All entries for Friday 16 September 2011

September 16, 2011

On Johann Hari

If you haven’t been following it, Independent columnist Johann Hari has apologised for being a Wikipedia vandal, and for using quotes from books or other journalists in his ‘interviews’.

Let’s set aside the Wikipedia thing for a moment. It’s silly and unprofessional but also sort of funny. It kind of makes me like him a bit more as a human-being to be honest. Your mileage may vary on that one.

But the plagiarism thing is another issue entirely. If you’re one of the journalists he nicked stuff from, then you should be very pissed-off. If you’re a journalist, you should be pissed-off on behalf of your fellows that had their stuff stolen. If you’re an editor that employed Hari you should be pissed-off that he misrepresented his work to you. If you were on a panel that gave him an award you should be pissed-off that he basically cheated his way to the prize.

But if you’re a newspaper reader, should you be pissed-off? No. He didn’t cheat you. And what he did was ethically bad and unprofessional, but it wasn’t bad journalism. In fact, it was far better journalism than what many of those throwing stones at him cultivate in their glass houses for a living.

I had a chat with Johann before writing this blog and he told me “An interview isn’t an X-ray of a person’s finest thoughts. It’s a report of an encounter,” before adding of some of his interviewees “I was attempting to represent them more accurately than the limited context of an interview offered. I felt getting across the point they wanted to make was more important than being 100% accurate in the words.”

If you Google that first quote, you’ll see I nicked it from the Independent article I linked earlier. I’m such a bad blogger! But luckily if you Google the second quote you’ll see it doesn’t appear anywhere else on the web at all, and hence it must be legit. Phew!

Except of course, I made the second one up. But if I hadn’t told you, you’d never know. The only person that would know is Johann Hari, as he’d be aware he’d never given me an interview. He’s the only person that can refute my claim that that is an accurate quote. And even if he did, it’s still my word against his. Maybe he said something he regretted and wanted to distance himself from it.

That’s the thing, if you want to cheat in journalism, if you want to make stuff up, then it’s easy. Rather than do that, Hari actually went off and did research to find something his interviewees had actually said and used that instead. That’s plagiarism, which is not okay by a long shot, but as journalism goes it’s actually a pretty good example of accurately representing the subject. It just also makes it a lot easier to get caught.

Two final thoughts: none of Hari’s interviewees complained about being misrepresented in the articles where he ‘cheated’. He did right by them, and so frankly he did right by us, the reader. He didn’t do right by his colleagues from whom he nicked stuff off.

Lastly if you’re reading this thinking “Yes, but it’s not like journalists routinely just make up quotes is it?” the I refer you to this fairly harrowing account of a woman interviewed by the Daily Mail. My favourite bit was her being quote as saying: “But most importantly, I’ve been asked out on more dates in the past three years than in the 20 years I spent in Manchester.”

Her response in the linked article:

“Leaving aside the assertion that had I spent 20 years in Manchester which meant that, using the ages in the article, I would have been 11 when I left my family and moved there (and she’s already stated I grew up in Derbyshire), this was simply not true. It was made up.”

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