The hit-job interview is a staple of British journalism. There is, I suppose, an obvious attraction to it: while it can destroy its subject, it can also make the career of a journalist. And yet for the reader, listener or viewer, it can also be deeply boring — for the simple reason that if the journalist makes clear their conclusion from the outset, there’s no chance of having a reasonable discussion. People who agree with it rejoice, those who don’t switch off. Nothing gets learned; no ideas are properly discussed.
Such was the case with an interview published in last week’s Sunday Times by the journalist Decca Aitkenhead. Her subject was Professor Jordan Peterson, and, like everything to do with Peterson, the interview has kicked up a fair amount of fuss — principally because it was so mean and hostile.
Peterson has been exceptionally ill of late. Since he withdrew from public life 18 months ago, he has almost died a number of times. He has since recovered, and will next month publish the sequel to his phenomenal bestseller ’12 Rules for Life’.
A fortnight ago, we spoke together publicly for the first time since his illness and discussed a number of themes, ranging from last month’s storming of the Capitol to the meaning of life. Despite the terrible health issues he has had to endure, I was relieved to find Jordan in fine working order. As ever, he was thoughtful, engaged and intricately knowledgeable.
Our conversation lasted just under two hours, but — as is usually the case with Jordan — it left me wanting more, as is the way with any serious discussion. Although hers was an interview with Peterson, rather than a discussion, it is obvious that Aitkenhead, who has spent much of her career at the Guardian, had a very different aim.
In the fallout since the interview, the Peterson family have made public the messages that The Sunday Times sent in an attempt to persuade Peterson to do the interview. These communications talked of the sympathy that the journalist felt towards Peterson after his ill-health. A commissioning editor at the paper wished him well and described how the profile piece “would cover his life and career to date”. The paper promised: “We run longform features, telling the whole story, rather than short flashy headlines.”
The resulting piece was headlined: “Jordan Peterson on his depression, drug dependency and Russian rehab hell” — which while not “short” is hardly the opposite of “flashy”.
The same standards appear to have been applied to the piece’s accuracy. During the interview, Aitkenhead made a number of serious errors — including the claim that Peterson had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. It was immediately repeated in newspapers around the world, before the Peterson family posted a recording of the interview, showing that it was incorrect. Ordinarily accusing someone of schizophrenia would be a major issue; that it has only formed a part of the discussion surely says something about the relentless hostility of the rest of the interview.
Atikenhead seemed unsympathetic to Peterson’s illness. And a considerable portion of the interview is dedicated to disparaging Mikhaila, who had helped to facilitate the interview. As is clear from the recording, a number of Aitkenhead’s claims — such as that Mikhaila at one point “interrupts sharply… raises her voice and waves her arms” — are what a benevolent editor might call “colour”, but what other people might call “exaggeration”.
And it is the ‘colour’ that Aitkenhead pumps into the piece that is so revealing. For example, we are told that Mikhaila talks “with the zealous, spiky conviction of a President Trump press spokeswoman”. Why — of all the women in the world — might that imprecise example come to mind, other than to try and force a link between Trump and Peterson? Elsewhere, there is little subtlety: “Parallels with Donald Trump come to mind; another unhappy man closed off from his emotions, projecting strong man mythology while hunkered down in a bunker with his family against the world.”
Such a comparison is so inexact as to be wilful. Regardless of whether Donald Trump is “closed off from his emotions” — and that never seems to have been his problem — Peterson’s connection to his own emotions, and indeed his fragility while speaking in public, is one of the traits that makes him most unusual. I have seen large auditoriums hold their breath as they have heard Peterson’s voice teeter on the edge of tears. But that needn’t bother Aitkenhead, who seems more intent on carrying out hits.
That would certainly explain her diagnosis of Peterson’s recent battle with various prescription drugs: “I wonder whether toxic masculinity might have been a culprit.” But how does such a claim bring any value to her piece? Why use the term “toxic masculinity”, as though it is a genuine medical condition which can only be diagnosed by journalists of a certain political persuasion?
The problem with all this is that not only does it reveal an interviewer’s ideological motivations, but, more importantly, it means that the reader doesn’t learn anything of value. Of course, the fact that Jordan Peterson has been ill is of some interest. But it is the least interesting “interesting thing” about him.
Yet the same mistakes continue to be played out over and over again — each time being replicated almost exactly. In her piece, Aitkenhead refers in passing to the now infamous exchange between Peterson and Channel 4’s Cathy Newman: “His explosive confrontation with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News in 2018 resulted in the network calling in security experts after some of his supporters posted abuse and threats online.”
In fact, that exchange was a rare glitch in the media matrix. Channel 4 sent their interviewer in to do the usual, crass and ill-informed hatchet job. She was meant to put words into her interviewee’s mouths, deliberately misrepresent his thoughts and then send him packing, only for Peterson to expertly turn the tables, reducing his interviewer to silence. But as this latest incident demonstrates, Channel 4’s failure seems to have done little to discourage journalists from burnishing their portfolios with hit-jobs.
In the end, what’s most striking about Peterson’s Sunday Times interview is how it proves that a certain type of journalist simply won’t give up. Even after all these years, the attempt to bring Peterson down continues. But by continuing their crusade, his detractors continue to ignore the most interesting thing about him: why it is that Peterson has made such a difference to peoples’ lives.
For that is an unusual phenomenon; unusual on such a scale that you’d think a journalist might care to find out what is going on here. Yet once again, the person sent to do over Peterson was not acting as a journalist, but as an ideological opponent hoping to finally take him out. And once again, the person who came off worse was not the subject of the interview, but its author.