– Ralph Waldo Emerson
You may have noticed that, predominantly thanks to the digging efforts of DSG and Brian Whelan, the Independent’s Orwell Prize-winning journalist Johann Hari has come under a smidgen of flak for failing to correctly attribute quotes in various interviews. This public criticism was exemplified by the hashtag #interviewswithHari, briefly the top trending topic on Twitter earlier today – the tweets generally involving some play on the theme of Hari accrediting a quote to a private interview with a famous person, only with the quote being blatantly from a totally different date or source. Just a few (correctly attributed) examples;
“Know what I mean, Hari?” Frank Bruno asked me after his victory over Oliver McCall for the WBC title. I did. I knew. – @BobbyLooga
I asked Julius of when he met Cleopatra. “I came, I saw, I conquered” he replied, grinning. We fistbumped emphatically. – @Leggytalkscrap
DeNiro seemed genuinely taken aback by my question. “You talkin’ to me?”, he replied. – @woodo79
You get the gist of what Johann Hari has done wrong merely by sampling such satirical swipes at his technique, but in case you require further research to properly establish exactly where he has gone wrong and what is so shoddy about his style, do follow the aforementioned links to Brian Whelan and DSG to see for yourself. Now, the practice he uses, of taking quotes from a subject’s previous writings and/or interviews and placing them in the body of text where they purport to be from HIS interview with the subject, is one I am well familiar with from reading football stories. Tabloids utilise it all the time when stirring the pot of transfer rumours or adding spice to an upcoming game, amongst other things e.g. ‘Wenger opens up in heartfelt letter to fan‘ – a letter which, Arseblog drily noted, was made up almost entirely of selected quoted from Arséne’s press conferences.
However, as a well-respected and prize-winning journalist, writing for one of the most highly-regarded newspapers in the UK if not the world, Hari undoubtedly has higher standards to uphold and adhere to. There’s also the disquieting reaction of various left-of-centre individuals who seem to think that this is purely a liberal-vs-reactionary contest again – activist and writer Laurie Penny, who I regard extremely highly, claimed that the #interviewswithHari feed was ‘getting homophobic‘. I searched but could not find a single homophobic tweet, and I wasn’t the only one, judging by the responses to this, dare-I-say hysterical claim. Polly Toynbee, another individual I have huge admiration for generally, exhorted the critics to “Save your wrath for the abominations and harassments of the Murdoch/Mail press.” That is absolutely no defence at all – we know about the lies of such right-wing media and we attack them for it, being hypocritical is no way to win the fight. (I couldn’t find a way to link those quotes directly to the twitter comments, but if you scroll through the feeds of Penny and Toynbee or use the search feature you will find them.) Such reactions totally miss the point; this isn’t a character assassination – I for one enjoy reading Hari all the time, and still will, although obviously not his interviews – but an argument about journalistic ethics.
The Media Standards Trust, who fund and support the Orwell Prize, put out this release in response to the furore, announcing that they had communicated with the Council of the Orwell Prize expressing their reaction. Effectively, the MST indicated that they had requested an immediate examination by the Council of the allegations in question, and as a result of such an investigation expected the Council to recommend some form of action. This is only speculation, but the question “Should Johann Hari continue to be allowed to be known as a winner of the Prize?” does imply that they are well aware that stripping the journalist of his award is one possible consequence. The MST, at the very least, seem to understand the gravity of the situation.
When I was conducting interviews for my college paper, it simply never occurred to me to insert quotations that did not come from the interview in question. Certainly not without accrediting the original source of the quote, and absolutely definitely totally not by presenting the old quotes as if they were something the interviewee had said to me there and then. Johann Hari’s 2004 interview with Antonio Negri, in particular, is shamefully misleading and misrepresentative of the subject for that very reason, copying quotes from a 2003 book and interviews conducted by a different journalist and inserting them into the mouth of his interviewee as if they were answers to Hari’s questions at the time. Incidentally, this piece was so poor that Dr Matteo Mandarini and Dr Alberto Toscano co-wrote a letter of complaint to the Independent, which the paper did not publish. Taking quotes and repeating them out of context, in a wilfully mendacious manner, is not just bad practice but shoddy journalism of the worst kind.
In fact, there is a more apt description for it. It is called plagiarism.
Solidarity brothers & sisters…