Johann Hari’s world: The other scandal of British journalism

By Theresa Mallinson 14 July 2011

Journalist Johann Hari was suspended by The Independent on Tuesday while the UK newspaper conducts an internal inquiry into his “interviewing methods”- apparently composed of lifting quotes from books and other journalists' work. Turns out, that’s not his only problem. By THERESA MALLINSON.

“I now see that it was wrong, and I wouldn’t do it again,” Johann Hari told me over coffee, as we discussed the plagiarism accusations levelled against him.

Of course, he did no such thing and we didn’t have coffee. But this representation of Hari would pass as legitimate in terms of his own ethics and standards. For Hari’s world is a peculiar place, where he seems to think there’s not much wrong with copying quotations from books or from articles by other journalists, and presenting it all as if it were direct speech told to him personally.

For the record, the ethically correct way to begin this article would have been: “Yes. I now see that it was wrong, and I wouldn’t do it again,” Johann Hari wrote on his blog, in a mea culpa that was also published by The Independent. See, correct attribution isn’t that difficult.

In a delicious instance of irony, it’s the Daily Mash, a satirical website that makes stuff up all the time, that most aptly sums up Hari’s modus operandi, describing his “revolutionary new interview technique that involved pretending people had said things to him and then imagining what his reaction would have been if they had said those things to him, which they did not and in fact said to somebody else years ago”.

In an initial blog post about the controversy, Hari himself did not appear to understand what all the fuss was about. “Occasionally, at the point in the interview where the subject has expressed an idea, I’ve quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech. It’s a way of making sure the reader understands the point that (say) Gideon Levy wants to make as clearly as possible, while retaining the directness of the interview. Since my interviews are intellectual portraits that I hope explain how a person thinks, it seemed the most thorough way of doing it,” he wrote.

Not quite. If Hari preferred to quote interviewees’ written words, rather than what they’d said to him in personal conversation, the “most thorough way of doing it” would’ve been to acknowledge the source of the quote. At the risk of being pedantic, let’s just demonstrate the mechanics of this again. In Hari’s “interview” with former Afghan politician Malali Joya, instead of writing: “She is speaking fast now: ‘I am truly honoured to have been vilified and threatened by the savage men who condemned our country to such misery.’”, he should have written something along the lines of: “As Joya stated in her book, ‘Raising My Voice’: ‘I am truly honoured to have been vilified and threatened by the savage men who condemned our country to such misery.’”

Journalists are often accused, sometimes fairly so, by the people they interview of taking quotes out of context. Hari has done this in the most literal way possible, stripping the quotes he so liberally scatters in his articles of the precise time, place and context in which they were said (or for that matter, written). And, over the last few weeks, the Hari technique has been exposed as far from the “occasional practice” he claimed it to be. On his New Statesman blog, Guy Walters highlights the heavy lifting that took place in Hari’s “interview” with Joya. “The 42 bold passages highlighted by my friend Jeremy Duns can be found – verbatim or near-verbatim – in Joya’s own book, ‘Raising My Voice’, which was co-written by Derrick O’Keefe. Nearly half of the entire piece consists of words that Joya used in the book. And, just to hammer this home – nearly every quote supposedly given to Hari was in fact taken from the book.”

Watch: Johann Hari speaking on free speech and religious fundamentalis.

Interviews with Ann Leslie, Antonio Negri, Gareth Thomas, Gideon Levy and Hugo Chavez are among those to have been given the same Hari treatment. And, in some cases, such as the Chavez interview, Hari has lifted quotes not from the writing of the interviewees themselves, but from what they told other journalists. Again Walters has done the detective work showing how direct quotes Hari implied Chavez had spoken to him originally appeared in a 2001 New Yorker article by Jon Lee Anders.

However, Hari’s former editor at The Independent, Simon Kelner, came to his defence, saying Hari’s technique “… was born from an honest ambition to give the clearest possible representation of what the interviewee was saying. In the grand scheme of things it is not a great scandal – it’s a naïve error which we recognise”. Kelner also suggested that the abuse Hari received on Twitter (search the hashtag #interviewsbyhari for 140-character parodies of his work) was punishment enough. However, Kelner is no longer editor of The Independent, having been moved upstairs to an editor-in-chief post, and The Independent’s new editor, Christopher Blackhurst, has taken a firmer stance. Blackhurst announced on Tuesday that: “Johann Hari has been suspended for two months pending the outcome of an internal enquiry. We have no further comment to make.”

The inquiry will have a lot of interviews – and IP addresses – to analyse. As well as attention being called to his dubious interview write-up ethics, Hari has also been accused of “sock-puppetry”. Writing for the Spectator, Nick Cohen stated that after he had an altercation with Hari, his Wikipedia entry had been maliciously updated by a certain “David r from Meth Productions”. Upon accessing his Wikipedia page, Cohen said: “As well as learning that I was a probable alcoholic, a hypocrite and a supporter of Sarah Palin, I noticed that all reviews of my work were missing except Hari’s effort. Far from saying that he had made wild allegations and I had responded by quoting from the book, a writer working under the pseudonym ‘David r from Meth Productions’ suggested that I had made wild allegations while Hari ‘had offered quotes from Cohen which he argued backed up his claims’.”

Journalists and writers Cristina Odone, Francis Wheen, Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson also had their Wikipedia pages edited by David R, after having run-ins with Hari. Until recent edits, Hari’s Wikipedia page, heavily contributed to by the same David R, presented a glowing portrait of The Independent’s journalist. In 2005, when David R was questioned by the Wikipedia moderators about his IP address – which, interestingly enough, pointed to The Independent’s offices – he said he sometimes did subbing shifts for the Indy, and claimed to be called David Rose. The allegations in the Spectator were published online on 9 July. Since then there has been a veritable army of Internet sleuths attempting to track this David Rose character down – with little success. Lawyer and writer David Allen Green, blogging at Jack of Kent, has compiled the most comprehensive list of what the investigations have unearthed so far.

The claim that Hari is behind the character of David Rose has not been conclusively proven, but evidence is stacking up. As several commentators have pointed out; if David Rose is indeed a friend of Johann Hari’s, as he has claimed to be – moreover, a friend who uses a fair amount of his cognitive surplus to defend Hari online – why has he not yet come forward and identified himself?

Both The Independent management and Hari himself have been quiet on the sock-puppetry allegations, although these will presumably also be looked into as part of the internal investigation. Regarding the quote-lifting, it’s easy enough for anyone with an Internet connection to play detective: the majority of Hari’s “interviews” have yet to be scrutinised. A spot of Googling phrases from Hari’s interview with writer Hanif Kureishi, published in The Independent, shows him lifting lines from Kureshi’s novel “My Ear at his Heart”, and an autobiographical essay: “The Rainbow Sign”

Daily Maverick tried to contact Hari, via Twitter and email, but received no reply bar an automated email response: “Hello – I’m away from my email for a few weeks – I’m catching up on work after a tumultuous week, and then I’ll be out of the country on an assignment so please forgive me if I’m tardy – I’ll read and reply to messages when I return. Thanks, Johann x”. It’s hard to believe Hari has that much work to catch up on, seeing as he’s been suspended from his Independent gig. One thing’s for sure though: He’s going to have some pretty tricky questions to answer when he returns. DM

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