At roughly the same time that Mehdi Hasan wrote to Paul Dacre asking for a column, I met Alan Rusbridger to do exactly the same. Which is a way of saying that I don’t think he’s at fault at all in having wanted to write for the Daily Mail. There is no good reason why left-wing journalists shouldn’t write for right-wing papers, and vice-versa.
True, I wasn’t applying to be the Guardian’s only political writer, whereas Mehdi seems to have wanted to step into Peter Oborne’s shoes as the the paper’s main political columnist, which would have been an odd fit. He wrote that he would be able to “make [Mail readers] laugh, make them cry, or make them angry”.
This is almost certainly true. Mehdi is a man of faith and a social conservative (the second is doubtless related to the first), not to mention a skilled polemicist and extremely adept on Twitter. I have a lot of time for him, though he once got cross when I put him in the same headline as Osama Bin Laden (perfectly fairly: see here).
All in all, the Mail missed a chance to let him contribute, and it has been characteristically ruthless about leaking the letter. None the less, it is damaging for him, I think – not the fact of it, nor even the tone, but the contents. Mehdi wrote that “my fellow leftists and liberals have lost touch with their own traditions and the British public”.
Since he is a truthful man, he undoubtedly meant this. But how has it done so? Other extracts give a clue. Mehdi wrote that he was more in tune with the Mail than the Left “on some social and moral issues”, and wrote that he was “attracted by the Mail’s social conservatism on issues like marriage, the family, abortion and teenage pregnancies”.
Has he changed these views in the three years or so since he wrote to Dacre? He can be sure that some of his comrades will be asking the question, even if they don’t put it to him directly. And I can’t help wondering if someone with such a worldview will always be content on the Left – whatever his take on, say, economic or political reform.
But be that as it may, the old lesson applies: be prepared to see anything you write or say quoted in public. Don’t play to the gallery on TV and expect to be free of blowback.