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.

 

 

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When is an interview not an interview?

In most times this would be seen as a bit of a silly question or perhaps the feed line to a particularly pedantic joke. With the recent controversy over Johann Hari’s interviewing technique not to mention the intense scrutiny of journalistic practices by the News of the World and the simmering fight between Louise Mensch MP and Piers Morgan over whether he knew of voicemail hacking while editing the Daily Mirror, it is worth a second look.

In her recent libel case, Dr Sarah Thornton claimed against the Telegraph for libel in a review of a book she had written (“Seven Days in the Art World” http://amzn.to/ruUt5a). The High Court judgment can be found at this link and is surprisingly readable http://bit.ly/qYe3MG . The review, by Lynn Barber (whose teenage years formed the basis of the wonderful film, An Education http://amzn.to/oNyfEI) claimed that Dr Thornton had falsely said in the book that she had interviewed her. The normal and natural meaning of “interview” was explained by Tugendhat J as being where “one person asks questions of another so as to elicit an answer”. This sounds like a potential entry in the Encyclopaedia of Things We Already Know.

However, Ms Barber claimed that whether something is an interview or not depends upon how helpful and informative the responses given are. On that basis the allegations against Johann Hari might be even more grave – if the responses given by so many of his interviewees were so vague or unclearly expressed as to require cleaning up and replacement with quotes from other interviews and published works, perhaps he was wrong to have claimed to have conducted the interviews at all. Or, when I’ve done badly in a job application I could claim that I hadn’t in fact had an interview at all. Fortunately for us and the English language, the High Court Judge was rather more sensible. And it isn’t every day you can say that either.

Nothing against them, some of my best friends are racist, but…

Not really, well, not quite. The trope “I’ve nothing against them, some of my best friends are… “ has been a staple of offensive pub bore conversation for as long as I’ve known and has had a new lease of life online in forums like the BBC’s Have Your Say and the comments sections of local and tabloid newspaper websites.

In reality, whether we like it or not, most of us are a little bit something-ist. In the otherwise impeccably Guardian left-liberal suburb of Leeds where I live there’s a strong whiff of “studentism” to preserve areas for long-term family residents rather than letting landlords put students in. This view is held by people who themselves were once students, often students in Leeds who had come from elsewhere in the country, and who found
themselves settling in the city after they graduated. There’s not a whole load of difference between this and the phenomenon observed particularly in the US of the last wave of immigrants often being the strongest critics of fellow immigrants who have not assimilated properly and the strongest supporters of controls on future immigration. In the report on Radio 4’s PM programme on 26 July 2011 several interviewees who were first generation immigrants to the US from West Africa were highly critical of the alleged victim of sexual assault by Dominique Strauss-Kahn on the basis of the adverse impact on “good” immigrants of lies she may have told.

The desire to categorise other people is, I believe, a natural one. At least in one sense, civil society is about believing oneself to have some common bond with the others around you – about feeling that “we’re all in it together”. So, no-one begrudges paying taxes to support people who have hit hard times if they feel they can identify with the beneficiaries as being, but for circumstance, “people like us”. Setting up bankers as a group who are undeserving and unfair recipients of state largesse is as divisive as highlighting benefits cheats or bogus asylum seekers – all are playing the system and perhaps more than superficially undermining the feeling that we are all in it together. In either case, it is the extreme examples who get the press – the 200,000+ bank employees who have lost their jobs are not considered when extravagant seven figure bonuses to traders are criticised, the vast majority of benefits claimants who would love to work and are eking out a
subsistence lifestyle are overshadowed by the egregious examples of those who get more in housing benefits than a couple earning the national median wage take home after the taxes that pay for those benefits.

The same goes for extremists, both Islamists and indigenous culture terrorists like Anders Breivik. It is right that one should not consider all of the 1.5bn Muslims around the world to be terrorists or to make sweeping statements based on selective readings of the Quran about what all Muslims believe. Most Muslims, like most people, live ordinary lives with the same mix of virtue and vice – no ethnic or religious group is peculiarly saintly,
whatever the public perception of them as a group might be. We tend to ignore the fact that in South East Asia some purportedly Buddhist monks have committed terrible crimes when thinking of Buddhists as a group. Chanting, meditative (and irritatingly smug) Western Pop Stars or the Dalai Lama are more defining of them than any number of rapacious monks a long way away. However, it is also wrong to reverse this and to single out individual wrongdoers as being separate from the group they come from where that is convenient.

It is convenient to do this for Muslims because of the fear that criticising Islamism becomes a criticism of Muslims. Much easier, as Tom Harris MP says   ( http://bit.ly/pvkeVa ) to bend over backwards to accommodate and try to explain away the murderous acts of the minority, even if carried out in the name of the faith, even if, in
fact, tacitly supported to some extent by otherwise peaceable coreligionists. At the same time, the temptation to broaden out the atrocities of someone like Breivik is great because the “white far right” can safely be hated by everyone. Picking out a bit in the Quran which says something that clashes with Western Liberal ideas about, say, homosexuality and using it to condemn the religion and its adherents is out of order. Picking out a bit in Breivik’s Book of Dave-ish manifesto where he cites Melanie Phillips or Jeremy Clarkson with approval to condemn those writers is somehow OK http://bit.ly/o6cCl5. I don’t like or generally agree with Ms Phillips but she hasn’t called upon anyone to go round killing people or shown support for them. Saying that the last Labour government had an immigration and multiculturalism policy that was aimed at marginalising the base for nationalist feeling is contentious but not entirely unsupported (the policy criticised isn’t even necessarily malign). Bemoaning, as Clarkson did in the article Brievik quoted, that the British flag has become something that some encourage us to be ashamed of is not a call to arms to mowing down dozens of teenagers. The irony, lost on Breivik is that shame is brought on national flags by people like him and the BNP if they are allowed to claim them as their symbols rather than being something that binds a nation.

Of course, it is also not allowed for those who might share some of Breivik’s views to quote selectively to support themselves, such as the head of the English Defence League on Newsnight’s vain attempt to quote the bit in the Breivik manifesto where he condemns the EDL for being anti-racist, anti-fascist, non-violent and naive in believing that its aims can be achieved through democracy rather than extreme terrorist action. Six hundred apparent EDL members being facebook friends with Breivik out of the hundred thousand who “like” the EDL on facebook is used as knockout evidence that the UK has a
hundred thousand people poised to turn Breivik.

I’ve no time for those who think that all Muslims are terrorists, all men are rapists, all those who question immigration are racist, all bankers are evil, all benefits claimants are parasites, all students are anti-social neighbours. But, that doesn’t exclude that some members of these groups do fit the stereotype and that their membership of the group can be relevant in working out how to respond. It was relevant to the response to the 7/7 bombings that the bombers were British Asian Muslims because the bombers were not crazed individuals working in a vacuum to do something inexplicable and arbitrary that could not be foreseen or prevented in the future.

As with the recent and ongoing controversies about political and media corruption, censure by other members of a maligned group is a strong force. Good journalists have rallied to make their case against bad practices (although sadly there still seems to be a rearguard action to preserve something of Johann Hari’s reputation even if it is merely that portion of which reflects upon his employers), good politicians have condemned the dishonest ones. Good Muslims can and should continue to speak out against Islamist terrorists and their aims. Decent people who believe that immigration should be limited can and should speak out against Breivik. Otherwise, the bad minority wins and the reputation of the good majority is ruined while the views of the minority get amplified. Just because it is convenient to let that happen (if eg you don’t like anti-immigration campaigners or Muslims) doesn’t make it right.

UPDATE

Interesting piece by Melanie Phillips on Breivik –  http://bit.ly/mYTFaC