Don’t Hurry Back, Hari

I blogged about Harigate – allegations of plagiarism, fabrication and libel by The Independent’s star interviewer Johann Hari, a while back: http://wp.me/p1kusD-1v . My initial take on the saga was that it was a bit of a media-focused story that no-one else much was likely to care about. This is still true – hardly anyone reads The Independent. Of those, few will have done so specifically to read Hari’s stuff. Right now there are three topics all about Henry Winkler, aka The Fonz, receiving an honorary OBE for his charitable work on dyslexia trending higher than the Hari story on twitter in the UK so even on the social media channel most used by people interested in the story it is not the biggest issue of the day.

However, this does not mean it should be forgotten. There are still a lot of people looking to defend and rehabilitate Hari – not least the management of The Independent which had ample justification for getting shot of him. There’s still a sense apparently that “what is so wrong with cutting a few corners if, like Hari, you were on the side of the angels in the things you said?”. Obviously for such die-hard defenders it would be a different matter if a nasty right-winger like Richard Littlejohn were to be discovered to have done something similar – it is bad enough writing hateful things, writing hateful things unethically would be even worse, but the ends always justify the means for people you like and agree with.

After nearly 3 months and an internal investigation by The Independent, Hari has published yet another, longer apology: http://ind.pn/qSeJqo .

In my opinion he hasn’t really addressed the full extent of the plagiarism he admits nor properly accepted the simple wrongness of those things. He continues to deny fabrication of the story that won him the Orwell Prize on the basis of his word (now worth, what?) and two interns who along with him relied on the translation of the person who alleged that he made up the story about French soldiers being presented with severed heads of people killed in the Central African Republic. While accepting that he shouldn’t have created a false identity to go round “correcting” wikipedia entries about himself and people with whom he agreed and in particular should not have gone on to add in unpleasant and untrue smears and allegations about people with whom he did not agree, he doesn’t really seem to understand why this was wrong.

The “apology” has been fisked in detail at the following links: http://tgr.ph/n3BmOY (Toby Young – enjoying the schadenfreude), http://bit.ly/oDpMM5 (Jeremy Duns – one of the first to take a detailed interest in the allegations), http://bit.ly/rijQ77 (a detailed look at the spitefulness of the wikipedia editing of rivals’ biographies, his own self-aggrandisement and airbrushing out of politically inconvenient things about people he likes).

The remedy and penance of giving back a prize he ought to have been stripped of, and taking a sabbatical to do a journalism course (“coincidentally” in the US where he will undoubtedly start writing up for coverage of the 2012 Presidential elections – a journalistic gig that rather more experienced and ethical journalists would fight over) are weak. Being caught out lying, taking the credit for others’ work and covertly smearing one’s opponents would, for most people, certainly for most of his readers, be a marching offence. No question of even getting a decent reference beyond the “X took no days of sick leave and attended punctually during his time with us”.

Ultimately, the sanction is going to have to come in the form of influence. Hari is likely to be followed by this for years to come and it will always be used to discredit anything he writes. The criticism of Polly Toynbee for coming from a wealthy and privileged background and having a villa in Tuscany is repeated at every instance and occasionally hits hard at a point she is trying to make – http://bit.ly/pPynN0 – although I tend to agree that most of the time it is purely personal and spiteful rather than having a bearing on the argument or evidence (such as it is) being presented. Being someone whose sense of ethics is so weak regardless of training or depression that they spent a decade plagiarising, fabricating and libelling opponents ought to make it too easy and too right for every future purportedly fact-based piece he writes to be doubted. Footnoting references and attributing quotes won’t make much difference to this. He’ll forever be, at least for those who do not already agree with him, a boy that cried wolf. For an opinion-maker, limiting yourself to preaching to the already converted means that you’ll be less likely to cause the changes you want.

 

 

Power to all our friends

A big thank you to all who sent me birthday greetings on facebook. It reminded me how bad I am at keeping in touch with friends – I didn’t get round to sending Christmas cards last year, have only the vaguest of recollections of when most people’s birthdays are (and usually see facebook on my phone so don’t get the reminders), and can go for months or years without much interaction other than by electronic means. Completely rubbish, I’m sorry.

At peril of turning into Thought for the Day (perhaps an unconscious link to the use of a Cliff Richard song title for this blog post) it has also led me to wonder why this might be. Like it or not, even I am a social animal. Although I am enjoying working remotely, I couldn’t bear to secret myself away at home when doing it and have rented shared office space so as to get out of the house and have some routine social interaction (if anyone is interested – here http://www.heartcentre.org.uk/ – I can heartily recommend it). I’ve grown to love having twitter burbling away in the background, seeing facebook updates of old school friends I haven’t seen in nearly 25 years, and miss the regular liquid lunches and evenings out of my 20s working in the City.

It was brilliant getting to go on a Stag do for the first time in years a couple of weekends back – even if it did mean nearly killing myself cycling up a rather nasty hill between Goring and Pangbourne and wheezing along trying to keep up with the lusty fraulein in the photo here. Doing the infamous Otley Run for the first time for another friend’s 40th birthday has also been a recent highlight.

Part of the problem, for me at least, is that it is just too easy to feel part of things remotely by using social media. Business networking is something I’ve always found rather painful, but I actually got my current job through using linkedin and had another interview that materialised mainly from having thought about things to write for this blog. Having moved 200 miles away from most of the friends I’d built up in London and then finding that most people  had got married, had children and were commuting long distances into London the opportunities for face to face interaction dropped off a bit, or at least involved long term planning to arrange weekends around the myriad other commitments we all have rather than casual phone calls to do a couple of spur of the moment pints after work.

Social media can fill that gap. It is a gap that has also developed through the erosion of traditional elements of social glue – not just the pub, but also supporting your local football team, going to church, even popping down the shops. Rather than being everyday occasions for keeping in touch with people, each is becoming more of a niche activity. It might in part explain why some people find multiculturalism threatening – because encouraging strong but exclusive communities to develop, whether it is around a mosque or a language group, provides an opportunity for “them” to have a social glue which is lacking in broader society.

So, where’s the sermon? Well, one of the things which has been striking about a number of the recent causes célébres is that a lot of them involve friendships. Gordon and Sarah Brown being such good friends of Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng that the Murdochs were sad that their kids no longer got to play together. Sarah Brown being pally enough with Rebekah Brooks to have organised her 40th birthday bash. David Cameron continuing bravely to call Andy Coulson a friend even after being criticised for having hired him and trusted him. The many media friends of Johann Hari still believing in him despite all the evidence of his journalistic misdeeds. The Coalition government looks like it only could have come about because Cameron and Clegg felt comfortable enough with each other to be friendly. The drama over the leadership of the Labour Party can also be seen as a drama of friendships, from the obvious between the Miliband brothers to the criticisms of the disloyalty and unfriendliness of the machinations over the defenestration of Tony Blair.

This throws up a strange paradox. Networking is apparently a great skill to develop. It is one of the things that is seen to be developed by Oxbridge and Public School educations but which it is desirable for everyone to get. The best way to network is to be by being able to develop and nurture friendships. But, at the same time, we turn against those who do exactly that. All those friends, the Camerons and Osbornes who have hung out since university, the journalists and politicians who meet each other dozens of times a year. They’re doing what we’re told we should be doing to get on. Yet, at the same time, they shouldn’t be doing it. They should be independent and unswayed by friendship. How could they do this while being the sorts of personable people who can do those jobs? Also, what we don’t see, is the rejection that such people have to become inured to. Putting yourself up for public positions also means finding lots and lots of people who will not only disagree with you when you’re trying to be agreeable, but who will hate you for what you think or say, or even what they think you are really thinking or meaning. Liking the people who actually seem to like you back isn’t too unnatural. Being big enough to do right even by those who hate you is difficult to do if you don’t have enough people who love you.

It is easy to criticise the elites for getting too close to one another, to be suspicious of their closeness and to feel excluded by it. Particularly when our own relationships can close in through the pressures of life to mean we only really regularly see the people who are physically closest to us. Getting a nice large group of followers on twitter and recommenders on linkedin just seems cleaner than having to put ourselves about to make friends with strangers in a way we haven’t had to do since Freshers’ Week. Perhaps part of the criticism of the cosy cliques is down to the fact that they seem to be able to get on with each other and be friends with a lot of people in a way that is less easy to manage for many people now.

Nepotism and other forms of corruption are terrible things and should be strongly criticised. However, it would be a shame not to recognise that, at least in part, we are also seeing people, albeit important and powerful people, being friends and doing friendship, not just liking each others’ facebook Wall posts. We could learn that from them while stopping them from abusing their positions for their friends. Or maybe it is just me.

Unpalatable Truths about Us

Hacking voicemails and paying police officers to get stories for the newspapers. Plagiarising other writers’ interviews to polish your own articles. The sad and unpalatable truth is that most people simply don’t care that much about any of this.

Of course they ought to care, just as I ought to do more exercise and eat more vegetables. It doesn’t change the fact that they don’t.

The reality is that even though there have been some momentous changes like News Corp dropping its bid for BSkyB, the closure of the News of the World, the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, the bipartisan political support for criminal and civil investigation and inquiry into the methods of the media, the suspension of Johann Hari and investigation by the Orwell Prize committee and so on, most of these will have been of minimal note to the vast majority of the population. Even on twitter, a self-selecting minority of the more engaged part of the online population the retirement of Pam St Clements from her role as Pat Butcher in East Enders had a higher profile than hackgate at its height.

In part this might be down to a continuation of the “well they would do wouldn’t they” approach to the wider world. When the bid for BSkyB first made the news I remember being mildly surprised that News Corp didn’t already own a majority stake in BSkyB – it had been portrayed by most of the rest of the media as being controlled by Rupert Murdoch for years. From the slight experience I’ve had in being interviewed for comments by the press it wasn’t that big a surprise to hear that Johann Hari hadn’t in fact elicited nice, fully formed quotes from his interviewees (a small confession here, as one of the editors of my Sixth Form College magazine I published a largely fictional interview with a fellow student who worked on the theatre lighting and effects – someone else had gone to interview him but hadn’t really managed to get much out of him so I just made it up, ironically the same guy has now become something of a big name in lighting and effects so I missed out there). It was more of a surprise to find so much evidence of actually cribbing large chunks from other writers and interviewers just because it seems pretty unnecessary.

That tabloid journalists do pretty much anything to get a story and are as amoral in their methods as they are moralistic in their published tone was probably the biggest non-story of them all. Even though, of course, things like hacking into Milly Dowler’s voicemail and that of victims of 7/7 or 9/11 managed to lower a bar that most would have thought to be already unlimboable. That said, Will Self has (as ever) an interesting take on how ordinary people are now considered fair game for being mistreated in the same way as celebrities: http://bit.ly/nmhIrY

Bent coppers have been a staple of British life for years. They can be banal, as the ones involved in the allegations around the investigation of hacking claims. Or they can be strangely sympathetic, like Gene Hunt in Life on Mars (in my opinion rather less interesting when rather less corrupt in Ashes to Ashes). But they’re a tiny minority of the actual Police forces of the country, most of whom do unpleasant work at antisocial hours in a professional and decent manner. The chance that slipping a couple of hundred quid to the officer who stopped you for a breathalyzer test might work rather than get you arrested for attempting to bribe the officer is so small that you don’t hear of anyone even trying it.

Politicians doing anything they can to maintain their power and prestige or to feather their own nests? After the MPs’ expenses scandal and everything that was already known about how close MPs and party leaders have been to media moguls, it just isn’t news. Sarah Brown organising Rebekah Brooks’ 40th birthday party is not more outrageous now than it was a week ago, just as her husband giving his first Sun interview to the man who had apparently so upset him and his wife over breaking the story of his son’s cystic fibrosis wasn’t. They’re not news – indeed the only new thing is how weird it is that they think they deserve sympathy now for something they were way more forgiving of than most people would have been, or that even a jaded populace would think it right that a serving Prime Minister didn’t dare to take on the might of the press.

So, hard to swallow though it may be, these developments are a big deal that most people will just shrug and say, “Big Deal!” to. Ironically, the people who do care about this stuff are most likely to be amongst the perpetrators or to know or care about them. The public might shrug a bit but the politicians, journalists and other establishment figures want to feel good about themselves and what they do. Enough will feel shame because of the judgement of their peers and their unavoidable blindness to what ordinary people think – unavoidable because they don’t want to sound condescending or cynical (cardinal sins in public life except for those with the flair to carry it off, like, say, Brian Sewell). So, they’ll clean up their act, a bit, make a lot of noise over it and ultimately things will quieten down with a feeling that things have been sorted out, until the next time.