Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Johann Hari redux

The strange thing about the Johann Hari business is that it is an almost perfectly unsurprising scandal. In case you have somehow missed this little storm, Hari is accused of lifting entire quotations from other sources into his interviews, and passing them off as if they had been said to him. This technique has been beautifully mocked on Twitter under the hashtag #interviewsbyhari including such gems as:

He sensed my malaise. "Young man", he murmured, fingering his leather jacket ruminatively, "there's no need to feel down" @MrEugenides

After discussing my evidence with him. he stroked his thick beard, looked up, and then loudly exclaimed 'GORDON'S ALIVE'? @Simon_Pegg

And so on and so on.

He’s responded with a remarkably brazen non-apology apology in today’s Independent where he claims that, really, all he was doing was a little tidying up. (For whatever reason, this article isn’t on the Independent’s website. Guido has, um, cut-and-pasted it onto his site, although at least he doesn’t pretend that he wrote it following an interview with Johann).

This is, obviously, not a desperately serious matter in the grand scheme of things. But it is indicative of Hari’s general modus operandi. The actual quotes he got in the interview (assuming he got any) weren’t good enough to stand up or illustrate the story he wanted to write, so he got other quotations and pretended that they were made to him. He manipulated the truth to write a better article.

This should hardly come as a surprise. I’ve written about Hari’s somewhat misleading attitude to quotations before, when he used a line from an article by Boris Johnson to suggest that he was a panting enthusiast for stag hunting, when the article in question (sadly not online) was actually about how traumatic he found the whole thing, and why he would never go stag hunting again. The same article, incidentally, stated as a fact that the 2007 foot and mouth outbreak was leaked out of an American pharmaceutical lab, a statement of fact that was at that point unconfirmed, and turned out not to be true. In fact, hell, lets just reprise what I wrote last year:

How does he get away with it?  How does Johann Hari hold down a job as a columnist in a broadsheet newspaper when he is so often so flagrantly in breach of the truth?  Whether it’s stating that British GDP fell after abolishing slavery, which it didn’t, claiming that the coalition intends to cut public spending by 20%, when that figure’s actually 4%, asserting that the foot and mouth leak in 2007 came from a US-owned private laboratory, when it was actually from a Government-owned one, or even claiming that the Japanese Prime Minister was attacked and nearly killed by a robot, when, um, he wasn’t, Hari manages to make such blinding (and simple) factual errors in his columns, that it’s hard to knew if he’s just stupid, or if he’s a liar.

Hari, basically, isn’t a journalist. He’s a polemicist. Facts aren’t there to be reported, they’re there to be used to support the argument he wanted to make. If they’re inconvenient, they can be ignored (as when, in supporting protectionism, he wrote the medieval English textile industry out of existence and ignored the entirety of Britain’s free trade period). This is fine (well, ish. It’s what our Polly has been doing for years) for an opinion writer. It’s much less fine for someone claiming to write factual pieces as well. Who, for instance, now believes his claims to have seduced all those butch Islamists and neo-Nazis?

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