Tag Archives: Independent

Johann Hari and the health of journalism

I am sure that you could argue that the world doesn’t really need another writer boring on about the downfall of Johann Hari, a tale which has largely remained unremarked upon outside of the ever-decreasing circles of those who still pay attention to print journalism and political writing.  That being the case, apologies are due to all saner heads for what follows.

The story began earlier this summer, when doubts were raised about details contained in stories written by the Independent newspaper’s star columnist, Johann Hari.  An early investigation of a Hari interview with Italian communist Toni Negri by the ultra-leftist writers at Deterritorial Support Group concluded:

It’s rather ironic that an article whose main premise is that Negri negates a ‘truthful memory’, essentially attempting to fabricate history to fit his own political agenda, seems to be based upon an encounter in the ICA which is almost entirely fabricated.

This inspired further examination of interviews conducted by Hari, uncovering other worrying deviance from usual standards, such as examples of quotes given to other journalists being presented as if they had been spoken directly to him.  Brian Whelan noted after a review of an interview with Gideon Levy:

While Hari has questions to answer over the quotes he claims were given directly to him he also seems to be freely creating mash-up quotes out of disparate statements levy has made over the years.

Then Guy Walters asked the damning question ‘does Johann Hari actually meet his interviewees?’ after finding that nearly every quote from an interview with the Afghan political activist Malalai Joya had been lifted from her book ‘Raising My Voice’:

Hari has appropriated words written by Joya… and given the entirely false impression that the words were said to him. […]

Mr Hari has severely misled his readers. He has given them the impression that he is a star interviewer who is able to obtain amazing responses from those he meets.

Seasoned watchers of journalistic misbehaviour might have felt that the matter was displaying more than a few similarities with the case of reporter Jayson Blair and the embellishments and lies contained in his stories for The New York Times.  Johann Hari and his friends and supporters did not remain silent in the face of such allegations.  In a perhaps less than wise move, Hari decided to fight his corner.  An article on his website claimed that there was nothing wrong or misleading in his attempts to ‘tidy up’ the muddled thoughts of those who were more coherent in their writing than when speaking:

So 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 went further in the Independent, offering the following justification for his actions:

Over the years I have interviewed some people who have messages we desperately need to hear – from Gideon Levy about Israel, to Malalai Joya about Afghanistan, to Gerry Adams about how to end a sectarian war. Just this week, I interviewed one of the bravest people I have ever met – Shirin Ebadi. I would hate people to not hear these vital messages because they incorrectly think the subjects have been falsely quoted. Every word I have quoted has been said by my interviewee, and accurately represents their view. I hope people continue to hear their words.

This idea of Johann Hari being on the side of all that was good and true and therefore being granted a special immunity spread very quickly.  Via Twitter, Polly Toynbee suggested that what had been uncovered was somehow less bad than other misdeeds that were emerging into daylight at the same time:

Radically different from my own view, also in 140 characters:

Defending Hari because he’s on “your side” when you would be tearing Mel Philips a new one if she’d done the same makes you look stupid

Luckily, a great deal of what I have been mulling over about the affair has been written much less argumentatively on the Splintered Sunrise website, in a post which is well-worth a read.  Its title has labelled it as ‘a bit of a rant’, but I believe it to be a clear dissection of the issues raised by these events, while remaining free of partisan mud-slinging.  A major problem is that, as Splintered Sunrise notes:

Hari himself once said that he viewed his job as being a paid advocate for the causes he believed in…

When there are ideological battles to be fought and won, and when the consequences of losing are potentially so catastrophic, any pretence to objective truth is rapidly jettisoned.  You have to make your readers care about your subjects and that, according to the conventional wisdom, cannot be done by a dispassionate reporting of facts.  Instead, as also mentioned by Splintered Sunrise, it does appear that everyone is trying to engage in gonzo journalism, by following the path of Hunter S. Thompson in putting themselves at the centre of the story.  Of course journalists are free to hold convictions and to back them up with action, but when Laurie Penny gets bashed over the head by police truncheons at the UK Uncut protests, suddenly the story becomes more about her than other ‘ordinary’ protestors, or even the cuts themselves.

This is a further, painful consequence of the decline of the British newspapers.  Cost constraints are making formal journalism training a relic of the past and star columnists who will keep the punters entertained and the web clicks coming are preferred to more experienced, perhaps more reasoned, yet lower-profile reporters.  Perhaps it has also strayed into the news sections from the features pages, where a Caitlin Moran interview with Lady Gaga or Keith Richards will feature almost as much of the writer as the star.  I love Caitlin Moran and her writing, but she’s not what I am looking to discover in a profile of these musicians.

What next for Johann Hari is certainly a difficult path, as an investigation by Andreas Whittam Smith will almost certainly have to judge him harshly or face accusations of a cover up.  Hari’s return to passionate advocacy on behalf of his preferred causes in print seems set to be a long and painful one.  What next for newspapers is even less sure.  It is, perhaps, too easy to quote George Orwell, especially in light of the likely outcome of Hari’s 2008 Orwell Prize award.  Yet if we require a reminder of the importance of reading those we agree with politically with the same skeptical eye we view those holding opposing views, here it is, as crisp and as clear as ever:

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political
parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable; and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

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A week later

An evening spent writing, with the Stones on the stereo and a glass of whisky close at hand.

That was my plan for last Friday evening, mulled over as I headed into Tokyo for a little light shopping on a beautiful spring day off work that luckily coincided with payday.  Nature had other ideas though and once they were unleashed, it would be close to 30 hours before I saw my own front door again after walking through it that morning.

Now, a week later, we sit in a basement bar with the rumble of trains above our heads, swapping tales of where we were and what we saw, things we have read and can still barely believe.  We don’t have any words to castigate those who made the alternative call, knowing that their reasons were as sound as the ones that kept us here, but knowing equally that we have made the right one for us.  We are glad we stayed.

Colleagues, compatriots and strangers, all have become friends.  We have hugged each other, soothed ragged nerves with laughter and together we have survived.  We are no longer worried or fearful for ourselves, but for those in Northern Japan who have lost everything as the snow falls, the brave-beyond-words technicians in the power plant and loved ones at home who read the papers or watch the news and believe what they show.

The picture of a terrified Japan displayed in the UK media is not one I recognise.  In the last seven days I have come to love the people of this city and country more than I believed possible.  Today we were in Ueno, where the Zoo has been anticipating the unveiling of two giant pandas. The event has been delayed by the earthquake but the station is all set for their debut, as well as being a blaze of sakura blooms for this weekend’s hanami (flower viewing) holiday:

There is a long road ahead to heal the people and places left so devastated by last Friday’s earthquake, but from what I have seen in the last seven days, I know it can be done.  Whatever my own small part in that will be, I am ready to play it.

Ganbatte Nippon!

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A free press

After writing yesterday of the Independent’s Murdoch-baiting, you could bet that I wasn’t going to be a slouch when I heard and saw the lovely lady dishing out free copies of the paper in my city centre this lunchtime. Oh no. I was over to her quicker than Tsegaye Kebede, ready to see for myself.

Today’s politician-skewering headline:

Inside, a neat editorial manifesto sets out what the Indy’s hoping to achieve with this election giveaway, which I am delighted to note is planned to continue until 6 May.  It doesn’t appear that James Murdoch’s tirades have dissuaded anyone from sticking the boot in on his Daddy in the slightest:

Rupert Murdoch’s mighty media empire has become a propaganda machine on behalf of the Conservatives

Yet the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the other smaller parties are routinely ignored by the media.  The Independent is hoping to redress this, while remaining true to the name on the masthead and not swinging behind any one political party.  How refreshing!

The paper continues, rueing the manner in which serious issues are being ‘ignored or underplayed’ by the main parties, giving the examples of Afghanistan – even as troops die there, their continued deployment goes undebated and largely unmentioned – as well as climate change, where politicians are dangerously out of step with wider opinions.

As the Liberal Democrats have noted in today’s horse trading over hung parliament outcomes, our electoral system is badly broken.  The Independent is an old hand at this game having launched, with ‘tens of thousands’ of readers backing it, a petition seeking reform after the last election.  Their archive reveals Labour wasn’t always so reluctant to talk to the Lib Dems about the subject.  The paper also extols the benefits an elected House of Lords, fixed-term parliaments, active membership of the EU, robust economic reform and a revival of liberal democracy would bring to the UK.  All the stuff that has small-l liberals swooning.  What is the Murdoch empire going to chuck back at that?  Page 3 and Dear Deirdre?

So far they’re ticking all my boxes but will there be room for insightful football coverage?  I fear that the Indy might disdain football, with its pampered millionaires, gargantuan debt and stonking carbon footprint.  So it is with some trepidation that I flip to the back pages, expecting to find coverage of Woodcraft Folk-esque non-competitive games.  But worry ye not, sports fans, the back section looks good enough to keep even the most avid of us happy.

Pick up one of these free copies and there is an offer to subscribe at a reduced rate.  I confess I have never been loyal enough to any paper to consider doing such a thing – do they guarantee to have it with you before the morning commute begins? – but once the free thing ends, I might be back to drop a few groats in the pocket of Mr Lebedev.

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Disobey on 6 May

Watching the Dailies Mail, Telegraph, Express and the Sun spew rage-fuelled invective across their own front pages this week has been wonderfully exhilarating.  That their attempts to slur Nick Clegg prior to the second leaders’ debate amounted to little more than, in Tabloid Watch’s memorable description, ‘hysterical bawlings from the sidelines’ caused the warm glow that comes from being proved right to reach blistering levels at ten minutes hate HQ.  It was delightful to look on as the rest of the population finally caught up with what Liverpool fans have known for 21 years.

Newspapers lie.

The problem with lying, as your mum probably taught you once, is that eventually it catches up with you.  You start off with the ones about fascists being good chaps, if a bit misunderstood, and eventually it leads you to a place where stories about a live TV debate that contradict the evidence of anyone who actually saw it for themselves seem normal.

The Independent tried to take advantage of the anti-Clegg furore with a cheeky advert stating that ‘Rupert Murdoch won’t decide the election.  You will’.  Apparently this breaks the cosy rule about one newspaper not going after the proprietor of another, the dishonouring of which  caused James Murdoch to pop round to the Indy’s offices to engage in the kind of toy-pram-evacuation manoeuvre which is a gift to anyone within hearing distance with a Twitter account.

As the newspapers in question take a short breather from hysterical ranting, Anton Vowl asks a pertinent question when he wonders if it is them or us who have run out of steam.  While there are promising signs that this election is not going to be the usual handing over of power between two identical political parties, following an ordination of the eventual winner by an Australian media mogul, it must be a remote possibility that they will let go of the levers so easily.

Still, this election is perhaps the best chance we have to fuck up their programme and raise merry hell before they go back to ignoring us for another five years.  So, along with the White Rabbit and Beau Bo D’Or, I urge all ‘people of goodwill’ to engage in some evidence based voting to disobey Rupert Murdoch on 6 May.  After all, he can’t send James round to yell at all of us.

Independent picture thanks to Beehive City

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