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Johann Hari and the health of journalism

by J. C. Greenway
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I am sure that you could argue that the world doesn’t really need another writer boring on about the Johann Hari plagiarism scandal, a tale which has largely remained unremarked upon outside of the ever-decreasing circles of those who still pay attention to print journalism and political writing. That being the case, apologies are due to all saner heads for what follows. The story began earlier this summer, when doubts were raised about details contained in stories written by the Independent newspaper’s star columnist, Johann Hari. An early investigation of a Hari interview with Italian communist Toni Negri by the ultra-leftist writers at Deterritorial Support Group concluded:

It’s rather ironic that an article whose main premise is that Negri negates a ‘truthful memory’, essentially attempting to fabricate history to fit his own political agenda, seems to be based upon an encounter in the ICA which is almost entirely fabricated.

This inspired further examination of interviews conducted by Hari, uncovering other worrying deviance from usual standards, such as examples of quotes given to other journalists being presented as if they had been spoken directly to him. Brian Whelan noted after a review of an interview with Gideon Levy:

While Hari has questions to answer over the quotes he claims were given directly to him he also seems to be freely creating mash-up quotes out of disparate statements levy has made over the years.

Then Guy Walters asked the damning question ‘does Johann Hari actually meet his interviewees?’ after finding that nearly every quote from an interview with the Afghan political activist Malalai Joya had been lifted from her book ‘Raising My Voice’:

Hari has appropriated words written by Joya… and given the entirely false impression that the words were said to him. […]

Mr Hari has severely misled his readers. He has given them the impression that he is a star interviewer who is able to obtain amazing responses from those he meets.

Seasoned watchers of journalistic misbehaviour might have felt that the matter was displaying more than a few similarities with the case of reporter Jayson Blair and the embellishments and lies contained in his stories for The New York Times. Johann Hari and his friends and supporters did not remain silent in the face of such allegations. In a perhaps less than wise move, Hari decided to fight his corner. An article on his website claimed that there was nothing wrong or misleading in his attempts to ‘tidy up’ the muddled thoughts of those who were more coherent in their writing than when speaking:

So occasionally, at the point in the interview where the subject has expressed an idea, I’ve quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech. It’s a way of making sure the reader understands the point that (say) Gideon Levy wants to make as clearly as possible, while retaining the directness of the interview. Since my interviews are intellectual portraits that I hope explain how a person thinks, it seemed the most thorough way of doing it.

He went further in the Independent, offering the following justification for his actions:

Over the years I have interviewed some people who have messages we desperately need to hear – from Gideon Levy about Israel, to Malalai Joya about Afghanistan, to Gerry Adams about how to end a sectarian war. Just this week, I interviewed one of the bravest people I have ever met – Shirin Ebadi. I would hate people to not hear these vital messages because they incorrectly think the subjects have been falsely quoted. Every word I have quoted has been said by my interviewee, and accurately represents their view. I hope people continue to hear their words.

This idea of Johann Hari being on the side of all that was good and true and therefore being granted a special immunity spread very quickly. Via Twitter, Polly Toynbee suggested that what had been uncovered was somehow less bad than other misdeeds that were emerging into daylight at the same time:

Johann Hari, one the best, is no plagiarist. Save your wrath for the abominartions and harrassments by the Murdoch/Mail press.

Radically different from my own view, also in 140 characters:

Defending Hari because he’s on “your side” when you would be tearing Mel Philips a new one if she’d done the same makes you look stupid.

Luckily, a great deal of what I have been mulling over about the affair has been written much less argumentatively on the Splintered Sunrise website, in a post which is well-worth a read. Its title has labelled it as ‘a bit of a rant’, but I believe it to be a clear dissection of the issues raised by these events, while remaining free of partisan mud-slinging. A major problem is that, as Splintered Sunrise notes:

Hari himself once said that he viewed his job as being a paid advocate for the causes he believed in…

When there are ideological battles to be fought and won, and when the consequences of losing are potentially so catastrophic, any pretence to objective truth is rapidly jettisoned. You have to make your readers care about your subjects and that, according to the conventional wisdom, cannot be done by a dispassionate reporting of facts. Instead, as also mentioned by Splintered Sunrise, it does appear that everyone is trying to engage in gonzo journalism, by following the path of Hunter S. Thompson in putting themselves at the centre of the story. Of course, journalists are free to hold convictions and to back them up with action, but when Laurie Penny gets bashed over the head by police truncheons at the UK Uncut protests, suddenly the story becomes more about her than other ‘ordinary’ protestors, or even the cuts themselves.

This is a further, painful consequence of the decline of the British newspapers. Cost constraints are making formal journalism training a relic of the past and star columnists who will keep the punters entertained and the web clicks coming are preferred to more experienced, perhaps more reasoned, yet lower-profile reporters. Perhaps it has also strayed into the news sections from the features pages, where a Caitlin Moran interview with Lady Gaga or Keith Richards will feature almost as much of the writer as the star, when she’s not what I am looking to discover in a profile of these musicians.

What next for Johann Hari is certainly a difficult path, as an investigation by Andreas Whittam Smith will almost certainly have to judge him harshly or face accusations of a cover up. Hari’s return to passionate advocacy on behalf of his preferred causes in print seems set to be a long and painful one. What next for newspapers is even less sure. It is, perhaps, too easy to quote George Orwell, especially in light of the likely outcome of Hari’s 2008 Orwell Prize award. Yet if we require a reminder of the importance of reading those we agree with politically with the same skeptical eye we view those holding opposing views, here it is, as crisp and as clear as ever:

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable; and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

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Our Man in Abiko 5 September 2011 - 10:15 am

Good stuff. Must admit I’m out if step here, but I back Hari up to a point.

What is more honest than saying “I’m a polemicist, and this is my view of reality, let me convince you of my case?”

So much more honest than the pretense that the journalist dispassionately weighs up the cases for and against and comes to a scientifically arrived solution to what is truth. Bollocks, I say.

But Hari came a cropper by presenting his work as interviews, when in fact they were more like essays than conversations. This was a lie, and for that he has been struck down.

It’s a funny business.

Joanne Greenway 5 September 2011 - 11:11 pm

Thanks for taking the time to comment! I would like to think I’m not completely condemning him, I believe the Indy have a share of the blame. And yes, a lot of this is about how it was presented, if the articles had been written as opinion there would likely have been a very different outcome. It’s all the easily-parodied ‘Negri took a drag of his cigarette and stared moodily off into the middle distance’ stuff that made him look daft.

As to whether this is better journalism, I have to say hmmm….

Blurring the lines between opinion and facts allowed left-leaning journos throughout the Forties and Fifities to ‘know’ that Soviet death camps were a natural consequence of progress rather than Stalin being a murderous so-and-so. It’s doublethink at its finest, the entire rationale for Fox News, Melanie Phillips and the rest.

I know writers are human, with opinions and axes to grind, but still, I want some bedrock of facts in their reporting. Knowing that Hunter S. Thompson spent time with the Hells Angels, George Orwell went down a pit and Jake Adelstein encountered the yakuza gives extra credence to the arguments they advance. Doing anything less is cheating your readers and I think that ultimately is the crime that Hari is going to be done for.


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