My modest mission? To change the world

As his series 'Civilisation' – an echo of Kenneth Clark's renowned television epic – begins tonight, celebrity historian Niall Ferguson tells Matthew Bell about the sacrifices he has had to make to build his empire
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Apart from the £1.5m gift from Saif Gaddafi, which cost the London School of Economics its director on Thursday, Niall Ferguson is the flashiest bit of bling on campus right now. He certainly looks expensive, in a Savile Row suit and playboy white shirt – open-necked, of course, to offset the tan – though he pooh-poohs rumours that he earns £3m a year.

If the 46-year-old historian and Orlando Bloom lookalike seems out of place in a drab don's cell, that's because the world stage is more his scene these days. He's the Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard, the William Ziegler professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and, when he's not giving lucrative advice to hedge funds, he shares homes in Manhattan and London with his girlfriend, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch ex-MP, who lives under threat of a fatwa for holding anti-Islamic views.

Tonight, as he helpfully reminded friends by email last week, he is back on telly to present the first of a six-part series, Civilisation. It accompanies a book of the same name, a double-pronged attempt to help 16-year-olds get to grips with Western history from the 1500s to the present. It's divided into six areas, which he calls his six "killer apps", a gimmick so irritating they'll surely put off all but the most bovine viewers. Actually, he agrees they are "slightly annoying", but argues that it's a good analogy because "outwardly these things are simple, an icon you click on, but in fact they're very complicated on the inside – just like an app".

Whatever. The question is: do we really need another breathy TV series repackaging the past as a sexy novelty? David Starkey, Simon Schama, Andrew Marr – haven't we been here before? "I don't accept that I am re-presenting stuff that has been written about extensively," he sniffs. "Anybody who claims that this is somehow rehashed old stuff is" – sniff – "is actually libelling me. Part of my role is to be a synthesiser of material, but that is not the same thing as reheating other people's meals."

There's no doubt Ferguson is capable of hard work: Civilisation is his ninth book and fifth television series in just 16 years. But for all that, he gets tetchy if you challenge his views, hinting at a monstrous ego. Ask him about imperialism, for instance, and he lets off a deep sigh before launching into a rant about how it's "a very stupid position" to talk only about European empires (there have been many all over the world) and seek to lay the blame for all the world's ills on them. The terminology gets even more playground when he says "most sane people" agree that one of the greatest achievements of Western civilisation was the treatment of infectious diseases, and that it's thanks to the Empire that this knowledge spread. But his book, Empire, did argue that the British Empire was a good thing, right? "The point of that book was to explain that, like all historical phenomena, empires have benefits as well as costs. And the British Empire had quite a lot of benefits. The book never glosses over the costs, as anybody who reads it will confirm, but a good number of people with axes to grind thought it would be more fun to skip the reading and caricature the book."

Clearly, Professor Ferguson is misunderstood. The petulance, though, is nothing compared to the rage that bubbles over when you get him talking about the press. Somehow, I fear his objectivity may have been clouded by an article in the Daily Mail last year, which gave an eye-popping account of the collapse of his marriage to Sue Douglas, with whom he has three children. Ferguson says that if people can't tell the difference between public and private then they have "some kind of moral problem". Maybe. But, as a historian, can't he see that human behaviour may be of interest, and worthy of record? "Ayaan and I write books, give speeches and have views, and we want to change the world. Since when did 'man falls in love' become a news story? I don't see that it's a story unless the man concerned has said that the institution of marriage is sacred, the marriage vows inviolable, and family values transcend all other considerations – I never said any of them. You can check it out."

Suddenly he seems like a swivel-eyed guest from The Jeremy Kyle Show. The gruff voice sinks a tone, the jaw sets into a battle-ready rictus, and he sets off on a tirade against the mass media, about how dealing with it is a dilemma faced by "any public intellectual" trying to reach a wide audience.

It might surprise Channel 4 to hear him declare it's been a compromise to let them air Civilisation, as he doesn't want to be on the same channel that broadcasts Big Brother, "a programme for which I have nothing but contempt". (In fact Channel 4 dropped Big Brother last summer). And didn't Ferguson once write for the Daily Mail? In fact, wasn't Douglas his editor there when they met?

"I will no longer write for the Daily Mail because they have behaved in a way that I will never forgive," he thunders. "Not only have they pried into my private life but worse: they have publicised the future whereabouts of somebody known to be threatened by Islamists with death, someone who has done more to combat extremist Islam than anyone you can name. I will celebrate the day that newspaper goes out of business."

And who needs the Mail when you've got government ministers such as Michael Gove onside? Ferguson has been invited to advise on the national curriculum review for history. Perhaps they might adopt Civilisation as a textbook, I suggest, half-joking. Ferguson would like nothing more. In fact, he hopes they might use the TV show, too. Books, telly: maybe there'll even be a Niall Ferguson app one day, simple and shiny on the outside, complicated on the inside. Or perhaps that would be just too annoying.