Johann's Journalistic Hari-Kari


Some Reason readers may recall the precocious and prolific Independent (UK) columnist Johann Hari, a kind of 21st century Junior Hitchens on the make. Hari had been under suspension for a couple of months over charges that (among other things) his work was riddled with plagiarism and made-up quotes, evidence for which was enough to get his Orwell Prize revoked. Today, in what might be read as a cautionary tale about premature success, but what should actually be understood as a confession-out-of-necessity by a venal if talented journalistic poseur, Hari has penned an apology. Excerpt:

I did two wrong and stupid things. The first concerns some people I interviewed over the years. When I recorded and typed up any conversation, I found something odd: points that sounded perfectly clear when you heard them being spoken often don't translate to the page. They can be quite confusing and unclear. When this happened, if the interviewee had made a similar point in their writing (or, much more rarely, when they were speaking to somebody else), I would use those words instead. At the time, I justified this to myself by saying I was giving the clearest possible representation of what the interviewee thought, in their most considered and clear words.

But I was wrong. An interview isn't an X-ray of a person's finest thoughts. It's a report of an encounter. If you want to add material from elsewhere, there are conventions that let you do that. You write "she has said," instead of "she says". You write "as she told the New York Times" or "as she says in her book", instead of just replacing the garbled chunk she said with the clear chunk she wrote or said elsewhere. If I had asked the many experienced colleagues I have here at The Independent – who have always been very generous with their time – they would have told me that, and they would have explained just how wrong I was. It was arrogant and stupid of me not to ask.

The other thing I did wrong was that several years ago I started to notice some things I didn't like in the Wikipedia entry about me, so I took them out. To do that, I created a user-name that wasn't my own. Using that user-name, I continued to edit my own Wikipedia entry and some other people's too. I took out nasty passages about people I admire – like Polly Toynbee, George Monbiot, Deborah Orr and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I factually corrected some other entries about other people. But in a few instances, I edited the entries of people I had clashed with in ways that were juvenile or malicious: I called one of them anti-Semitic and homophobic, and the other a drunk. […]

I am going to take an unpaid leave of absence from The Independent until 2012, and at my own expense I will be undertaking a programme of journalism training. (I rose very fast in journalism straight from university.) And […] when I return, I will footnote all my articles online and post the audio online of any on-the-record conversations so that everyone can hear them and verify they were said directly to me.

I know and have been friendly with Johann over the years; I recall having a pint with him in London in the first half of the '00s and declining his invitation to go bait some anti-war protesters across the street from Parliament (he was still a liberal hawk back then). I now consider it a blot on my career to have edited and placed into the L.A. Times an op-ed of his, which I presume (and should have better suspected then) is filled with falsehoods. One of the first rules of editing is that when a quote or anecdote reads too perfect, it probably is.

I'm sure there will be some temptations during this flap to draw broader lessons about modern-day journalistic mores or whatnot, but the bottom line really is the same as it has been since at least the 19th century: Don't make shit up, don't misrepresent yourself to readers, and don't lie about it or anything else involving your work. No amount of journalistic training can overcome a basic human deficit of honesty.

Reason's database on Hari here, including Michael C. Moynihan's July 2008 piece, "The Useful Idiocy of Johann Hari."