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War Reporting for the People

In the first Contours podcast of 2022, Nicholas Heras is joined by war reporter Jake Hanrahan to discuss the future of conflict and the breakdown of the post-World War II global system. Hanrahan is the founder of Popular Front, a disruptive media organization that seeks to provide nuanced, gritty, and deeply human reporting on under-covered conflicts in the world. Heras and Hanrahan engaged in a wide-ranging conversation on the current state of underreported conflicts around the globe, war reporting in the age of social media, growing authoritarianism in the West, and the future of the Western-led, rules-based international order.

Nick Heras: Hello everyone, and thank you for joining us for the very first edition of the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy’s Contours podcast series. Welcome to 2022. My name is Nick Heras, and I’ll be your host today. I am being joined today by Jake Hanrahan. Jake Hanrahan is the founder of Popular Front, one of the premier independent media organizations and a go-to source for coverage on the nuances of war and conflict zones throughout the world. Jake is a British journalist and filmmaker. He has reported from Syria, Iraq, southeast Turkey, Ukraine, Israel, Palestine, Peru, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and more. He’s worked for HBO, Vice News, Esquire, Frontline PBS, Pro Publica, BBC News, Bellingcat, The Guardian, and Wired. He works as a freelance journalist, and he’s emerged as one of the most insightful and hard-hitting commentators that we have today on global affairs and conflicts. Jake, thank you for joining us today, and I’d like to start off our discussion by asking you about what is your perception on the current global zeitgeist related to conflicts and the breakdown of the rules-based international order?

Jake Hanrahan: Yeah, man, thanks for having me. Always happy to talk to you, Nick. Is there a zeitgeist? I think it’s tricky because I think with the way the internet is warping things these days, what seems to be the Zeitgeist online versus real life, always is often miles and miles apart. But I do think we’re living in a kind of post-scandal era, which, if you want to talk about a zeitgeist, I think that would kind of make sense at least, in the West anyway. I mean, especially in my country you can see it. The government can get away with pretty much anything that wants to — things that previous governments would have never got away with. And I just feel like in the West that is quite prevalent now, where people could scroll the pain away, if you like.

I think due to this new infatuation of social media and everyone feeling like they have to be this micro celebrity, it turns individualism, which is obviously good, but it turns it on his head, and it’s kind of like people are like, “Well if that isn’t affecting me, why should I care?” But on an extreme level. In fact, it’s worse because people will be like, “Well, I’ll say I care, and I’ll do it for the validation online, but then I’ll actually do nothing.” And I think that’s really dangerous because then you feel like things might be happening when actually nothing is happening. And I think for governments, which in the West, of course, are prone to authoritarianism as any government anywhere is, despite this happy, we’re-the-best-people-ever vibe that a lot of people in the West have, you know, I think that’s something that the governments are really, is just a master class for them and they must be really abusing that in my opinion. At least they are in my country. But I do see it spreading, you know, I just feel like like there’s a real apathy, things are getting real bad, there’s just apathy of like, “Well, yeah, I’ll say it’s bad, I’ll do a slide on Instagram, and then I’ll go back to doing exactly what I did without actually doing anything.” So I think, you know, as depressing as that sounds, that’s what I’ve noticed from my travels and observation of the culture right now.

NH: So I want to build on that because I noticed, you bring up a great point, this idea of folks sort of medicating themselves with social media, sort of believing that discourse online replaces action in the real world, so to speak. Although increasingly online has become the real world for many people, and the danger, of course, is that in authoritarian regimes, governments that are democratic but are backsliding, it’s just easy to get lost in that sort of digitally mediated world. And I’ve noticed some with the way you have done Popular Front, is that you really do get out there, you get into the thick of it in the world, so to speak, the corners of the Earth. Can I ask you, what is the approach you take with Popular Front when you decide, “Okay, this is what I want to do. This is what I want to show my viewers. This is what I want to show in a world that’s increasingly disconnected from the events outside the digital space.”

JH: It’s a great question. I think what I want to do with Popular Front — obviously, we’re conflict media, grassroots, and independent. So we have to come with a kind of different angle. So I think the first thing I want to do is show better access, you know, than other people can get, which has been a kind of linchpin of my career — getting access that other people can’t. I think being told “you’ll never get that access” by legacy reporters, which was so often a part of my experience coming up as a reporter, and then me being like nah, like I’m going to do it, like I must get the access. So that’s kind of something I’ve really stuck to and incorporated into my work and now with Popular Front

Secondly, I think context and giving a soul to conflict reporting is the other thing. A good example would be Armenia Artsakh-Karabakh, the war there last year, the year before. And there was a real issue where a lot of big legacy media companies were just saying, there’s war crimes on both sides. And whilst that is true, that is factually accurate, without context that doesn’t give you the whole picture. For example, there was, I think, four or five serious situations where the Armenians had committed war crimes. Of course, that is bad. But then if you compare that with just unbelievable dozens and dozens amounts of horrific war crimes carried out by Azerbaijan at the same time, filming it, cutting off heads, killing old people — the worst part was one where they cut off an old man’s head, a civilian, and placed it on a pig. And then, if you look at the way the regime there awards soldiers for doing such horrific things, then it starts to look a little bit less balanced when you say both sides are doing war crimes, you know? So for me, I was like, well, let’s go and really show in detail what that actually means, and I think that’s why “Ghosts of Karabakh,” the doc we did, a lot of people said it was the best reporting they’d seen. Obviously people in Azerbaijan didn’t like it, but I wasn’t allowed to go there, they banned me.

So Popular Front is definitely truthful, but we’re not doing this whole both sides, you know, 100% objectivity thing because that is kind of psychopathy in my opinion. If you can go to war and see the horrors of war and remain 100% objective all of the time, I think there’s something wrong with you, you know? They’re — in war, it’s not good versus bad obviously, but there is a sense where it’s like, yeah, this side has done something insane, here. You can’t then just go well, dah dah dah. You wouldn’t say that about ISIS. You wouldn’t say, well, you know, let’s give ISIS a chance to install their caliphate and listen to them. No, you wouldn’t. So I don’t understand why it kind of happens so often when regimes are doing things quite similar to what ISIS did, which is honestly like — Azerbaijan, if you want to talk about the war crimes, cutting off someone’s head, placing on a pig, using a head as a football was one of the videos, you know, I think that’s quite serious.

And I just think it’s very easy for big media to wash it away as both sides, which ultimately, it’s not like they’re doing anything — they’re not going like, “Right, let’s let’s really form this.” I don’t — obviously no one is sat in a room like plotting how to project it. It’s just a lack of attention brought to conflicts that are seemingly not salty enough. Don’t get me wrong, free Palestine all day, but if a rock gets thrown in Palestine, every journalist is there, you know what I’m saying, but when there are insane, horrific war crimes, carried out in a place, like Artsakh-Karabakh, there’s, “Well, both sides war crimes, blah.” Like, it just seems very lazy to me, and I think Popular Front, we want to do the opposite of that laziness. We want to go to the more underreported places and say, hey, this is what’s happening, because if you don’t do that, that’s when serious, serious issues happen, and I think if you want to do proper journalism, you have to shine a light on things. That’s not to say that We’re like pro-Armenian government or whatever. Like we very clearly said in the dark, like, you know, the government is not looking after its soldiers. It was just very clear that the these young lads ultimately were kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place, and I just wanted to get that across.

And also I want to get across as well, with Popular Front, the realities of conflict, the vibe of conflict. So conflict is very scary, dangerous, but also exciting at times, and that’s why a lot of actual fighters watch our stuff and they’re like, hey, I love that. Because we’re trying to capture the essence of the conflicts within the doc, and we use kind of flashy ways of doing it, and a lot of people in legacy media don’t like it, but hey, like, our general follower base is like 18 to 25 year olds, and I know that they would kill for that. So, you know, I feel like we’re doing things okay.

NH: Well, I want to build on that point because one of the dynamics that I noticed in your coverage of the war in Karabakh in 2020 was you brought the gritty reality of the world to your viewers. And that particular conflict in some ways is the perfect encapsulation of sort of where this global order is headed, the sort of neo-Medieval global order, where you have, what was in effect, state-on-state conflict. It was in the post-Soviet space. It’s in a particular area of the world that is of geopolitical relevance for all the reasons we know such as Eurasian connectivity, natural resource wealth. You have a diaspora element involved. You have the sort of great-power strategic competition, as the Pentagon likes to say, with the Russia angle. And the fact that fundamentally you showed that at the end of the day, although conflict can have a larger geopolitical context, which we can’t divorce ourselves from, that at the end it’s human beings killing and fighting and killing each other. And it’s human beings that are determinants or what the future of the world is in the real world, so to speak, in the unmediated space. And that was very fascinating about the work you did, because that particular conflict, from my perspective, from what I do, touching on the geopolitical analysis, was quite relevant. And in many ways you have been, and the folks, whom you work with, with Popular Front, you are a sort of an ombudsman of the unraveling of what was assumed to be the post-Cold War global Order. And I want to build on that by asking you, so what’s happening off the radar in global events that you believe should be getting more attention? Why do you think these are important even if folks aren’t talking about them? So what are some places that you’re looking at off the radar that you don’t hear people talking about?

JH: Yeah, before I answer that, like, I definitely am glad you got the vibe of that doc as well because obviously, I respect your work massively, Nick. I think what you do is excellent, so I’m glad you understood it the way I wanted it to be. You know, I wanted the war to seem local. It’s like, this is a place no one has ever been to — obviously people have been, but, you know, in contrast, it’s a place people have never heard of, a lot of our listeners and our viewers, they’re gonna be like, what is Nagorno-Karabakh? So, my reason with the edit and the way we made it, I wanted it to feel like, “I don’t know where it is or how it relates to me, but I can relate to the plight of the people there and the bravery of the soldiers, even when they’re in this terrible spot.” So, I’m glad that came across because I think that’s — whilst the geopolitical thing is important, it’s also important to represent the local element. A good example of that would be when the U.N. was like, no, Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan, and it’s like well, there are churches in Karabakh that are Armenian and they’re about 1,000 years older than the U.N., so I don’t really think the U.N. gets to decide, you know what I mean? And I think that’s the feeling a lot of people had there as well, obviously, you know, and I really tried to convey that. But anyway, I’m glad you picked up on that.

To answer your question, I think there’s a lot of conflicts now, I mean, next year, if we can raise the money, Popular Front, we’re planning to do a whole series. We’re going to call it “Bad Signal,” and it will essentially be like a documentary series where we go to wars that are happening right now that you just don’t hear about in the news. And the idea is to just show people, hey, this place you’ve never heard of people, are going through it there, too, and they’re fighting for this and this and this. I just — my only real remit with my work, I just think it’s good to just go, hey, you didn’t know this was happening, now you do know. That’s all I really want to do. I don’t generally want to win awards or anything like that, it’s just so long as there’s a lot of eyes on it, and it means you’re bringing attention to something, and you were explaining it, and for me, that’s enough. That’s great. So, that’s what we want to do with this series.

I know it’s kind of intermediary again now a lot because of the Russian buildup, but honestly, I really want to go to Ukraine and show the way people are still living in the Donbas. It’s really horrific living conditions for a lot of people, and obviously things are more stable now because the war is not as intense, but it is still a war. It’s still ongoing, and you know, it’s a bad situation, and it just doesn’t get the attention that it deserves, in my opinion. You’re talking about a million refugees in Europe’s only ongoing war. And obviously, we can do this independently with Popular Front, but good luck trying to get any commissioner in a legacy media company to actually make a film about the ongoing war in Europe, the only one. Also, as well as this with this series, it’s not just reporting on the wars, it’s going to be finding stories within the wars that you don’t hear about. So, yeah, we might go to Palestine, which everybody knows the conflict in Palestine, but then we might do a story about how the PFLP are recruiting students from a certain University, in the way they’re moving from student to militant, you know, that story is more human, more interesting.

So I think what we’re trying to do is cut into the more interesting elements of underreported stories to make people interested because you can’t expect people to just go, you should care about this. That’s a fault I had when I was younger, but now I’m older, it’s like, well people are busy, people have got lives, people have got jobs, they’re working. You can’t just go, you have to care about this. It’s like, well, no, that’s just, you can’t browbeat people into doing it. So if you can say, hey, this is going to entertain you, watch this and you’re going to learn about this, that’s the way to do it, and that’s the way I think we can bring attention to underreported conflicts. So when a commissioner editor tells you no one cares about that, it’s just not true. It’s just that they’re lazy and they’re not interested in making people care about it in a way that is voluntary.

Thailand, again, is another weird situation. There’s been a lot of protests there. The country is getting locked down because of COVID, but also, it’s very risky for the protesters there, the government is not happy with them. Congo, there’s like five Wars in Congo at the minute, for different reasons. Cross-border conflicts with jihadist factions, there are miners fighting against people encroaching on their land. It’s a real fascinating place with a really rich history and culture and really sad exploitation from Western nations, and now it has resulted in literally, yeah, there’s like five or going on there right now, and everyone’s like, what, really? Like, I don’t even know. So we want to go there, we want to do stuff there. There’s plenty of places I would love to go and do something in Taiwan. I’ve been trying to get in contact with military spokespeople there because they’ve started doing urban combat training operations, explicitly because of the threat from China, which I think is a very interesting story to cover because that does drag in a lot of countries in a larger geopolitical way. I mean, that is an element we do want to cover. We kind of explained it a bit in Ghosts of Karabakh, saying, like, you know, okay, well, this is a small region you don’t hear about, but it pulls in Turkey. It pulls in Iran. It pulls in Russia. It pulled in the West to a certain degree. It’s only a small place, but it kind of affects a lot of people. There’s a ripple effect, you know.

So yeah, man, there’s a lot of places I want to go to, and I want to cover the underreported element of their conflicts, but then also stories within more known conflicts that you don’t hear about. I think people would like it. It’s a series I’ve had in my head for probably about seven or eight years now. When I was freelancing and stuff, you know, editors telling me no one will care about that, and now that I’m at the point with Popular Front, it’s like, right, my whole business model has been built on the underreported elements of war. You know, one of the first docs we made, we went to Ukraine. I made a documentary about militant anarchists who were literally physically fighting with neo-Nazi street gangs, and like everyone was like, what? I didn’t know about that. And it’s like, yeah, and they’re armed and they’re doing arms training. So, you know, we’ve been doing that and people are definitely interested. I think, not to be cocky, but the rapid growth of Popular Front shows that. I really think now is the time to do it. I think we’re the ones to do it. I think we can do a good job with it. Hopefully.

NH: Well, I just want to build on that, Jake, because as you pointed out, you have quite an ambitious plan to cover the various different interesting and relevant situations across the world, the four corners of the Earth, so to speak, and one of the things that I find very interesting, to go back to an earlier point I made about your work, is there is a disconnect between the grand sweep, the way people think of analysis and the grand sweep of what’s happening and all the big players, and how they factor in and all these different elements to geopolitical analysis, the resources, the demography, the geography, the history that all gets woven in, and you and your team have a particular skill at getting in the down and dirty and gritty. And one of the things I was going to ask you about, actually it was your coverage of Ukraine because when you talk about Ukraine, for example, we now have credible reporting here in United States that the off-the-shelf option if Russia was going to expand its campaign and actually go for it, so to speak, and try to, say, conquer the rest of Ukraine or put in place a new government there, is that literally you’re going to have have the national security adviser of the United States personally directing an Insurgency against Russia, right? And so that’s a policy that requires people down in the area itself, and one of the dynamics I think is very interesting, here, is you lose sight of the people, right?

JH: Yes, I —

NH: Of who’s there on the ground. And I wanted to ask you, take a microscope on Ukraine and your experiences in Ukraine, what most surprised you when you went there to Ukraine and you interacted with people in the Donbas and you interacted with people in Ukraine that wasn’t being covered and wasn’t being brought up to a level of sort of popular discourse even for specialists of the topic?

JH: It’s a good question. But definitely the people element is definitely something that we try to incorporate. We even had, like — there was a graphic we did like a year ago, and it was the strapline on it was, “Popular Front is for the people,” and a lot of people kind of misconstrued that as like a very political thing because that’s what everybody misconstrues everything as now because of Twitter. But what we meant was like, no, we’re about the people on the ground. We don’t really care what some kind of think tanker says if we’ve seen that, the — I don’t know how many wars I’ve been to now, like seven or eight now in the space of like six years, seven years, and so many times, I see these big threads on Twitter from some guy that’s earning triple what I would ever make, and he’s never been there, or if he has, he’s only been in the nice flash hotels and he’s been paid for nicely, and I just think, wow, you’ve got that so wrong.

Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with an analysis and stuff like that, I think it’s excellent, but I think we all need to work together, and instead of being like, lording it over like, well, I know this, I know that, because I’ve been 15 years in this, it’s like, well, I’m sorry, but I’ve had things where I’ve thought I knew what was going on and then one minute on the ground, you immediately go, right, got it, I was completely wrong about that. This dynamic is nothing like what was reported. That happens a lot because, surprise, real life changes rapidly, and no one has a real domination of information. But being there on the ground will teach you — you can learn things in the way that someone even says a certain thing to their commander, you know. If you’re observant, you can be like, right the way he said that, I can tell, there’s a rift here. There’s some kind of disagreement. Things like that are just so important. So I think it’s really important to really mix it up, you know. We all need to work together rather than kind of lording it over people that you’ve got this certificate, whatever, like, cool, don’t care and neither do the people on the ground.

To answer your question, it’s just worth taking into account that Ukraine is one of the biggest political football matches in the current war situation. So anyone that is pro-NATO or pro-EU or pro-western Europe neoliberalism is immediately, Ukraine, everything good. And then anyone that is pro-Russia, quasi-Stalinist ideology, whatever, is everything Ukraine bad. And it’s really a mix of everything and nothing, like it really is so different there on the ground. You have the real problem of a serious Nazi element within the Ukraine military. Doesn’t get spoken about enough by one side, but then gets blown out of proportion by another side. So, if I give you an example, so, there’s a very serious situation, of course, with militant far-right groups in Ukraine, specifically Azov Battalion and some other groups, but specifically them, you know, the government has very happily accepted them. They’re openly far right. If you read any of their deep literature, they’re openly fascist. Some of them are even actual neo-Nazis, there’s all sorts of varying levels of fascist ideology within their group, but there are Nazis falangists, far-right pagans, Francoists, you know, like really odd, very kind of esoteric far-right ideologies in their group.

But also on that level, that’s really bad of course, but then people will say, well, that proves that Ukraine is a Nazi junta. Well, hang on, let’s kind of break that down. There’s a lot of Nazis within the Ukraine military, but there’s a lot of people that are not Nazis in the Ukraine military. You know, I would argue much more that aren’t. But then let’s look at the other side. So the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Russian-backed separatists. These high and mighty Stalinist types see them as these anti-fascist harbingers of hope. Well, they actively recruit neo-Nazi battalions within their faction as well, and quite a lot of them. A serious Nazi group. There was one nutcase that like killed a puppy, famously, in the Donbas. He was a Nazi commander. All these groups were like really nasty, far-right, brutal fascists. And he was promoted and he was allowed to fight on the front alongside the so-called anti-fascist fighters, the rebels. So if you look at that, you could say, well, the the Donbas troops, there’s a lot less of them, so there’s a large amount of Nazi still in them, whole battalions. So you could say, well, if you want to look at like per capita per head, the Donbas, the DNR, those lot have a problem with Nazis as well. If you want to look at it like that, which would be true if you look at it proportionally.

There’s a real issue with the way that that is slung around and unfortunately, people will not accept nuance. They just jump into, no, that’s not true, they’re not Nazis, or it’s a very small part, or they jump into everybody’s a Nazi. I know that’s a real pain in the neck because the reality of the culture in a place as harsh and as hard living as Ukraine. There’s a lot of things that you just cannot even speak about on, for example, Twitter, because you would just be immediately canceled or screamed at, but in real life, nuance is different. So you have to remember there in Ukraine, the culture is they kind of see the USSR as doing them worse than Nazi Germany. You know, for better or worse, whatever, that is generally, from what I understand, the way a lot of people feel. Not to say that people love Hitler or they think he’s fine, no. But they just look a lot more or whatever, they see things very seriously in that context. So if they make a joke about some Nazi thing to some teenager on Twitter. It’s the end of the world, but in their harsh reality, the way they’re living at war on a front line in the trench in a war that no one cares about and wants to treat as a political football, to them it doesn’t really mean anything.

And also there’s a very — the Ukrainian culture. I really, really like Ukrainian people. I love their culture. They’re very fun people. They joke, they have very dark senses of humor. Not to say that Nazism is excusable, ever, like, I absolutely detest it, and you know, I’m a lifelong anti-fascist and from a family like that, you know, like militantly so. However, someone making a joke, a very dark tongue-in-cheek joke, like “Well, they all called us Nazis, okay, we’ll be Nazis. We’ll scare the Communists over there,” does not equate to, this whole battalion is a Nazi. I’m not talking about Azov, you know. I’m talking about normal soldiers. I’ll give you an example. When I was in the trenches in about like 2016, I went with the Airborne Division. Now their Commander was of Afghan descent. Clearly not a white guy, you know what I’m saying? Clearly not a white supremacist. They love their commander. And when I said to them all, you know, I kind of talked to him off camera, what do you think about his Nazi thing? You know, one of them does a kind of Heil Hitler salute and just starts laughing. He’s like, no, like we’re not them, don’t worry, it’s fine. Out of context, that looks terrible, but he was just joking. Like he was kind of mocking the Nazi element, you know what I mean? He’s like, they’re crazy, we don’t really like them.

So there is that. And then there’s the other element where it’s like, oh, well, there’s a lot of right-wingers in their military. Well, it’s kind of like, I’m sorry that the war isn’t being fought exactly how you would prefer it to be, but war doesn’t always immediately warp itself to your political ideals. At the end of the day, people are dying. You’re talking about some babushka in some village somewhere, I don’t know, let’s say like the M sector in the east, and Azov turns up and says, we’ll defend you and we’ll kill those guys trying to take your house. She’s not going to say, hang on, wait, what’s your political ideology? Nor would anyone. In real life if there was a war there, you would just go right, cool, thank you, help me.

And that’s the problem. You can’t really even explain that or have this discourse anymore. No doubt someone will pick this apart and accuse me of all sorts, you know, happens all the time, but you just have to shake it off and don’t care because when you see the realities of war, you know, it’s very clear that someone angry on Twitter is irrelevant. My point is, like, that is something that has surprised me that this is still going on. Even as people on the other side in Ukraine, where I’ve put out like a thread saying, like, right, for God’s sake, there’s another Nazi group. There’s, you know, there was some footage the other day of like — they were on the front line somewhere and then one of Ukraine troops had an SS death’s head patch, and it went out on the local TV. And it’s, like the government clearly is not dealing with this and is not sorting it out and doesn’t care in my opinion, which is ironic considering, you know, Zelensky is Jewish. You would think he would really be cracking down on this. But there’s this thing, like, you know, it’s really bad and I was kind of saying about, and someone’s like, “Oh, you why’d you have to bring this up? You’re demonizing, the troops.” I’m sorry, I’m not in a football match. And if something bad happens, then it’s going to be called out as it should be, you know what I’m saying? It shouldn’t be a political football. And essentially, if you think your troops are so great and the best of the best, then you should be calling that out, actually, because you shouldn’t tolerate that.

But I really think that this is one of the key elements of the argument and the discussion of the Ukraine conflict, and honestly, it muddies the water because whilst all those happening, there are civilians living a very bad life, soldiers living a bad life. There was a 22-year old lad the other day — no, I think he was 20 — shot with a sniper round on the front line of a war that no one cares about anymore. Got a bullet in the head, he’s dead. What a terrible situation, you know? The same on the other side. I’ve been on the other side. I’m banned from there now, but I’ve been on the other side in the Donbas, and a lot of them kids are not ideological, a lot of them are just broke and they just like, I’ll take that money and go on the front line. They’re not evil. And it’s just, very sad, actually. And I think that would be more interesting for people.

And unfortunately, it becomes a Europe-great-Russia-bad situation. And I’ll be honest, whilst I’m absolutely not pro-Kremlin, I think the idea that Russia is not even allowed to be slightly annoyed by being surrounded by NATO bases at all times is just absurd. I’d be fuming if I found that my country was surrounded by Russian bases, you know I’m saying? So I get it, you know, there’s very bad stuff happening there, and they’re allied with China, one of the most horrifically authoritarian countries on Earth. You shouldn’t look at it like you’re cheering for your favorite football team, and unfortunately, Ukraine is one of those places.

NH: First of all, thank you for an outstanding layout of the way you experienced the conflict in Ukraine from the ground up and how that played into sort of a broader dynamic that I’ve observed is, in the fact, in our current day and age, international affairs are in general being mediated on social media, right? And you can tell that the current crop of policymakers, whether they’re in my country, the U.S., your country, the U.K., or in other places, you know, whether the regime types are democratic, hybrid or authoritarian, they’re very conscious now about the message that they’re sending out particularly on social media, they’re sort of dominating the commanding heights of communication, so to speak. What I’ve appreciated, being an observer of your work for so long now, is that I’ve also saw that you have a very interesting perspective on this last point you made about, look this isn’t football match, right, this isn’t a soccer game, you know, this is real life, these are real people in the real world. Essentially, whether it’s politics by other means, what someone who grew up in a hood rich environment that needs to make a paycheck, and yeah, makes sense to go fight for someone people being given very difficult choices and they have to pick the best of a bad choice. That that’s real life, and that’s human beings and that’s been essentially human beings since existence of our species. But what is new and what is different is not only that the revolution will be televised, but you have an entire commentary class that basically are scoring points with each other in a media environment, a mediascape, that’s not only just 24/7, 365/7. It’s just crazy.

And one of the dynamics about Popular Front that I think is very useful, and it feeds into my next question, is that it really does put a microscope or shines a light on areas of the world that are off of that discussion, or even if they are part of the discussion goes in a little bit deeper. It’s more than just a commentary. It’s more than just scoring points online. It’s more than just assuming that you can tweet away an issue or that you can sort of have a cute repost and get a billion likes and that’s that. In the real world that doesn’t matter. In the world what matters is, are people feeling that they are demonstrably moving towards a better life for themselves and their kids. And so to that question, I want to ask you, what keeps you up at night when you think of world events and where they’re headed?

JH: That’s a hard one. I mean, I don’t sleep well anyway, I haven’t since I was a kid, so I think mostly I just keep myself up by not going down weird rabbit holes on the internet. But I think that going back to one of the first things I said is that is the apathy towards certain situations, which is actually really starting to depress me, actually. This is kind of coming away from conflict a little bit, but it will make sense. So an example would be, in my country the government is trying to introduce a new bill — it’s past the first round of votes and it’s going through by the looks of it — it’s called the police crime sentencing and court bill, and it essentially criminalizes protests in any way possible. So a part of the legislation says that if you hold a protest, even if it’s peaceful, if it’s too loud, the police can immediately come in and arrest everybody and stop the protest and actually, in some cases, send them to prison for a year for basically being too loud at a protest. Now, there is no measure of the decibels, there is no measure of what is too loud, it’s just whatever the police decide is too loud once they’re given these powers by our government. It’s extremely, extremely disturbing. There’s another part of it where they’re going to basically make it impossible for gypsies and travelers and Romani folk to live essentially in this country, and there’s also a part of it that will literally criminalize any form of protest based on the way the police have interpreted it. And it’s extremely dangerous. It’s one of the mot authoritarian pieces of legislation I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and it’s something you wouldn’t be surprised of seeing in Turkey or at least in AKP’s Turkey, and no one cares. No one really cares.

I don’t want to say no one, there’s a lot of activists. I was at some of the protests as a civilian, actually, because I feel so strongly for it. Civilian — what a ridiculous thing to say. What I meant was, I wasn’t working, you know what I mean? I wasn’t being a reporter as such. I’ve been to a few, and just because of how insane this is, this is authoritarian and no one cares. It’s not in the news, it’s not in the media. Just so unbelievably worrying that we in 30 years went from the generation of the poll tax riots to not caring about something this serious. And that to me is terrifying as far as I’m concerned. I’m extremely cynical, I think this country — I hate the government, I am anti-monarchy, but I love my country. I love what Britain is. Britain is not the state. Britain is not the horrific colonial past. I mean, my family are Irish, I wouldn’t be screaming for that. Britain, to me, is the way our neighbors, the way we get on, diversity, you know what I’m saying, like, multiculturalism and just getting on with things. And the way that, like, that is being eroded without anyone really realizing is scary to me. And actually, the way the government has played it has just been incredible from their perspective. They have slowly pitted us against each other, and now you see, like, literally working class people who — people are gonna get hurt. Well, I wouldn’t say that right now. The main — there’s not like protests now that really affect these kind of people. Unfortunately, a lot of the protest movements in Britain, are kind of theatrics a lot of the time, but you know, there are going to be situations where they’re going to get hurt.

And you see a lot of working-class people see protests and they’re like, “Get a job!” Like, “Oh, get off the street!” And it’s not that they’re terrible for saying that, it’s just that they’ve been — the way that the political climate is has just warped everything into us versus them, and the government is somehow turned it around to the point where like “them” is metropolitan, la-di-da lefties and it’s like, what, you think the working class should be allied with the most elitist, rich government ever? I mean, Rishi Sunak, our economics guy, he took £20 out of people’s monthly benefits income in the same week that he got his £2 million swimming pool renovated. That should give you an idea of the unbelievable dearth between our politicians and us. And no one cares. People that care unfortunately seem to be trying to ram marks down people’s throat and stuff like that, when in reality we just need go, hey, this is bad. We need something a little bit better. We don’t need to be politically brainwashed. We don’t need to have all that, but there’s this huge disconnect. So that is extremely worrying.

And again, the cheek sometimes of seeing these people that are incredibly pro-EU, pro-West to start talking about the authoritarianism of other countries without looking inward is just bizarre. Like there’s people to this day that still protest. They want Britain to rejoin the EU, which is never going to happen. Which is fine, you can have that idea, but they act like the EU is a moral country. Not even — it’s just a political union. That bothers me because like what about the poor migrants? They’re basically being enslaved, which is something — in Libya, which is something that the EU helped facilitate. What about the billions that the EU spent stopping immigrants getting into or refugees getting into Europe and they drown in the sea? Why do you think that happens? You know, Fortress Europe is a part of this. It’s not a moral standpoint, you know, so that also is something that keeps me up at night, where people are full of energy to protest for something, but then it just seems so misplaced to me, you know? It’s like instead of protesting for people and people’s lives, they seem to be more interested in protesting for what they see as their moral flag. “Oh, this. I stand for this, so I’ll protest for this,” and it’s like really that’s just a very selfish way to be out there protesting. You’re essentially protesting for your right to look correct on the internet, which for me is just very disturbing.

And I know that debate is a real issue as well, like the debate around wars specifically now. We were just talking about, I hate to be so political, but I do think it has to be brought up. And it’s not left, right, liberal, communist, whatever. It’s everywhere. There’s no, you know, one side is better than the other. It’s just everywhere. It’s like instead of having a debate now, we seem to be trying to score points off each other, you know, like trying to tear strips off the other side. I mean, I’m sure they want to talk like I can be, you know, quite outspoken and rude, but whatever, that’s how I am, but at the same time, I’m also quite happy to debate with people and take on their points, you know? I’ve got friends from all different political backgrounds, and when your friends, you can talk, but you can’t do that online anymore. Whereas before, online was a great way to talk with other people from different parts of the world you would never normally meet, now it’s just like raging, raging, raging, tear strips off each other, and that is really unhelpful, and what it actually does is makes things more aggressive.

And you see it playing out in real time in wars. So for example, weird one, this wasn’t a war, but this is a clash. Just towards the end of last year in Serbia people were fighting, you know, trying to fight against the government because it’s inviting China in and they’re trying to settle the metalworks and all sorts of stuff. The country’s getting polluted, and the government is becoming kind of increasingly more authoritarian. So people in Serbia out saying, hey, we want to stop this. Well, the government hired what was kind of like, you know, Ukraine’s titushki, was kind of that version. They basically hired hooligans to fight the anti-government protesters. Now online, that became, you know — quite a few Serbian friends were showing me like the level of vitriol was getting to the point where they’d already dehumanized each other online before that even became a war. You see what I’m saying? At least in Yugoslavia, it literally took — terrible, but it took actual villages to get massacred and stuff before people were like, right, we’re evil now, you know, we’re gonna do — not evil, but you know what I mean, we’re going to act in the worst way possible. Now, I feel like that can just come out of nowhere because of the online rage that is already been stirred up. It’s like there’s a fast track to dehumanization because of these raging arguments.

Now, I know not the whole world is on the internet. I know it’s very easy — I’m, you know, I’m contradicting myself now — it’s very easy to say well, half the world is not even on Twitter so it doesn’t matter. But the kind of people that end up fighting in the wars are online, you know? The youth, the youth are online. They’re the people that fight, generally, you know, it’s not, it’s not the older, right? It’s the youth, in every single war I’ve ever covered, pretty much it’s the youth on the front line. So, you know, it’s — you could argue that, well, actually, they are online, the people where it’s going to be the danger, that’s where it’s going to happen.

One thing I will say to kind of sound positive, though, because I’m being very, very pessimistic, I’m a cynical, pessimistic person, so I don’t hope people don’t take this on board too much. I’m a miserable guy. But I’ve just seen a lot that has made me this way, but it’s fine. But one thing that is good, I find this to be more of a Western issue, the apathy. And I think Kazakhstan is a great example of that. Now, unfortunately, there’s horrific bloodshed, and I’m not saying violence is good, but the idea that the Kazakhstan protest came out of nowhere is nonsense. They were protesting all last year, and the straw that broke the camel’s back was the government putting up fuel prices in Winter. And if anyone knows about Kazakhstan, their winters are incredibly brutal and cold. So that was the straw that broke the camel’s back — it wasn’t the CIA, as a lot of people want to say — but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the people went, right, we’ve had enough. We’re not apathetic, we’re going to do something. Unfortunately because of the way the global superpowers, U.S. and Russia and China, whatever, have now, Russia, the superpower relating to that area, just went in and already it’s been a bloodbath. But at the same time, the people had enough in them to actually act, you know? And I’m not saying that we should all have uprisings, I’m just saying that there needs to be some pep in people.

And my positive point is the further you get away from the West, the youth are more in tune. They’re more aware of caring about each other and caring about their way of life. Why? Because probably, you could argue, the West has been trying to decimate it for the last 40 years. But they’re more aware of politics and a more aware of looking out for each other, so they don’t let their governments get away with what we let ours get away with. And when I speak to like, specifically, kids from the Middle East, it’s like, you know, mostly kind of the youth from more poorer backgrounds. They’re so intelligent. They’re so smart. They’re so keyed in to what is going on in their neighborhood, in their country. You talk to people here, often, unfortunately, they’re just zoned out, and it’s not because they’re idiots, not because they’re stupid. They just sick of it. They’re sick of seeing nothing change, and they’re just — because of the way, the governments are being or whatever and common culture now, popular culture now, they’re just like, right secure the bag. Get out of here, secure the bag, make money, get out, and it’s like — that’s sad, you know? That’s sad. It really pulls communities apart rather than puts them together.

But yeah, I guess my worry is that this apathy is spreading and that it’s going to actually — like, online rage is going to induce people to dehumanize the other side, if you will, more or quicker than they would have previously. I’m sure a historian might tell me that’s wrong, and I’ll be happy to be wrong on that. But it’s just the way I feel like it’s happening. You know?

NH: Well, it’s interesting, first of all, because I’ll say that the United Kingdom is a great example of a close ally of the United States, you know, historically that is supposed to be the foundation of a sort of positive vision of how the U.S. can engage in a multipolar global order, right? And we all know President Biden’s whole shtick about an alliance of democracies against the autocracies of the world, and your discussion on the restrictions on the freedom of expression and assembly and protest in the United Kingdom and what that might be — now it might not all end up with a “V for Vendetta” scenario —

JH: No, no.

NH: Not sci-fi, but it could, right? It could very easily. We see, right, smart cities, for example, we see how the Chinese have been — if you want to say — pioneering and then passing along tools of control. We see them in many Western societies. The United States were increasingly there are many communities and municipalities that are looking up the smart city model as a potential way for them to move forward. We all know the policing issues here in the United States have led to popular expressions of frustration as well as counter rallies against that. You know, there’s — it’s interesting. What you’ve highlighted here, Jake, is this dilemma in the West, so to speak, of a rising generation of — we’ll say people under the age of age of 40, generally speaking.

JH: Yeah

NH: Who are accustomed to online — called very online — mediums of communicating and engaging with each other, engaging with people, as you pointed out brilliantly in other parts of the world that they may never have met, right? And being part of a global community being part of the global comments, if you want to use the parlance of the field. However, so much of their daily lives are actually affected by things that happen in the real world, in their own communities, in their own regions or states or provinces or whatever in their own countries. And that dynamic, where the sense of, we are all sort of, in a sense, moving beyond borders, but actually constrained by where we physically are located and what that means for the future of human events is very important, the way that you’ve drawn that out. I think it is also interesting how you’ve sort of highlighted for us the fact that the discourse itself, the discourse at the end of the day becomes almost a means to the end. And while it is it rising generation of young people who also fighters because younger people tend to be fighters, as you pointed out, in global conflicts, that are very online and are in some ways trying to directly communicate with the world and have their own forms of mediation with the world, you also see policymakers and leaders that are very online and very conscious of the presentation of their involvement in the history of what they’re doing and —

JH: Yeah.

NH: The idea that everyone is living an epoch-making event on an everyday basis, and that’s unprecedented for the history of our species.

JH: Yeah. So true. It’s new, right?

NH: Yeah, it’s new, and so we don’t know exactly where this is taking us. So on that point, I know that you were hinting at a more positive future with the way younger people and other parts of world outside the West engage, but I want to give you the final word. We talked about what keeps you up at night, but what what are some other things that give you cause for hope that the world isn’t headed toward disaster?

JH: I think, I think that — well, it’s more media-related, I would say, but from from — obviously, we’ve had the last kind of five or six years of real over-politicization of everything in the media, in discourse, in war. I think — I’m noticing, anyway — the people are generally quite tired of it, you know? They’re getting to the point where three years ago they might have started to argue and be like, 50-tweet thread about blah, but now they like, eh, who cares, you know? And I think from that as well, I’m noticing the younger generation are creating things more interesting. They’re creating things where they’re like, okay, well, let’s not write an article about canceling, someone, let’s come up with a brand new whatever. You know what I mean? Like I’m seeing certain — I think, I think, basically what I’m saying, I think from this very beige, boring, over-politicized angry, angry left versus right, from that, there will come a more transgressive, more exciting project in media, which will just be better than that, if you know what I mean, it will be like, right, we’ve had enough of that. It’s very tiring, it’s very bad for your mental health. How about we go and discover new things now? And how about, instead of trying to break each other down, we learn something new?

I’m actually seeing it, you know, I’m seeing it already. There’s — I keep a very close eye on the independent media because I take inspiration from it or I want to work with other people in the in the same kind of category. And I’m already seeing people kind of be like, right, we’re just going to ignore that stuff, you know what I mean? We’re just going to move past it, we’re just going to do our own thing. That doesn’t mean to say that it’s not conscious of cultural issues, but it’s just doing it in a much smarter way, you know? I mean, I would argue that writing a 2,000-word article about canceling someone, I don’t know if, for example, say like a trans issue, I would say that that’s not as productive as making a documentary about, I don’t know, a good example would be like trans killings, you know, for example in somewhere like Turkey, I think Turkey is one of the very worst places for both femicide and trans killings. So that would be way more productive to make that documentary then it would be to try and destroy some random micro celebrity on Twitter, and I think people are realizing that now, like hang on, we can be conscious and cultural and smart about this without being preachy and annoying.

You know, like I think that is kind of — I mean, there’s an example at Popular Front. I want to make a documentary about trans people gun clubs in the U.S. It’s very interesting to me that there’s an element of the trans community who have gone, right, we need to actually arm ourselves, and that’s not on some like, ooh, woke, not at all. It’s like, you’re trans, you should have exactly the same rights as anybody else. And that that’s not woke issue. That’s just that’s just human, you know? That’s human nature. Leave people alone, they can be who they want to be. But then there’s people — I interviewed someone the other day, a trans woman who’d been stabbed for being trans. And now she is a part of a gun club and, you know what I mean? And it’s like, wow, that’s fascinating to me. That is much more productive and beneficial for people to see, for example, that documentary than breaking somebody down, getting somebody canceled out of their work.

So in a positive way, I think the youth generally are creating some really interesting stuff. In the Middle East, outside of war, the youth are creating some of the most interesting, fascinating art I’ve ever seen. There are things that I’ve seen — Middle Eastern artists just digital art, visualized creating, where I’m just like, where did you even get the idea for that? That’s just amazing. And it’s not like related to war or whatever. They just like, right, here’s this bright mind, and they’re creating some of the best stuff. Brazil, randomly. Like every person I speak to from Brazil in the creative industry is friendly, nice, and full of new ideas and not obsessed with what we’re obsessed with over here.

So I just think, like, outside of our bubble of, like, misery, or at least the one I’ve created for myself, there’s very interesting projects going on. You just have to seek them out, and I think as what is now the generation, you know, the generation that kind of brought all this this hyper-politicized stuff, as they get older, the youth already being like, that’s just not cool, it’s not cool anymore. It’s boring. We’re doing it this way. And that will create a really interesting underground of fascinating media. And media and underground stuff does permeate culture in all ways, and that is — in a way, you could argue that, that might have a better better usage of, like, multicultural, multi-understandings, you know, between countries because, for example, like I said, Brazil, I don’t know. I see people from the Middle East share some work, from someone from Brazil, the other day, that’s why it’s on my mind. It’s like, wow, why would that have happened any other reason? Well, it’s from the media, from the culture, from the art they’ve created. So I just think, like, in that sense like that’s always positive. You know what I’m saying?

And another positive thing. I mean, I hate to go to talk about violence again, but it’s got to be focused on because we’re in very violent times, despite this ridiculous thing — I’m really sick of this like, well, statistically, four years ago, the world was a lot more violent, right? But without without context, statistics are just numbers, you know, and there’s very serious violence happening in other ways. I mean, the the suicide rate for young men has never been so high, so that’s bad enough. But even though we’re living in very violent times, and very authoritarian times — I think it would be mad to deny that we’re, globally, east to west, north to south, like we’re in a very bad time for like authoritarian and far-right ideologies, kind of grasping countries. It’s not even necessarily even far right, either. Sometimes it’s just authoritarianism for the sake of it, you know what I mean? It’s like, well, we don’t like that. It’s not even often politically charged. It’s just like a grown tantrum, but unfortunately, a lot of the tantrums come from, like, dictators with a lot of power. But I am seeing people sharing — so, for example, the Hong Kongers, the front liners, they were sharing protest tactics with the Lebanese protesters on Reddit, you know, like hey guys — not like, oh here’s how to murder someone, whatever, but they were just like, look, here’s how to like, cause the most unrest possible, here’s how to do this, that, and the other, and that is positive, in my opinion. When the dictators are coming together, the people resisting there must also come together, you know, even if it’s just data sharing.

And, you know, I know people say, oh, well, that’s violent. Well, yeah, unfortunately, sometimes violence has to be employed, and if you don’t think that that’s the reality, you know, go and look at the whole of history, you know? The very reason that we’re living in a free society and we’re able to have these conversations without the government coming knocking on our doors is because at some point people utilized violence to stop, you know, authoritarianism. Not that I’m saying that we need violence or it has to be, I’m just saying it just is. It’s not a moral equation, it’s just something that happens sometimes because these regimes, these authoritarian people bring violence on the people, you know? So it is what it is. It’s not about being pro-violence or saying we need violence, it just is a matter of fact. In war, the very nature of it, there is violence, you know what I mean? And it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It doesn’t come out of someone going, oh yeah, I just want to shoot this guy this week. That’s just not how it works.

But anyway, my point is, that it’s — it is the, the people resisting authoritarianism definitely network in the same way that the authoritarians network. Sure, they might never win, but in my opinion, just showing that you’re willing to stand up might inspire the generation that does win or does overcome it in 50 years, you know? So fair play to the people that are fighting against it, I think.

NH: Well, thank you very much, Jake, for providing us with a vision of how those who are involved in global events from the ground now can build the blueprint for those yet unborn to continue to resist oppression violence, and authoritarian tendencies that seem to be a common tool that is used by people throughout history. My best wishes to you and good luck for Popular Front in the year and years ahead.

JH: Thanks man, appreciate it. And then just to add, like, I would say, I’m not an activist. I just talk about the realities of conflict in a way I think that some people are scared to talk about because they’re worried about the way they’ll be labeled, and through Popular Front, I’ve been able to kind of not really care about that anymore. So it is what it is, but I’m not an activist. Just just talking about the reality of the conflicts that I’ve reported on, perhaps in a different way. Thanks very much Nick. I really appreciate it, mate. It was a great conversation.

NH: Thank you. You have really become a buzz bin of the globe as it is and humanity as it shows us. All the best.

Although transcription is largely accurate, there could be some inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.

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