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.