Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Johann Hari's Non-Apology for Plagiarism

British journalist Johann Hari has apologized for making stuff up.

The gay, left-wing journo has enjoyed a reputation for incisive, hard-hitting interviews, chiefly at The Independent. Yesterday, Hari's reputation fell gracelessly apart under accusations of plagiarism and dishonesty.

Basically, he was cutting and pasting bits from other sources and passing them off as part of his own original interviews. He'd add extemporaneous details, such as "He lit a cigarette" and "She spoke faster," to make it sound authentic. I cited a few examples in my article about Hari yesterday. Writing in the New Statesman, Guy Walters provides some more examples from Johann Hari's 2006 interview with Hugo Chavez:
"I realized at that moment that I was saying goodbye to life," he says, looking away. "So it is possible that, after surviving, one has been a bit... imbued with that sense ever since, no?"
The problem is that these exact words come from a 2001 interview by Jon Lee Anderson at the New Yorker. So not only did Hari neglect to credit the source, but he also added "he says, looking away" to create the impression Chavez said this to him directly. And he does it again in the same "exclusive" interview:
Just as this is beginning to sound like sepia-tinted nostalgia, he adds, "I was in close contact with poverty, it's true. I cried a lot."
This time, the quote is lifted verbatim from Lally Weymouth's Chavez interview in Newsweek, published in 2000.

Before the revelations of Hari's practices broke, he first addressed the charge in a "clarification" on his personal blog. His justification was that he only occasionally uses already-published quotes from the same person when they don't express themselves as well in the interview. As long as they're making the same essential point, it's legitimate he says. Besides, everyone does it:
I called round a few other interviewers for British newspapers and they said what I did was normal practice and they had done it themselves from time to time.
Now Hari has made something of an apology in The Independent, under the headline "My journalism is at the centre of a storm. This is what I have learned."

His excuse now gets even odder:
[An] interview is not just an essayistic representation of what a person thinks; it is a report on an encounter between the interviewer and the interviewee. If (for example) a person doesn't speak very good English, or is simply unclear, it may be better to quote their slightly broken or garbled English than to quote their more precise written work, and let that speak for itself. It depends on whether you prefer the intellectual accuracy of describing their ideas in their most considered words, or the reportorial accuracy of describing their ideas in the words they used on that particular afternoon. Since my interviews are long intellectual profiles, not ones where I'm trying to ferret out a scoop or exclusive, I have, in the past, prioritised the former. That was, on reflection, a mistake, because it wasn't clear to the reader.
A non-apology. He doesn't think it's wrong, just (regrettably) unclear. Except Johann Hari doesn't write a simple, straightforward intellectual profile. He adds ephemeral details to give it a Gonzo-style edge. He doesn't want to just convey the intellectual ideas; he wants to draw us into the emotions of the interview and the personality by making us believe he was actually there, experiencing the story as it was told to him.

My remaining question, now Hari has kind of confessed in a roundabout sort of way -- ish -- is what of all the other journalists he claims to have spoken to? The British newspaper interviewers who, according to his initial explanation, do exactly the same thing as a matter of routine? Are they willing to come forward? Or was their presence, too, an embellishment to drive the point home?


  1. Good piece.

    I love the

    "I cited a few examples in my article about Hari yesterday."

    ... with "my article" linking to the New Statesman !

    Irony + 1.

  2. In fairness, I did ask Guy Walters if I could claim his article as my own. He put one hand firmly on my shoulder and looked me straight in the eye as he uttered in a hushed tone, "Okay, then."