Jon Ronson doesn't look like the kind of guy who hangs out with Nazis, white supremacists and assorted conspiracy theorists. In fact, with his elfin looks, soft-spoken, Manchester-tinged voice and hesitant manner, he looks more like the skinny kid who always gets sand kicked in his face on school outings. During the past five years, however, Ronson has spent time with some seriously extreme dudes. He went to Cameroon with Ian Paisley and Canada with David Icke. He played around with guns with Rachel Weaver - whose mother and brother were shot dead by the FBI in 1992 - on a ranch in Idaho and attended a cross lighting at the Ku-Klux-Klan's HQ in the Ozark Mountains, Arkansas. In the course of interviewing just about every extremist with an axe to grind in the Western world, Ronson was forcibly struck by the fact that many - if not all - of them subscribe to the notion the world is ruled by a tiny elite operating out of a secret room.
His subsequent search for the masters of the universe is outlined in his new book, THEM: Adventures with Extremists, and in a television series starting on Channel 4 tomorrow night. It is an extraordinary tale, made more extraordinary by Ronson's eye for wacky detail and flair for comic dialogue. In the opening chapter, he drives the Islamic activist, Omar Bakri, to a wholesalers in a suburb of London to buy collection boxes. The only boxes in stock are large novelty Coca-Cola bottles and, undeterred by Ronson's objection that as a potent symbol of Western capitalism, novelty Coca-Cola bottles might not be quite the thing in which to collect funds for Hamas and Hizbullah, Bakri buys half a dozen. This is a beguiling image. Indeed, like many of the people Ronson meets along his weirdo way, Bakri is a beguiling character. But as Ronson points out, the money collected in the cartoon collection boxes may well be used to kill Jews in Israel. This shifting between viewpoints - "theirs" and "ours" - occurs again and again throughout the book. It's a potent technique, but also a dangerous one.
Didn't Ronson worry he might end up doing a PR job on weirdos? "Well, I just wanted to portray them as human," he says. "My grand idea was to try and reflect their thought processes in the writing - to try and get into their heads and see our world through their eyes, and so not to demonise them. Nobody's a demon. Oh God, maybe they are . . ." Since the book appeared, he has been subject to a bit of demonisation. "I'm being criticised by crazy, hard left-wingers for kind of, you know, being a closet Nazi. I think they're just mad for thinking that, so I'm not taking it too seriously. But it really surprised me because I didn't anticipate it at all - I didn't think anyone could possibly imagine that I was anything but a liberal. I began to wonder if I was still on the right side - and then the George Bush/Al Gore thing happened, and I knew I was. I mean, even today the Daily Tele- graph is still steadfastly supporting this illegal president who's singlehandedly destroying the planet like a Batman villain . . ."
Writing about extremists is, it seems, a perilous business. The left may be calling him a closet Nazi, but Ronson himself is more concerned about the reaction of the Jewish community: "I don't want to be seen as a self-hating Jew". And there's always the possibility of a fatwa - which comes up, in fact, in that very first chapter, when he is warned by a young man in a Jihad baseball cap that dire consequences will ensue if he mentions Bakri in the same sentence as the gay rights group, Outrage. "Oh, that was only a joke," says Ronson airily. "You only get a fatwa when you insult Allah. I don't feel I'm in any danger from that quarter. I didn't break any of the rules." Rules? "Yeah; I discovered the Runnymede Trust has a quiz for finding out whether you're Islamophobic. They have seven questions, and if you answer `yes' to any of them then you're an Islamophobe. I answered `no' to all seven."
In some of the most diverting chapters in the book, Ronson goes to the auction of the possessions of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in the Romanian town of Sinaia; accompanies Dr Ian Paisley on a mission to convert the sinners of Cameroon; and trails along with film director Tony Kaye as he enlists a rabbi, a priest and a Tibetan monk to argue his case for the editing of the film, American History X. (God was obviously otherwise engaged that day: Edward Norton's version of the film was released shortly afterwards.) But the nub of the whole business is Ronson's search for that secret room and its international elite - the exclusive club known as the Bilderberg Group. Titbits of information concerning this group are dropped here and there though the book. Formed in 1954 by a Polish immigrant who was employed as secretary to the novelist Joseph Conrad, its first meeting was in the Bilderberg Hotel in Holland and its central tenet was that global capitalism would be the best way to thwart future Hitlers. Ronson's attempt to prove the group isn't merely a glint in the eye of assorted anti-establishment American wackos takes him into the living-room of Denis Healey. Since the book was published, he has also interviewed the group's secretary-general. "He's the chairman of W.H. Smith and former chairman of Barclay's Bank and he basically said what Denis Healey said: we're not a secret group, we're a private group. This year's meeting will be held in Sweden. He didn't tell me which hotel, but it's easy to find out, if you want to. It's always a five-star hotel with golfing facilities." So is that it, then - the secret global elite, the masters of the universe, exposed as just another bunch of businessmen in silly sweaters? Well, not quite.
RONSON'S final chapter ventures into the wilds of northern California where, it is rumoured, the great and the good visit every year to let their hair down. The rumours add that letting their hair down involves dressing up in robes and burning effigies of owls at a secret location called Bohemian Grove. No outsider had infiltrated the Bohemian Grove party and lived to tell the tale, etc, etc. Ronson, needless to say, did - and without giving away the gory details, his last chapter is a shocking chronicle, not of murderous debauchery, but of rich, powerful, allegedly cultivated men behaving like teenagers at a cider party. Now this isn't just hard to believe: this is depressing to believe. He made Bohemian Grove up, surely? "No, no, I saw it, I got it on film, every word is true. It was so bizarre - it was like some ridiculous Broadway musical. If I'd said this to anybody a couple of months ago, they'd have said I was mad. But now it's all out there, in the book and the TV series." Out there and then some, folks. Follow him at your peril.
THEM: Adventures with Extremists is published by Picador at £16 in UK. The TV series, Secret Rulers of the World, begins on Channel 4 at 9 p.m. tomorrow