NEWS14 March 2019

Andrew O’Hagan: ‘I’m fundamentally a researcher’

Impact 2019 Media News People UK

UK – “Research leads me to a place where I begin to care about the subject,” said author Andrew O’Hagan addressing an audience at Impact 2019.


The Scottish novelist and non-fiction writer, who is the author of books including The Secret Life and Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Biography, and editor at large of Esquire and London Review of Books, was talking during a keynote on the second day of the Market Research Society’s annual conference.

O’Hagan regaled delegates with an array of insightful, comic and tragic tales, from his reporting of the Grenfell Tower fire to the time he spent shadowing Julian Assange.

His frontline, immersive approach to writing has put him in perilous and sometimes weird situations. He once took the name of a dead man from a gravestone in Southwark, an idea inspired by the practices of the Met Police, who used to steal dead children’s identities to create aliases. Under the moniker Ronald Pinn, O'Hagan led an alternative life.

"Because of the way the dark net works I was able to infiltrate its far reaches and buy drugs," he said. "I was always waiting to be arrested on that one. Things were coming to the house, parcels arriving with unspeakable amounts of illicit drugs."

O'Hagan talked at length about how his non-fiction work often challenges the "pre-narratives" propounded by much of the media. It’s a journalistic practice he said was exemplified in the press’s coverage of the Grenfell Tower disaster. O'Hagan wrote extensively about the fire from a perspective at odds with the narrative told by the mainstream press.

"It’s your job as a journalist to resist these accepted truths until you can prove them with evidence," he said. "Accusations are as powerful as evidence now because the internet promulgates information as if it’s fact. In some ways the internet sets forth any number of Frankenstein monsters per second. And they're very hard to kill."

O'Hagan told of how in 2011 he got a call from a publisher that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange wanted him to ghost-write his memoirs. This was a time when Assange was viewed more favourably, a darling of the left, and when Assange himself "thought of himself quite differently too".

"He thought of himself mainly," O'Hagan joked.

As their relationship developed, Assange got cold feet and although he apparently hankered for the publicity, it "bit into his idea of control" and Assange reneged on the publishing deal.

"I'm a pursuer of simple truth," O'Hagan said. "And I couldn't get him to reveal his own truths."

O'Hagan seems to attract shady figures. In another story, he recalled how he was contacted by people representing Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym of the anonymous founder of bitcoin. "He'd invented bitcoin and disappeared, so the identity of the guy had never been known," O'Hagan said. Kitoshi, or at least a man called Craig Wright claiming to be him, wanted to "come out of the shadows" and the lawyers representing him had said they wanted him to "do it with you".

"There started an incredible comic drama," O'Hagan said. It ended with the"falling back of this brilliant man into humanness".

Asked by an audience member about research, O'Hagan said: "I'm fundamentally a researcher — someone who goes from not knowing stuff to knowing stuff with confidence. Research leads me to a place where I begin to care about the subject."