Pot calls kettle black


In this week’s Private Eye:

“Baden-Powell was a creepy old perv, allegedly” by Ian Hislop.
“I am taking my holidays in beautiful sunny Serbia” by Francis Wheen.
“Hurrah for the European Union!” by Christopher Booker.
“Me and my Facebook” by Richard Ingrams.

No, not really. You know, I have been reading the Eye for more years than I care to remember, and I long since passed the point of expecting it to be fair, balanced or accurate. I accept with equanimity that Eye hacks will use the mag to pursue their personal hobby horses and vendettas. But the great thing about the Eye in days of yore was that it was an equal opportunity offender. Part of its unwritten contract with the reader was that it knew neither fear nor favour. Being big mates with someone on the Eye team was no protection against attack. Indeed, Ingrams had enough journalistic savvy to know that attacking targets close to home enhanced your journalistic credibility.

I am of course referring to the vicious hatchet job on Johann Hari in this week’s Hackwatch. Let me say at the outset that I have no problem in principle with giving Hari stick – I’ve done it myself once or twice. But the background to this is interesting.

The immediate occasion is of course Johann’s scathing review of Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?, which you can read here. You will recall that, on the book being published, we had the spectacle of Norm Geras and Paul Anderson having to go around explaining to everyone what Nick meant, which must have been galling for Nick, a great fan of Orwellian plain style. Well, this is the same sort of thing. Johann reviews Nick’s book, not terribly sympathetically. Nick writes a frankly bizarre reply which, inter alia, accuses Johann of being a Maoist. David T of Harry’s Place – an outlet whose journalistic ethics make Private Eye look like the Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart – comes out batting for Nick. Now the Eye comes out batting for David T. What these supplementaries from HP Sauce and the Eye have in common is that they sensibly skate over Nick’s book, Johann’s critique and Nick’s weird reply, in favour of concentrating on Johann’s reputation for exaggeration, embroidery and playing fast and loose with the facts. An accusation that, of course, could never be applied to Nick Cohen, Harry’s Place or Private Eye.

A defence of the Eye might run something like this: The mag has fairly consistently attacked Bush and Blair over Iraq. There are lots of anti-war commentators who have not been criticised by the Eye. And the Eye took the piss out of Hari when he was pro-war, just as it does now that he’s anti-war. This is all true, but it isn’t the whole picture.

Let us consider that not only did Blair lie to get Britain into Iraq, as the Eye points out on a fortnightly basis, but that a whole cadre of pundits facilitated him. Prominent among these were the soi-disant Decent Left. And yet, this layer of the commentariat has escaped odium in Street of Shame or Hackwatch, with the sole exception of Hari, the only one of them to have the balls to recant his position and do serious mea culpas, and who has been prepared to lose friends for doing so. And to draw attention to Johann’s foibles in the context of a book that has a distortion, a howler or an outright lie on almost every page… well, it doesn’t look great.

I’m not calling, by the way, for the Eye to provide an ideological critique of Decency – that isn’t its place – but I would simply point out that, from the satirical point of view, lots of people said things about Iraq that were just as silly or dubious as anything Johann said, and continue to do so. Meanwhile, Cohen’s descent into gibbering incoherence and the entire media career of the ludicrous Kamm – and don’t tell me there is no humorous potential there – goes completely unremarked by our leading satirical journal.

How can we explain this extraordinary omission? I direct you to the acknowledgements page at the back of What’s Left?, which pays fulsome tribute to one Francis Wheen, a prominent Decent Left pundit who Nick cites as one of his main sources. By a remarkable coincidence, there is also a senior Eye staffer called Francis Wheen. Could the two possibly be related? I think we should be told.

More discussion on this from the good folks at Aaro Watch.


  1. Ann On said,

    August 17, 2007 at 9:40 am

    You should write to Private Eye and say so, as succinctly as possible, and offer to write them a Nick Cohen hackwatch yourself

  2. Andy Newman said,

    August 17, 2007 at 11:19 am

    I think what sets hari apart from me was that his lie was direct to his own personal integrity.

    It was one thing to write report things that you might believe to be untrue, while presenting them as unquestionably true, or to misleadingly weight evidence. This is the stock in trade of the professional journaalist.

    But Hari did more, and claimed that Iraqis had personally asked him face to face to support an invasion, when his earlier article had said they were too afraid to talk politics to him.

    So he lied about his own personal experience, and I think this does cross an ethical line in journalism. Not to say he is the only one who has done it.

    So hari has recounted his support for the war, but has never recanted his own personal lie.

    Yet when Eddie Brock was exposed by Spiderman for inaccurately reporting the true identity of the Sin-Eaters, even though Brock has reported in good faith, Brock lost his job and bonded with an alien symbiote posing as a costume, and became the deranged super-vilan, known as the Viper. There is a lesson there for Hari.

  3. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 17, 2007 at 11:38 am

    Yes, he still is a bit of a spoofer. But I do give him credit for being sensible enough to know when to stop digging.

    And he’s miles more honest in debate than Kamm, for what little that’s worth.

  4. Stuart A said,

    August 17, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    I ranted about this at Aaronovitch Watch, but I really would like to see a defence of Private Eye generally.

    It seems obvious to me that for all its claims it essentially toes a moderately right-wing establishment line. Yes, there is mockery of newspapers and writers across the mainstream spectrum, and there’s some stuff on minor league corruption, and so on. But while they seemed at best ambivalent over the Iraq War (I recall Hislop supporting it on HIGNFY), they for instance dedicated considerable investigative efforts to… how dangerous the MMR vaccine was — following the Daily Mail agenda, in other words.

    Surely a genuinely independent satirical magazine would have shown rather more scepticism generally about the war, quite apart from their partisan treatment of Hari. Yes, they accept it was based on lies now, when that’s irrefutable, but in that they are again following the general media line.

    Aside from this, their lack of interest in Kamm is surely proof that any sense of humour has disappeared. Instead of mocking possibly the most absurd figure in newspaper punditry, we have the deputy editor co-signing letters with him. Baffling.

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 17, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    Well, I started reading the Eye under the Ingrams regime, and I don’t know that it was ever radical. Lots of people on the left read it, but I read it really for the jokes and the gossip. Whatever radicalism was associated with the Eye had a lot to do with the personality of Foot.

    But there’s an odd thing in that, even though Ingrams has a reputation as a conservative, he put a lot of effort into staying outside the media/showbiz village, and I think the result was a more fearless and sceptical magazine. That and him being a very authoritarian editor, meaning that Foot or Booker couldn’t set an ideological line to the extent that Wheen does.

    Possibly some of this is nostalgia, and possibly it’s just that the general atmosphere has moved to the right. But I do agree that the absurdities of Kamm or Cohen prove something. At least in that their friendship with Wheen seems to keep them out of Hackwatch no matter what cobblers they write. In the old days, Foot’s presence on staff never stopped the SWP getting a lashing.

  6. Stuart A said,

    August 17, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    It’s not so much that I thought Private Eye ever was radical. I just think they pretend to be independent and unbiased while generally peddling a Daily Telegraph sort of view. I get the impression that they have reached the stage where they believe anyone reasonable shares their basic assumptions about things, which are fairly conservative.

    I wondered if things were different in the Ingrams days. It sounds like they were, to a certain extent at least. In any case, I’d say it’s due a new editor.

  7. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 17, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    I think there’s something to that. Of course it has its roots at Shrewsbury in the early 60s, and it’s always built itself around a smallish circle of chums. That in itself is limiting.

    As for Ingrams, I’ve always thought one his best decisions was, once he could afford it, to move out of London. He didn’t want to socialise with people he might be attacking next week. You can see where that makes sense – certainly if Wheen is writing Street of Shame, we shouldn’t expect barrages against Kamm.

    But I know what you mean. They like to think they’re fearless, but usually they’re only fearless in small ways. And then there’s the Orwell pose of “anyone reasonable would take this view”…

  8. August 17, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    […] by Neil Clark on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site (incidentally splinteredsunrise has a post on a similar issue and it’s well worth reading the link to Johann Hari, who while irritating […]

  9. Dave Weeden said,

    August 17, 2007 at 7:31 pm

    Andy, the articles you refer to seem to be different articles from the ones where Johann Hari discussed Nick Cohen’s book. Do you have links for them please? Searching his site for “Iraq” or “Iraqis” yeilds rather too many hits.

  10. Stuart A said,

    August 18, 2007 at 11:23 am

    They like to think they’re fearless, but usually they’re only fearless in small ways.

    Yeah, that pretty much nails it. There’s a disconnect between the attitude and the content.

  11. David said,

    August 19, 2007 at 12:07 am

    Just noticed some Decentist groupies are trying t insert an absurdly biased accoujnt of the Hari-Cohen row into Hari’s wikipedia entry. I have corrected it for now but is there any way you guys couold post a link to the wiki entry and appeal for readers to fight back against this? I have been fighting against loons on this page for ages and it’s getting a bit wearing, I could do with some back up…

  12. ejh said,

    August 22, 2007 at 10:07 pm

    Sorry to be late on this, but the magazine only dropped into my buzón today (at least I got it – a few weeks ago they delivered it to a person in another part of town entirely, on the apparent grounds that she’s also English and has the same house number as me).

    Anyway, I thought the Hari piece wasn’t the worst thing in it by any manner of means – if youy’re really looking for the hand of Wheen who can get it from either the Ratbiter peice or the arguably even worse one about the C4 documentary (the headline on the latter is particularly disgraceful).

    Both pieces have some clear Decent hallmarks. They don’t lie as such: they don’t mind making stupid smears, as per the comments on Ken Livingstone, which, however, say nothing specific and are therefore not actionable. And they cite facts all right, but cite them exceedingly partially in such a way as to create a picture that’s not only barmy but actually quite malign – that the government, the Home Office and a police force are in thrall to radical extremist Muslims. (Why would they be? Why?)

    It’s pretty horrid. By contrast the Hari stuff is quite tame.

  13. Idris of Dungiven said,

    August 23, 2007 at 8:16 am

    Thinking about the latter piece you mention, ejh, it seemed (to me anyway) to imply that the named officer was the driving force behind the attack on Channel 4’s allegedly dodgy doc. The implication lying in the fact that he had an Asian name – after a second or two I wondered to myself ‘but is it even a Muslim name?’

    Also, surely a decision to put C4 under scrutiny couldn’t be the work of just one officer, however Asian or Muslim sounding his name might be?

  14. ejh said,

    August 23, 2007 at 8:56 am

    Incidentally, did you notice the use of the term appeasement in the other piece? Somebody tell the Encyclopedia of Decency!

  15. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 23, 2007 at 9:12 am

    Re Ratbiter, I’ve noticed that this is the second time in recent issues that it’s been insinuated that the MCB is under the control of the Bangladeshi Jamaat-e-Islami. Has anybody told the Jamaat?

    Not that I’m defending either the MCB or the Jamaat, but there seems to be a pattern of sticking the boot into any Muslims who are a bit uppity, while puffing up figures sympathetic to government policy. As for citing Ed Husain as a source on political Islam in Britain, when he hasn’t been involved with it for a dozen years…

  16. ejh said,

    August 23, 2007 at 9:36 am

    I wonder if the North Korea piece was Wheen as well?

  17. August 30, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    […] night, and found it most curious. Regular readers will be aware of the Cohen-Hari-Wheen-David T catfight, and I was expecting to come across some kind of follow-up. Did I? No, not a […]

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