Media families; 3. The Hitchens

Hitchens and Hitchens: are they by any chance related? There seems ample room for doubt. Christopher Hitchens is the Washington-based left- wing polemicist whose fiery scorn has frazzled targets as varied as Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and PJ O'Rourke. Peter Hitchens is the London-based reactionary polemicist whose fiery scorn has frazzled targets as varied as beggars, drug users, the Internet and sex-education enthusiasts.

Christopher is pleased to be known as a drunk, a wastrel, an unreformable smoker. Peter is a conservative Anglican who goes to church every Sunday. Christopher's is one of the most vigorous and distinctive voices in contemporary journalism; he has "the manner of a lazy Balliol dandy," according to Jonathan Raban, "with the killer instinct of a pit bull terrier." No one ever accused Peter of brilliance, but if you listen to the radio a lot, his doggedly reactionary views are increasingly hard to avoid.

They speak to vastly different audiences: Christopher to the sophisticated readers of the London Review of Books and Vanity Fair, Peter to Middle England's Middle Englanders, the readers of the comment pages of The Express; Christopher to Balliol/New Statesman/ International Socialist peers like James Fenton, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, Peter Hitchens to angry and inarticulate mortgagees everywhere.

But despite the inherent improbability, they are brothers. Even odder, they both began their careers in the same Trotskyite faction, and Christopher gave Peter his first leg-up in journalism.

Their father was a naval officer and the family tramped the world in his wake (Peter was born in Malta) before settling in Oxford. During his teens in the mid-Sixties, infuriated by the Labour government's support for America in Vietnam, Christopher got sucked into the International Socialists, one of a cluster of bitterly antagonistic Trotskyite factions. (The IS later became the Socialist Workers Party.) Peter, 45 now, was two-and-a-half years his junior, and as is often the way with younger brothers he also joined the group.

Peter kept the faith during his years at York University, and one summer persuaded his brother to use his influence to get him started in journalism. Christopher had a word in the ear of Roger Protz, editor of Socialist Worker, and accordingly Hitchens Minor made his journalistic debut.

The politics may have been identical, but already the brothers were easy to tell apart. Protz remembers that Christopher was "extremely charming, witty, a very good speaker, a tremendous writer, an enthusiast for everything - wine, women and song". Peter, by contrast, was "totally lacking in any of these characteristics; he was as dry as a stick, and had no personality of any sort." Being the younger brother of brilliance has never, of course, been an easy lot.

After an apprenticeship on newspapers in Swindon and Coventry, Peter joined the Daily Express as a general reporter in 1977, the same year that his high-flying brother was hired to write for the Express's op-ed pages. Both had long since parted from the IS/SWP, but were still on the left. Then Christopher moved to Washington DC (where he still lives) to become principal Brit gadfly and permanent alien irritant in the American body politic. And Peter, reinventing himself as a maverick right-winger, began his ascent to the prominence he enjoys today.

It's hard to get a clear idea of their relationship, as both brothers give very different accounts of it. Peter recently described Christopher in print as his "best and oldest friend". He claims that they don't fight any more, and that their last major political argument took place more than 12 years ago, with Peter asserting and Christopher denying that Nazism and Communism were morally indistinguishable. Since then, on this account, all has been sweetness and light and fraternal bonhomie.

Christopher, on the other hand, who seems dumbfounded to be described as Peter's best friend, maintains that the only places in which they regularly run into each other are television studios: recently Peter was based in Washington for the Express, and American political programmes such as Crosstalk got into the habit of ranging one Hitch against the other on issues such as Ireland or the monarchy. "If we lived on the same block I didn't know," he insisted. "We probably see much less of each other than any other brothers I can think of."

"I can't disown him as a brother," he went on, "but I've been really quite horrified by some of the things he's written recently, about capital punishment, for example - the ugliness of the hack arguments, so awful it made me cringe."

Their fundamental difference, as Christopher sees it, is that Peter believes society is going to hell in a handcart because the Establishment is losing its nerve. "My view, by contrast, is that, one, the Establishment is not losing its nerve, and two, if it was I'd be glad." He gropes for nice things to say about Peter's work - "I like his muscular prose" - but it's obviously an effort. In the end he gives up. "He sounds like Denis Thatcher without the sherry and the jokes," he declares finally, "and you can quote me."n