Harnden was born in Portsmouth in 1966 and grew up in Marple, Cheshire, and Rusholme, Manchester. After leaving St Bede’s College, Manchester in 1984, he was commissioned into the Royal Navy and attended Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. He then went up to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he was elected president of the Junior Common Room in 1987 and awarded a First in Modern History from Oxford University in 1988. Harnden retired from the Navy in 1994 as a Lieutenant after service ashore in Rosyth and Plymouth naval bases and at sea in the assault ships HMS Fearless, and HMS Intrepid, the minesweeper HMS Itchen, the destroyers HMS Manchester and HMS Edinburgh and the frigate HMS Cornwall. During his training he was an exchange officer with the Royal Norwegian Navy, helping to transport reindeer on troop landing craft. His final naval appointment was in the Ministry of Defence as Flag Lieutenant to the Second Sea Lord.

He began in journalism as a theatre reviewer at the Edinburgh Fringe and as an obituary writer before becoming a full-time news reporter with The Daily Telegraph, based at its headquarters in London. Harnden has also worked for the Leith Leader, The Scotsman, the Western Morning News (Plymouth) and The Independent. He has been published in The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Sun, Evening Standard, The Spectator, Literary Review, Naval Review, East End Life, Oxford Student, Conde Nast Traveller, Grazia, the American Spectator, Washingtonian, Soldier of Fortune, Zoo and Men’s Health.

A regular broadcaster, Harnden has appeared on CNN, PBS, Fox, MSNBC, CNBC, BBC, Sky, GMTV, Channel 4 News, and the Radio 4 Today programme as well as outlets in the Republic of Ireland, Canada, and Australia. He has spoken at Harvard and Oxford Universities, Shrivenham Royal Military College, the British-American Business Association, and the Hay, Lichfield, and Dartington literary festivals.

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