about how students lived. It got me into terrible trouble.

A journalist’s job isn’t to be a judge or priest – they should question and agitate. There’s a great quote of Cicero’s – ‘Rhetoric that does not startle, I do not consider rhetoric’ and the same goes for journalism.