Porcus ex grege diaboli

Those who know me will be aware that I’ve been banging on for some considerable time about the likelihood of British journalism throwing up a Jayson Blair scandal. Moreover, I’ve always been clear about which hack in particular was the most likely candidate for the Blair role. Do I feel schadenfreude at Johann Hari’s sudden fall from grace? Very well then, I feel schadenfreude. Couldn’t happen to a nicer chap. But, as ever, there’s more to it than that.

For those of you catching up, the basic story is this. Johann Hari, star columnist on the Independent, frequently does big set-piece interviews with divers newsworthy people. Well, the intrepid Brian Whelan noticed that at least some of the pithy quotes in Hari interviews seemed oddly familiar. In fact, the interviewees had said the things they’d said, just not to Hari. They’d appeared elsewhere first – in books or press releases or other interviews. Which is not to say (and I’m trying to be scrupulously fair here) that Toni Negri or Malalai Joya might not have said something to Hari similar to what he quoted – he’d simply lifted his quotes from elsewhere because they evidently read better than what he had on tape. Which, as it happens, is the explanation given by Hari himself in his remarkably pompous blog post (“intellectual portraiture”, forsooth) owning up to this sharp practice.

Jamie has an interesting take on whether or not this technically counts as plagiarism – Hari isn’t, after all, claiming the thoughts of Toni Negri as his own. But he is claiming, without attribution, somebody else’s work as his own – and not only that, but dramatising the quotes with schlocky “X leans in over his coffee and says to me…” introductions, so as to further underscore that this is what was said to Hari. If I had given an interview to, let’s say, Gary Younge a year ago, and the exact same words turned up in a Hari interview this morning, I think both I and Gary (or whoever the other interviewer might be) would be fully entitled to be quite pissed off about the whole thing. What is more, part of Hari’s job description (and part of the justification for his very generous salary) is that he’s supposed to be a great interviewer who’s really skilled at coaxing killer quotes from his subjects.

What’s clear is that, whatever Johann and his mates might say, this is not normal journalistic practice. Oh, that isn’t to say that hacks don’t polish a quote here or there. It’s quite a while since I had to do an interview in the course of work, but I have on occasion had to straighten out an interviewee’s grammar or cut down the number of cuss words in a quote. But every journalist knows that you have to be bloody careful with people’s quotes, and putting words into an interviewee’s mouth is just not on. Toadmeister has a good take on just what a serious breach of the trade’s ethics this is; indeed, I seem to remember Boris Johnson once getting fired for this sort of thing. If Naomi Klein thinks the serial plagiarising of quotes is just an “attribution problem”, then frankly, that affects how seriously I’ll take anything she writes in the future.

Let me expand on this a little. Many of you will know of Richard Peppiatt, the Daily Star hack who resigned from the paper a few months back, naughtily leaking his resignation letter in which he cheerfully admitted to having made up dozens of stories. But I like Rich Peppiatt, and journos have hailed him as a whistleblower who exposed massive journalistic malpractice in Richard Desmond’s media empire. And this is precisely because he blew the whistle on a culture where low-paid, overworked hacks would be under instructions to produce a front-page on Jordan (or these days it may be Ryan Giggs) whether or not there was a story there. Although I take Foxy’s point about how hard it can be to get outright invention into a paper, it can happen if you’ve got a rogue proprietor who more or less insists on made-up stories.

Yet, that’s not what we’re dealing with here. Anyone who reads the Daily Star does so in the full knowledge that a lot of what’s in the paper is just bollocks. The Independent, on the other hand, has always been terribly snooty about journalistic ethics. And it’s made doubly delicious by the fact that this is Johann Hari, someone who’s prone to throwing the most spectacular hissy fits when anyone questions his integrity, or even politely asks him to substantiate an allegation.

In some ways it’s a problem of overpromotion. Your jobbing hack will spend years at the unglamorous end of the business, learning how to nail down facts, how to evidence your claims and, above all, how you need to be incredibly careful with quotes. Here’s a guy, though, who graduates from Cambridge and walks straight into a column on a national newspaper. Very early on he earns a reputation for – let’s be charitable – embellishment and exaggeration, but instead of learning from his very public mistakes he just becomes more and more self-righteous on the subject of his own integrity.

I don’t, as it happens, think that Hari is a liar, in the cynical sense. I’m quite prepared to believe he isn’t knowingly dishonest. But I do think he’s a world champion bullshitter, in the philosophical sense described by Harry Frankfurt:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

So, like I say, I don’t believe Hari is a cynical liar. I’m often driven to ponder whether he even understands the basic categories of truth or falsehood. After all, the examples of his tortured relationship to reality are well known. And, you know, this is not a question of me disagreeing with what he says. I disagree with, to take an example at random, David Aaronovitch on almost everything, but I can still enjoy reading him, because we’re at least in the same empirical universe. I long ago tired of Hari’s column because reading him just became a tedious exercise in fact-checking. Even when you agree with him, you can count on him to produce at least one misstatement or terminological inexactitude or mangled statistic. And after a certain period of time… well, as a blogosphere sage once said, “I wouldn’t believe Hari if he told me he was gay.”

I will allow him this, though, that he’s extremely skilled at telling his audience what they want to hear, and like-minded audiences are willing to forgive a lot from a writer who’s articulating their own worldview. Today there have been some pretty prominent figures willing to defend Hari on the basis that, well, he’s a leftie so what he’s done can’t be so bad. If that’s your view, fair enough, but I don’t ever want to hear you moan about Richard Littlejohn again.

I think Hari will be all right in the end. Were he an actual jobbing hack this might kill off his career, but he’s high enough up the food chain to survive. He’ll go to ground for a while, perhaps claiming the criticism is all motivated by homophobia (thanks to Laurie Penny for rolling out that alibi early), then resurface with a tearful interview on Women’s Hour about how sorry he is, but now he’s learned from his mistakes and won’t ever do it again, honest guv. He certainly has a tribe of devoted fans who’ll forgive him anything, and will probably keep some kind of writing gig; but he’ll never live this down. Private Eye will be repeating the story for the rest of his natural life.

No, the real question has to be asked of Simon Kelner. The Independent – a paper that really can’t afford to lose any more readers – has employed Hari for the last decade, and editorial staff can’t have been unaware that there were (cough) certain issues around his factuality. But they’ve stuck with him through thick and thin because – why? He gets the paper talked about? He generates web traffic? So does Bob Fisk, but even people who don’t like Bob wouldn’t see him as a laughing stock, which I’m afraid is what Johann has now become. If you just want a columnist to produce liberal-left chest-beating twice a week, hiring Sunny Hundal would be a much cheaper option.

And finally, yes, I do agree with Guido – and isn’t it telling that Guido can take the moral high ground here? – that Hari should really hand back his Orwell Prize. Dear old GO’s memory deserves better than this farce.

16 Comments

  1. jamie said,

    June 28, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    Ta for the link Splinty, but given that the Orwell prize involves a sort of crowdsourced version of the same kind of brand building project, I think he has grounds for keeping it.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      June 28, 2011 at 10:40 pm

      Arguably, yeah. I don’t take it quite as seriously as he evidently takes it. But I feel this situation demands a really futile gesture be made on somebody’s part.

  2. jamie said,

    June 28, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    Ah, come on. It’s a custard pie competition. Their liars must resign to give our liars a clear field. Judging by the twitter feeds I read he’s fucked himself in America, so him and Kelner are basically stuck with each other.

  3. June 29, 2011 at 12:17 am

    Fisk may well be the next bomb to go off at the Independent. His columns are just consistently too colorful in terms of the experiences that he relates. For example, during the Egyptian protests at Tahrir Square in late January, he claimed that the miltary leadership ordered troops near the square to clear it, by force, if necessary, but, instead of doing so, the troops called their families on their cell phones, who told them to disobey the order, which they purportedly did.

    Such a story is just too cute by half, and one encounters this sort of thing frequently in Fisk’s dispatches. Furthermore, in regard to this specific episode, I was following media reports pretty closely, and no one reported anything like this, no one. As’ad Abukhalil, the Angry Arab, has come to a similar conclusion, he doesn’t really believe much of anything Fisk writes anymore.

  4. June 29, 2011 at 2:07 am

    […] Splintered Sunrise is undoubtedly one of the most interesting, well informed, and at times enjoyably cynical Irish politics and current affairs blogs. Which makes it all the sadder that it is updated so rarely, for when it is… […]

  5. Ming the charitable said,

    June 29, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Couldn’t happen a nicer tub of shite. God bless him.

  6. Robert said,

    June 29, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Very depressing. I always enjoyed Hari’s columns but that was because he tended to reflect my prejudices. So it turns out he’s been telling terminological inexactitudes. Still he was the only one of the Decents to recognise that the Iraq war was a disaster and do a serious mea culpa so he deserves some credit.

  7. Ming the charitable said,

    June 29, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    Johann Hari on Ratzinger: ‘You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts…’ Well it appears than Johann does believe he’s entitled to his own facts, and everyone else is lucky to be too.

  8. June 29, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    […] anyone who calls him out on doing so (there are some nice analyses of his journalism here and here). He is not an asset to the Left but a liability – facile arguments based on sloppy research […]

  9. Gregor said,

    June 30, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    ‘He certainly has a tribe of devoted fans who’ll forgive him anything, and will probably keep some kind of writing gig’

    Seems the irony of ‘new atheism’. Hari wrote:

    http://www.johannhari.com/2009/02/05/israel-is-about-to-make-a-misjudgment-as-disastrous-and-deadly-as-the-attack-on-gaza

    ‘Lieberman shifts analogy, and says the correct model for dealing with Gaza and the West Bank should be to copy Vladimir Putin’s approach to Chechnya in the 1990s. One third of the civilian population died.’

    Leaving aside the fact that no credible source has ever said that 1/3 of Chechens were killed in both wars combined, Putin wasn’t even Acting President of Russia until December 31st 1999.

    Yet Hari will claim with a straight face to be a supporter of empiricism and scientific method against the onslaught of ‘the religious’. And lots of people will want to believe him.

  10. Mew said,

    June 30, 2011 at 11:48 pm

    Funny thing is, I remember him sniding at Pilger circa 2003 for somehow always managing to find an Iraqi/Cambodian/Nicaraguan who could come out with an eloquent quote, and yet when HE went to Iraq, and stood about waiting for a dusky sage to give him good copy…the same did not happen.

  11. Andrew Coates said,

    July 4, 2011 at 11:51 am

    I have posted this on Socialist Unity. Just to add that in the case I cite Negri’s writings are referred to, but the important point is that a translator was present. Perhaps he could clarify.

    To give a specific case, Hari’s ‘Interview’ with Negri makes some pretty serious allegations.

    “His group Autonomia Operaia (Workers’ Autonomy) committed 174 attacks against civilians and 206 robberies; so Antonio, in which of these acts did you participate?

    He looks at me very closely, with mild displeasure. He says in a level voice: “I never made an attempt on anyone’s life.” Then, with a shrug, he says to his translator: “I was accused of having committed hold-ups.” So, was that accusation accurate? He takes a long drag on his cigarette. “Stealing money, if it’s necessary, I can understand.” I wait for him to continue, but the sentence hangs there, like his fading smoke. Did you rob banks? “Brecht said that it’s hard to know which is a greater crime, to found a bank or to rob one,” he replies. More waiting, more smoke. He pushes his glasses on to the top of his head with his taut middle finger. “I agree with Brecht,” he says, waving his hand as though to physically push me on to another question.”

    He then says,

    “I am about to try once again, but we are interrupted by an angry woman. “Have you seen that?” she says to Negri, officiously. He turns to me, puzzled, as though this is part of the interview. It occurs to me with horror that *she might be a relative of one of his victims*.”

    http://www.johannhari.com/2004/07/17/red-alert-an-interview-with-antonio-negri

    Now I know something about this story, that is I was acquainted with Negri during his French exile.

    Believe me this way was precisely the kind of cavaliar accusations that got Negri embroiled in the Italian legal system. Negri blamed the way he as prosecuted on the system of the Magistratura – the kind of vague accusation that then slipped into something with real venom….. “one of his victims”.

    I am not defending Autonomia Operaia or Negri’s role in it.

    But this kind of ‘interview’ – if it does generally put the book citations from Negri apart from his words at the ICA – has this very dubious element.

    On this occasion there was a translator present (Negri speaks very fluent French as well as Italian, though I imagine he does not speak colloquial English he reads it).

    I wonder what he, and Negri said about this interview.

  12. Phil said,

    July 5, 2011 at 9:18 am

    Bloody hell – I didn’t see that. Idiocy, and well-briefed idiocy at that. I’d be sorry for Negri if I thought this interview had actually happened.

    His group, Autonomia Operaia”, indeed.

    “Autonomia was not a ‘party’, aspiring to unite different struggles within a single organisation and political programme, but an ‘area’: a proliferation of local and sectional organisations, which could nevertheless come together in different configurations to work for shared objectives. Geographical and organisational poles can be identified … However, even the most clearly defined of these aspired to represent a plural reality, as suggested by the near-universal use of plural nomenclature (Collettivi, Comitati). For most participants Autonomia was a ‘galaxy’ of groups, built around local issues and affinity relationships, shifting in membership and ultimately innumerable.”
    (Edwards 2009:73-4)

    (Some review copies still available.)

  13. neilcaff said,

    July 5, 2011 at 11:37 am

    Hillarious send up of Hari from the Daily Mash:

    http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/arts-%26-entertainment/hari-defends-himself-during-pretend-parkinson-interview-201106294011/

    “Meanwhile full-time Twitter cretin Nikki Hollis defended Hari, adding: “Other journalists do much worse things than telling outright lies, such as telling outright lies to support views I don’t like.

    “And he has nice hair and once retweeted a comment of mine so I won’t hear a word said against him, regardless of how accurate those words may be.””

  14. neilcaff said,

    July 5, 2011 at 11:43 am

    By the way what’s the title all about? “The pig from the flock of the devil”

    Huh?

    • Nathaniel said,

      July 7, 2011 at 11:06 pm

      Presumably a reference to the pigs that Jesus allows the demons Legion to possess after the demon is removed from a possessed man.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 94 other followers

%d bloggers like this: