That Johann Hari thing
July 2, 2011 21 Comments
Last week, Brian Whelan discovered that Johann Hari had taken quotes from books and used them in interviews as if they were said to him. Hari issued an apology of sorts, on his website, explaining that where concepts and ideas are touched on in interviews he uses quotes from books written by the people he’s interviewed. Sometimes ideas expressed in writing are clearer than those expressed in speech. Fair enough.
But at the New Statesman, Guy Walters asked readers to do more research before accepting his apology. Guido Fawkes did more digging and found that Hari was kicked off his University newspaper for making up facts. Consequently, the Orwell Prize Council have been told by the Media Standards Trust that they should inquire into Hari’s 2008 Orwell Prize.
There’s been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on the internet about this. Guardian writer Polly Toynbee joined in the fray:
Johann Hari, one the best, is no plagiarist. Save your wrath for the abominartions and harrassments by the Murdoch/Mail press.
Hari didn’t pretend someone else’s words were his own. Minor peccadillo, unwise, not wicked. Yes, I’d say same of any right wing writer too.
You would, Polly? Well that’s good. I wonder what she has to say about the fresh allegations that he took 42 quotes from a book and used them in his interview with Malalai Joya?
Hari’s defenders have claimed that critics are being homophobic; repeatedly affirm that Hari is “one of the good ones” and that as such he should be protected from criticism. Not to mention that he was only 23 when he started working in journalism. Those who criticise him say “If he was writing academically, he would be done for plagiarism”.
Both sides miss the point somewhat. 1] Criticism of someone’s writing does not automatically make it about their sexuality, or whatever it is about them that makes them a minority. 2] Yes, Hari is/was largely seen as a great journalist – as a prize-winning journalist we expect nothing less. It’s the last two points I want to look at.
Does being young when you start in an industry mean that you can, or should be able to, get away with this sort of thing? It is unprofessional at best. And at worst… Well. It throws every single journalist into doubt, and has repercussions for the industry as a whole. At a time when journalists are being scrutinised for phone-hacking allegations, and the public are losing faith in politicians and journalists, it is rather bad timing for someone to pick this up in Hari’s work.
The cries of “if he was writing academically…” have no grounds either. It’s true that he would not pass a degree if he did his work in this way. But he isn’t writing academically! He is writing for a national newspaper. As such, he has a duty to be more thorough and more transparent than any academic writing, because he has a wide and trusting audience. So instead of levelling it to “I would have been kicked off my degree if I did this” why don’t we look at it in context of, he is a practising journalist, who has a huge platform for his work and – it would appear – has lied in his work. Surely this is much more serious.
Both of these points about his age, and the lack of academic scrutiny lead me to the conclusion that far from being ‘useless’, journalism courses are actually more valuable than we first thought. Hari, who did not go to journalism college and learned ‘on the job’, clearly was not taught basic journalistic skills – some may call it common sense… But whatever it is, it was not encouraged or talked about in the workplace. This is worrying.
Does this mean that newspapers are not training their junior journalists well enough?
Are they doing the opposite – actively encouraging journalists to make up facts, or perhaps turning a blind eye to any indiscretions with regards to writing?
This raises further questions about the news industry, and the standard of journalism that we should expect.
Should newspapers be allowed to take on employees that have not been through rigorous journalism courses that teach them these basic skills?
Should trainee schemes be more closely looked at by professional bodies (the NCTJ in this case) to see that the schemes would be suitable for someone who is coming from a non-journalistic background? To check that those that go through it are up to scratch and meet good journalistic standards?
What’s more, is that if someone like Hari, who has won numerous prizes over the years, can fall foul of some seriously basic concepts of writing for a newspaper (credit your sources, explain that it wasn’t explicitly said to you, etc) – then what of the hundreds of other journalists out there who don’t win prizes? If he is the best we have, then we’re losing a battle of integrity.