Sunday Times, 05 August 2013
Arianna Huffington, nee Stassinopoulos, has a round face, dark eyes and a small forehead that often falls into worried furrows. Her hair is coppery blonde and formed into a – no other word for it – quiff of architectural proportions.
Then there’s the accent, still intact more than forty years after she left Greece. The vowels yawn like barn doors – “maternal” comes out as “maaturnaal” – and I keep having to ask her to translate. She bows her head in mock shame.
“It’s worse than ever!”
We are in an office off Tottenham Court Road. She is seated at the end of the table wearing a black blouse with demure white cuffs and collar. But it is diaphanous and there’s lace down the front. She looks like a rather racy school prefect.
“We were at Cambridge together!” she cries as I walk in. This is technically true, though we moved in very different circles. She was playing the political fame game at the Union where she became President. Her ambition was already attracting satirical resentment. “Starryanna Comeacroppolas” was one of the first of a long line of nasty nicknames, later there was “the Greek Pudding” in Private Eye.
But she always sailed on regardless and here she is in what she says is her “last incarnation” – president and editor in chief of the Huffington Post Media Group. She founded the online newspaper HuffPo, as it is always known, in 2005 and sold it to AOL in 2011 for $315 million, making herself around $100 million. (Perhaps I should have met her at Cambridge, I might have learned a thing or two, not least about the real world, my worst subject.)
HuffPo was – and still is – her apotheosis. It crowned her a queen of the net and, yet again, a target of satire and abuse, this time from those old media types who believed the internet was destroying everything they valued. She brushes such conflicts aside.
“I’ve always said the future is going to be hybrid. Old media are going to have to do more online and new media are going to be adopting more traditional journalistic practices like investigative journalism, like fact checking and fairness. I never thought newspapers would die.”
HuffPo was – and still is – her apotheosis. It crowned her a queen of the net and, yet again, a target of satire and abuse
HuffPo is booming. It is now in eight countries, has 75 million unique visitors a month and a staff of 800. No other net news source can claim anything like that success and none is so closely identified with with its boss. She became a Huffington when she married Michael, who became a Republican congressman and then senator. They divorced in 1997 and Huffington came out as gay/bisexual/whatever. He was, in short, a political footnote, but his name endures in Arianna and in HuffPo which she uses, unapologetically, as a very personal vehicle. She’s in London promoting her latest HuffPo campaign which, among other things, aims to wean us off the internet.
“It connects us in so many ways,” she says, “which is amazing, but it is also the snake in the Garden of Eden, which is a huge danger if we don’t master it.”
That snake has been hissing a lot in the last week with bomb and rape threats and vicious misogyny, notably against Caroline Criado-Perez, solely because she campaigned for women on banknotes. As she’s on Twitter – 1.3 million followers – I ask Arianna if she’s had threats. She says no and wonders if this is more of a British than American problem. So does she think Twitter, Google etc do something about about abuse?
“I think definitely. The first thing that needs to be dealt with is the question of anonymity and freedom of expression. They cannot allow anonymity and bascially justify these violent acts on the basis of freedom of expression. They can’t claim these things are just like telephone lines, these words are broadcast.”
Unfortunately – and this is a very Arianna-ish inconsistency – the comments on HuffPo can be anonymous. She says it’s not the same because they are moderated.
The first thing that needs to be dealt with is the question of anonymity and freedom of expression. They cannot allow anonymity and bascially justify these violent acts on the basis of freedom of expression
“I feel very strongly that it is our responsibility to keep a civil environment so we have all our comments pre-moderated so that vicious and ad hominem attacks will never see the light of day.”
Nevertheless, she should ban commenter anonymity if only as a gesture. Somebody has to teach the internet companies some basic logic – anonymity and free speech are incompatible – and Arianna is in a position to do it.
Anyway, what she really cares about is her new passion, The Third Metric. She has converted a large chunk of HuffPo into a section devoted entirely to this theme. The first two ‘metrics’ are money and power, the third is inner peace/self-discovery – “a capacity to tap into our own wisdom and ability to wonder at life”. It all began when she passed out in 2007, crashed into a desk and broke her cheek bone. It was sheer exhaustion
“It was my own personal rude awakening. It started me on a more personal journey… The Third Metric is a big editorial initiative and a big priority for me both personally and when I look at what’s happening around the world. We can see that the world is pretty unbalanced. At the political level we see politicians with high IQs [sic!] making terrible decisions and at the healthcare level we seel all the indices going up – depression, anxiety, diabetes. At the environment level we see what’s happening but, somehow, we are unable to stop it.”
Long term Arianna-watchers may suffer a sharp pang of deja-vu. The New Yorker provides a handy guide to her history of “fife decades of self-improvement”- “fire-walking, list-making, journal-keeping, mercury detoxification, homeopathy, chiropractic, infrared saunas, microdermabrasion, est…..” The there were the diets – Beverly Hills, all brown rice, grapefruit, cabbage soup, no carbs, no fat, no calories…..
She’s always been drawn to somewhat daft spiritualities, a habit which led her one-time lover, the great Times columnist Bernard Levin, into the biggest mistake of his career when he took to promoting Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a bog standard ‘guru’ with homophobic and anti-semitic tendencies. But her urge to go beyond this life is, I think, genuine. She has even gone so far as to have reporter – Jaweed Kaleem who, ccording to the site, “covers one of HuffPost’s most unique beats: death.”
And so she plunges on, a life force as Greek as moussaka and as American as apple pie
In fairness, I think she’s on firmer ground than usual with, in spire of the awful managerial name, the Third Metric. At its heart is ‘mindfulness’ which is an effective development of the psychotherapeutic approach known as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This earns her the backing of Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at Oxford, and Matthieu Ricard, the French scientist turned Buddhist monk commonly known as the happiest man in the world on the basis of MRI scans. Arianna, the supreme networker, has scooped them both up – she went hiking with Ricard in Yellowstone – in her usual way but at least this time she’s scooped up sense-talkers.
Mindfulness uses meditation to force you into the present, distancing the pressures of past and future. She embraces the idea as an escape form stress, a very contemporary affliction.
“Right now we see the generation of my daughters – they’re 22 and 24 – is the most stressed generation. A lot of them don’t know how to disconnect from technology and connect with themselves. Worrying about them is a big problem. My oldest daughter came out in public saying she had been involved with drugs and now she’s been sober for a year and a half. We’ve been going through this journey together and seen how many of her friends became addicted to drugs or alcohol. The statistic here in the UK since 1990 there’s been an almost 500 per cent increase in anti-depressants.”
Since her fall she’s become obsessed with, among other things sleep. She’s even on the board of the sleep department at the Harvard School of Medicine (she can probably join any board she wants). She used to sleep four hours, now she manages seven or eight and, but for one phone for emergencies, she has “a device-free bedroom”. She meditates for about an hour, does some yoga and, that very morning, had been at the gym. She was recognised by the woman on the next treadmill who wanted to find happiness in the form of a man and children. Arianna gently explained her mistake.
And so she plunges on, a life force as Greek as moussaka and as American as apple pie. She wears her ambition and her networking mania as she wears her giant quiff – upfront for all to see. That and her career flip-flops and inconsistencies make her easily criticised, satirised and abused. But the sheer obviousness of it all represents a curious kind of courage, a refusal not to be heard.
Does she, I ask, expect to attain the transcendence which obsesses her?
“I think it’s a journey and I don’t know what happens after all that, but it’s a great journey.”