That Johann Hari thing

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.

And again:

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.

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About A Girl
Mostly writes on Half The World Is Watching. She is interested in and writes about feminist issues, politics and activism. An 80s child at heart, she loves old things, computer games, and keeping up with the development of social media.

21 Responses to That Johann Hari thing

  1. Simon HB says:

    Amongst the oddest defences of Hari directed at me this week was that it didn’t matter because he was “a writer” not “a journalist” (not withstanding Hari’s repeated descriptions of himself as a journalist; the use of the word in his mea culpa, his acceptance of a Prize for Journalism etc, etc)…

  2. Jon_S says:

    I have to disagree fairly strongly with your implication that academics don’t have to meet the same standards of accuracy and transparency that journalists do: these are just as important in academia. That’s the whole point of references, which any academic paper must have, as they allow the work to be checked and verified by readers. As academia attempts to add, as accurately and comprehensively as possible, to the store of human knowledge, transparency and honesty are of utmost importance.

    Secondly, I disagree that ‘some seriously basic concepts of writing for a newspaper (credit your sources, explain that it wasn’t explicitly said to you, etc)’ can only be learned in journalism school. On my blog, every source is linked to or referenced (if it’s offline), and many sectors of the blogosphere, like science blogs, are more reliable than the mainstream media due to the expertise of the writers and the practice of linking to evidence (which many/most MSM sites are yet to fully embrace).

    Being honest isn’t something you need to be taught on a journalism course.

    • Soph says:

      I wasn’t saying academia doesn’t need to be transparent, what I mean is that comparing journalism to academia is futile because they’re entirely different and fulfill different needs. Academics spread work among each other, journalists write work for the wider population… I think it’s important to make that distinction. Of course he wouldn’t have gotten away with it in academic writing. But that doesn’t matter. Because it’s NOT academic writing! The comparison isn’t really useful, IMHO.

      And my emphasis on journalism courses is that you are taught, through academic assessment of work and rigorous checks, to credit sources and not lie about interviews etc. On my course we had to prove everything.

      • Ellie says:

        I knew not to lie before I went to primary school. What kind of pathetic human being requires a degree to learn that? Jesus Christ!

      • Rory Lawless says:

        A point in support of Soph’s transparency distinction between journalism and academia is that academic articles are subject to a peer review system before anything of note is published. Journalism doesn’t have any safeguards beyond the editor and the journalist herself.

      • jon says:

        Academia has possibly a wider audience than journalism — students and schoolchildren. Education shapes a person’s worldview and therefore the work on which a curriculum is based must be well-constructed and factually accurate; transparency in academia is how that is achieved. The comparison is apt.

        I don’t think that ethics are the sole preserve of journalism degrees, useful as I’m sure those courses are. Trainee/shadowing schemes would be interesting and informative and should of course emphasise the importance of honesty, but again, it’s not a journalism-only value. Bloggers know this, as I already pointed out.

    • Rory Lawless says:

      The only way, in my eyes, that academia can be used to criticise Hari is the fact that he attended University where, as anyone who has attended knows, not properly attributing work or passing another’s work off as one’s own is a cardinal sin. This lesson should have carried over into Hari’s professional career. There is absolutely no excuse for his lapse in judgement.

      I think the Polly Toynbee quote in the original post perfectly sums up the reaction by some on the political left which has been essentially ‘it doesn’t matter what Hari did because the right wing press also does it’. If the left wants to be successful in putting forward its particular point of view, it needs to make sure it is better in not only content but, probably more importantly, integrity of that content.

      • Nemesis says:

        The assumption that he would have learnt that “not properly attributing work or passing another’s work off as one’s own is a cardinal sin” studying Social and Political Science at Cambridge is touching. Standards are not uniform in so large an organisation as Cambridge University, and at that faculty there may well have been the same indulgence of Hari because he’s a lefty who writes well.

  3. Ellie says:

    I find it bizarre that both a degree and then further training are required in order that people know they should tell the truth. Utterly bizarre.

    And to suggest that a degree is required before entering journalism is, well, silly. What makes journalism grads thing they are the only ones required to reference their work and tell the truth? Journalism is not nuclear physics, maths or cancer research. For goodness sake! If you want cancer experts to write you are now talking an undergraduate science degree, a PhD and then a journalism degree? If what we have at the moment in our press is the product of journalism degrees, then frankly I’d cancel the courses.

    Hari was not honest. What I find utterly bizarre is how the left have turned on one of their own with such venom. Perhaps the left would be far better served if they used their obviously destructive skills in destroying the Murdoch press, holding the journalists in the BBC etc to account.

    Just as Ben Goldacre how much mileage he gets from journalists. He’s made a career of showing the profession of journalism to be what it is – crap and no number of jounalism degrees seems to have improved things.

    • Soph says:

      I didn’t say it should be required; more that we should be asking the question – is current training actually good enough?

      I didn’t say either, that you should specifically be a journalism graduate to know not to lie or whatever, but to be honest there are a lot of things you learn on a journalism course about good practice and what to do and what not to do – what makes good journalism. You don’t learn that on an ordinary degree.

      Yes of course it is common sense. And you’re saying you learned not to lie before primary school yet Hari is still defensible? He is essentially lying. So something in the system of training budding journalists has gone wrong – whether on a degree or in the workplace.

      I would say that a lot of people in the press haven’t studied journalism degrees. Only post-grad courses – if that. We’ll only see the effect of journalism degrees on honesty and good practice in 10-20 years or so when the old-style hacks have gone.

      Another thing to consider: Do journalism graduates leave Uni with these skills and then forget about them/get encouraged to ignore the training by their employers? These are my lines of thought. It’s not about politics, it’s about standards of journalism that we expect and deserve – and considering how we are supposed to achieve that in the current situation.

      • Ellie says:

        Oh, right. I’ll bin my maths degree – ‘cos it is just an ordinary old degree, not a special one like journalism!

        People are going to to lie if they are liars and they’ve learned they can get away with it. People are also going to lie if their bosses pressure them and the poor sod is sitting there look at the bills wondering how they are going to pay them if they refuse to meet the pressure. And that pressure can come in any number of ways.

        If you seriously think a degree is going to make a blind bit of difference to that, then look at Ben Goldacre’s work on Big Pharma, the lack of regulatory controls in banking, the failings in the nuclear industry or anything else you care to look at.

  4. Well done Ellie for entirely missing the point; being that very few journalists are trained in the field, with Johann Hari just one example.

  5. jon says:

    Right. I think that Ellie’s point regards whether journalistic training will prevent someone from being dishonest, if that is their habit. I’m trying to find evidence either way, but I don’t think my Google skills are up to it. The ‘I’ll bin my maths degree’ part is silly, though.

    As for improving media ethics and promoting truth-telling, I think that tougher media regulation is the way forward – making the PCC independent, and giving it more power; e.g. to mandate corrections/apologies that are given the same prominence in print as the articles which contain false information.

    • Ellie says:

      Would you care to name a single profession where a degree has eliminated the liars? Lets see. Medicine? Nope. Theology? Nope. Law? Nope. Want evidence – take yourself off to have a look at the court records….

      Journalism courses, are however far more serious, and provide skills and training necessary to wipe out all dishonest, sneaky aspects of human nature.

      Are there more vain little, niave, precious little lovies entering journalism than Holywood?

      If the entries here are anything to go by, journalism is doomed by it’s population of self-centred, self-important, clueless individuals. And with it, the humans who will be abused, used and discarded by all manner of tyrannts while the journalists pretend they are serious people struggle with the most basic of concepts.

  6. Liz says:

    Then maybe “they” (broadsheets, the posh press) should just hire (more) journalism graduates, and NCTJ diplomaholders, and forget about fucking Oxbridgers? This IS a point I made on the NS latest thread; actually it’s the only reason for any dislike I have of Hari: that and he went to a fee-paying school. As for whether he used quotes from a book in an interview where that same book was being promoted, I REALLY THINK BRITAIN AND THE WORLD HAVE BIGGER THINGS TO WORRY ABOUT. Criticism about flabby journalism in UK should be grounded in analysis of the class structure.. graduates, and NCTJ diplomaholders, and forget about fucking Oxbridgers? This IS a point I made on the NS latest thread; actually it’s the only reason for any dislike I have of Hari: that and he went to a fee-paying school. As for whether he used quotes from a book in an interview where that same book was being promoted, I REALLY THINK BRITAIN AND THE WORLD HAVE BIGGER THINGS TO WORRY ABOUT. Criticism about flabby journalism in UK should be grounded in analysis of the class structure..

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  8. Matt Wardman says:

    >Amongst the oddest defences of Hari directed at me this week was that it didn’t matter because he was “a writer” not “a journalist”

    That’s funny. The idiots are the people who believed that line :-).

    IMO this is about basic skills and how most of our national press no longer practices them. For exceptions, I’d suggest the FT, the Economist, and some specialist journals. Check out any number of stupid errors, eg look up “Mayor of Baltimore”. Bits of the blogosphere are far better, and I now usually rely on the names of writers with standards, whose biases I know, rather than the name of the publication, which coves a multitude of different skill levels.

    In the middle of the Groan Media Podcast about Hari:

    “If newspapers have no budget, you can understand that fact-checking would go out of the window”. No, I can’t understand it.

    Stirring slighty, a certain Laurie Penny did a good journalism course, City Uni IIRC … you have to believe in good reporting, and do it, as well as know that it exists.

    There’s *much* more to come on Hari.

  9. I’m so glad I stayed out of this shitstorm.

    Why is it that rather than rationally looking through the allegations and issues people descend immediately into a bitching frenzy?

  10. I must say, I am shocked by both Johann’s lazy journalism and Polly’s defence. I have never received a single day’s training in journalism, but it would appear to me as unthinkable to do what he has done. I love much of the stuff he has done – apart from his naive support of the iraq war – but I think he needs to give us a very lengthy explanation of why on earth he has been so f’ing lazy and careless. I hope he comes back chastened but it still will leave a somewhat sour taste whenver I read his columns in the future, just as I can never forget that Peter Preston once broke the first rule of journalism by betraying a source.

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