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Tracked by the KGB, hated by Putin: Luke Harding on investigative journalism

Durga M Sengupta | Updated on: 31 January 2017, 19:32 IST

A man with a Russian accent tapped on his shoulder to tell him something's up with his jacket, a warning that made him rush to the men's room to check if he'd been bugged. Only to find nothing.

He's walked into his kids' room in Moscow and seen an open window, one he knew no one in his family had left open - for they were all living in fear of the Russian secret police, the KGB.

He's been subject to strange ringing sounds at night, and found a book on better orgasms by his bed. Had someone delete his screensaver. Someone else turn off the central heating...

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Guardian journalist Luke Harding and his family have lived this reality, one that sounds like the build-up of a crime thriller, in Moscow while he was the bureau chief there. Harding was stalked, had his phones tapped, and, going by the aforementioned incidents, was threatened with consequences if he didn't lay off the Putin government.

Harding reported on the life and death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.

An investigative journalist, Harding reported on the life and death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. Litvinenko defected to England and died of radioactive poisoning in 2006. His tea, apparently, was dosed with polonium-210. Soon after this, Harding was expelled from Russia.

His latest book A Very Expensive Poison: The Story of the Murder of Litvinenko delves into this story. In this interview with Catch, Harding talks about his time in Russia, the problem with constantly facing the threat of being bugged, and more.

DS: With a government opposing you - Russia threw you out - you must have found yourself answerable, expected to prove yourself. How do you keep your conviction alive?

LS: As far as Russia goes, if I'm honest, I'm still very angry about what happened to me and my family in Moscow. Imagine living in an apartment with your wife and two kids, and you have these shadowy ghosts of the KGB who break in ever so often. I understood the real nature of the regime in Russia very quickly, but there are also other regimes out there like that.

So I see my job not in a glamorous way, but one of truth-telling or trying to find out truth.

[Establishing truth] When someone gets shot dead, there's a person who kills them. You know that has happened and you cannot contest that.

DS: How far does your work take you in search of this truth?

LH: I have been to a lot of places, you know. I've been in Delhi, 2000-2003. I've covered the war in Afghanistan, you know, the US-led invasion, the fall of the Taliban, or what seemed like the fall of the Taliban. I've spent a lot of time in Pakistan... [in India] during the Gujarat riots and the Bhuj earthquake. I was in Europe, I've been in Libya, in Syria... and all over.

Actually, at the end of the day, people kind of tend to want the same thing. They all want peace, a job, education, their kids, healthcare, a roof, that's it. It's actually not much. The human demand is relatively small.

So I think my job is to try and not influence any of this, it's to try and tell the truth as it is. And to tell, above all, human stories.

DS: So because you believe you're bringing out the truth, there's no room for doubt? What with the noise on social media?

LH: Sure, I mean, as I just said now, with most things you can find the truth of it. And even with regimes that are very good at lying, for example with the Soviet Union, when the regime collapses the secrets come out.

So for sixty years or so the USSR said, "We didn't kill these Polish officers in the forest in 1941". And it turns out, actually they did. Especially in the era of social media, we live in a fast time, we have fake news, but also, it is harder to keep up a lie.

The White House Secretary said [Trump's swearing-in] is the best attended inauguration ever. But you can compare [that statement] with photos [on social media] and see that's just not true.

So I think the game is not lost.

DS: You've been with The Guardian through it all. Media is often accused of corruption today, but being with a supportive organisation, you've never had to face that backlash?

LH: Yeah, the great thing about The Guardian is that it doesn't have an evil oligarchic owner like Rupert Murdoch. So that's one.

And two, no one has ever taught me how to write a story. They don't say "Do it like this" or "Go and do that". The assumption is that we're all grownups. That [when] we go somewhere, report it accordingly, quote accurately, and that's it. There's no magic formula.

You just let talented reporters, whether they're living abroad or wherever, to write what they want to write.

DS: When you document your investigation for books, as you have for your latest A Very Expensive Poison: The Story of the Murder of Litvinenko, do you do it differently than you would for articles?

LH: Yeah, I kind of write partly with Hollywood in mind. I try and write very visually, I try and paint the scene. Doesn't mean I don't do the serious stuff as well, but I try and visualise it.

DS: In Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia you recorded your personal struggle with the Russian Federal security. How do you avoid personal biases seeping in, since you're also historically documenting an incident?

LH: Well, I tell my personal story not for reasons of vanity but because I thought it was, in a way, a little parable, it said a lot about Putin's Russia and the dark direction it was heading. And it's actually more easy to relate to someone's personal story than to a scholarly book about, say, post-communist kleptocracy.

And also, I want a big readership. It's possible to read my books, [it's] not just for nerds or grannies or women going on a beach holiday, or anybody. Unless you can tell a story and keep an audience, you should be doing something else.

DS: So the journalist can become a part of the story?

LH: I think so. The thing about 'truth', to use that unfashionable word again, it's not between two polar positions and it's in the middle.

And the truth is Putin uses lying or deceit as a kind of operational method. And [as a journalist] you have to say that. You can report that the Kremlin denies lying. It is lying.

I think sometimes broadcast media makes that mistake, that they're quite balanced. By [attempting] to get that balance, they fail to inform the [viewer] what's really going on.

DS: In an article, you wrote about writing The Snowden Files. You mention that you were constantly working in spaces that never seemed secure enough, not even your editor Alan Rusbridger's office. How do you chase a story in such circumstances? Is there a fall back, a plan B?

LH: He [Alan] thought it was probably bugged too. At that point we just moved into a different office and hoped that it wasn't bugged.

The thing is you have to accept that [if they wanted to gain information] they'd be able to do so. But at the same time, my philosophy is, "Why make it easy for them?" So if you can do encryption, go for a walk, have a discussion on the tube. The tube is good, hard to bug it, unless you've got like a surveillance team. That's what I do.

If they want to get you, they'll get you. But make it hard.

First published: 31 January 2017, 19:32 IST
Durga M Sengupta @the_bongrel

Feminist and culturally displaced, Durga tries her best to live up to her overpowering name. She speaks four languages, by default, and has an unhealthy love for cheesy foods. Assistant Editor at Catch, Durga hopes to bring in a focus on gender politics and the role it plays in all our interactions.