What Woodward and Bernstein told me about Johann Hari


12:19 pm - June 29th 2011

by Dave Osler    


      Share on Tumblr

I had a front page splash in Metro, the nationally distributed freesheet, last year. Not that I got a byline for it, or still less a cheque. They simply nicked my work – including the money shot quotes – and passed it off as their own, without attribution of the source.

Congratulations, guys. Only five days late, as well. While I was vaguely pissed off at the time, in the end I let it ride. It wasn’t a particularly great story, anyway. But the point is, if they have done that to me, they have presumably stiffed many other working journos too.

When I was an impecunious young reporter on weekly papers, this kind of thing happened on a semi-organised basis. News editors turned a blind eye to trainees who sold on stories to higher circulation outlets in exchange for a so-called ‘tip fee’ of fifty smackers and upwards. If nothing else, the practise was seen as a handy way of topping up low wages.

These days, publications like Metro go in for straightforward theft. Not that I blame the hack who rehashed my copy, of course. The fault lies with a prevailing media culture that makes what he did seem unexceptionable.

But for big name columnists on a tidy wedge, the rules are surely different. So from a professional point of view, yesterday’s revelations about Johann Hari’s use of borrowed material do not do him any credit.

We all tidy up what interviewees say to us, at least to some extent. Most obviously this occurs in cases of clear grammatical solecism or where English is a second language for the speaker. Nobody appreciates being made to look foolish in print, so that’s only fair.

Initially, at least, Hari sought to argue that this was in effect what he was doing. If somebody had earlier made a point more eloquently elsewhere, why not use the more elegant form of words?

That doesn’t really stand up, either. While I don’t do that many set piece interviews these days, I am aware that a key skill of the genre is to tickle out attention-grabbing quotes from your subject. That’s what separates star interviewers from us humble penny-a-liners who dabble in the form from time to time.

I usually enjoy Hari’s writing, and I am not going to join those calling for his head to roll. But he deserves to be made to eat a huge slice of humble pie, and to cease and desist from being a low-grade rip-off merchant.

Because as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein told me as I put back a couple of cold ones with them in a scuzzy jazz bar in Washington last night: ‘We really respect Johann as a journalist, and it is hard to believe he would sink as low as that.’

    Share on Tumblr   submit to reddit  


About the author
Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
· Other posts by


Story Filed Under: Blog ,Media

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.


Reader comments


I have heard complaints that one rising star invents quotes and puts them into activists’ mouths, arguing that that is what they would have said anyway.

Heh. I wonder who. Is anyone actually particularly surprised at this revelation by the way? It’s not as if Hari doesn’t have form.

2. Flowerpower

@ 1

What form? I have a vague recollection of their being something fishy about a JH story many years ago – just when he was starting out – but I cannot for the life of me remember the details.

3. Maltese Cross

[deleted]

4. Alisdair Cameron

@ Flowerpower (2). There are now umpteen instances of the Hari “technique” now on the net. A quick search will show a consistent record of him using this,er,idiosyncratic approach.
@ Tim J (1). A “rising star”, “activists”,”young woman” “invents quotes”. Nope, can’t think who….
Looks like the truthiness epidemic has spread leftwards.Very dangerous It’s the sort of thing they’d say” means in practice, It’s the sort of thing I think, being omnipotent,that they’d say,even though they didn’t

5. Alisdair Cameron

n.b. for clarity, I don’t think Hari’s made up quotes, unless whoever it may be that Dave Osler refers to. He’s simply shoehorned them in from other sources, unattributed, some of those sources being other journalists work, and (most controversially to my eyes) consciously inserted phrases to give the erroneous impression that such quotes were divulged personally to him.

2 – Private Eye ran an expose, years ago, on his slightly unreliable attitude to first person narration.

http://student.cs.ucc.ie/cs1064/jabowen/IPSC/articles/article0003736.html

His unreliable attitude to basic facts and reality is rather more widely documented.

4 – fake, but accurate.

“Judge not,” JC mused to me, over an espresso, as we reflected on Hari’s downfall, “Lest ye too be judged.”

I think that part of Johann’s problem over the last day or so is that he didn’t plagiarism Toby Young’s excuse from when he was accused of nicking material from John Tierney…

When confronted with these similarities, Young forthrightly admitted that Tierney’s article was the source for the passages, but he denied that this was “a breach of the code.” “I don’t think you can call that plagiarism,” he said. “I’m not claiming to have coined those phrases myself.” (It’s worth noting what Young said in 2006 about the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism scandal: “The thing that amazes me about cases like hers is why the authors don’t bother to put what they’ve lifted from other sources in their own words. I mean, even when I copied out large chunks from text books in my school essays I knew enough to do that.”)

In his defense, Young emphasized that in a footnote on a nearby page he had quoted and cited Tierney’s article by name. “I don’t think it’s a sort of mealy-mouthed or weasely defense to say that the standard that British journalists are expected to hold themselves to are not as high as the standards that some American journalists hold,” he explained. “We’re a little less precious about this kind of thing.” Asked if that double standard also applied to book publishing, he said it did, “absolutely.”

http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2008/10/did_toby_young_plagiarize_pass.html

10. Mr S. Pill

Aside from the unfounded* smear against a young female rising star, good article.

*Unless there is evidence, but then you’d’ve named her, eh Dave?

Dave – you should have invoiced them. A friend of mine, whether a newspaper does that he sends them an invoice – they always pay.

12. Torquil Macneil

Leave Penny Laurie alone. How could anyone think this sort of thing is made up?

“Glass is being thrown; I fling myself behind a barrier and scramble on to a ledge for safety. A nonplussed school pupil from south London has had the same idea. He grins, gives me a hand up and offers me a cigarette of which he is at least two years too young to be in possession. I find that my teeth are chattering and not just from cold. “It’s scary, isn’t it?” I ask. The boy shrugs. “Yeah,” he says, “I suppose it is scary. But frankly…” He lights up, cradling the contraband fag, “frankly, it’s not half as scary as what’s happening to our future.””

It just sounds so authentic!

12 – “They want to marketise our education,” says Ben, 21, his breath clouding in the bitter air. “So we’re going to educate their market.”

@Dave

Oh jeebus – I hate to admit it but as I soon as I saw ‘quote’ that I got a mental picture of Rik Mayall in The Young Ones.

To be fair, Laurie points out that the comment was subbed.

16. Torquil Macneil

So unfair on Laurie. Yes some activist denies saying this:

“People have to stop talking about us like we’re just idealistic kids,” says a girl in a grey hoodie, jabbing her roll-up in my direction. “We’re on the front line of a class war. We have a better understanding of this government’s economic shock doctrine than most adults.”

But I think that is just the sort of thing a 24 year old woman would say. How many 24-year-olds think of themselves as ‘adults’ for heavens sake!

17. Torquil Macneil

” I hate to admit it but as I soon as I saw that ‘quote’ I got a mental picture of Rik Mayall in The Young Ones.”

It’s true that whatever her other virtues, La Penny does seem to be a bit tone deaf.

I like Laurie Penny, and think she writes really rather well. But she’d do well to get over her idea that she’s a cross between George Orwell and La Pasionaria.

19. Torquil Macneil

I’ve nothing against her either, but she does get a bit novelettish when she gets worked up and it IS a bit funny.

Poor Johann is getting totally creamed. It’s a pity as I’d always liked his stuff.
But on closer inspection, perhaps he did have it coming.

The key problem with Hari’s approach to interviews, and with his justification of it in this morning’s Independent, is that he has deployed the Noble Truth defence – the idea that it is okay to play fast and loose with the facts, and with reality itself, just so long as you end up telling a “greater truth”.

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/author/brendanoneill2/

“Hari sub-optimal, but a Daily Mail columnist is now on Newsnight to castigate someone over misleading journalism,” Ben Goldacre wryly told me.

Excellent post Dave.

the idea that it is okay to play fast and loose with the facts, and with reality itself, just so long as you end up telling a “greater truth

I’m starting to feel a bit sorry for Johann.

Whatever he’s done hs surely doesn’t deserve to be lectured by a sanctimonious arsehole like O’Neill whose own relationship with facts can be more than a little casual when it suits him.

Apropos of that last comment, Chris Dillow has it nailed on as usual…

In this context, I fear Johann was misled by a common cultural meme – the idea that “truth” can be captured by fine writing and by art. This is not wrong in all contexts. Great novels and films – works of fiction – can tell important truths.

This meme, though, runs into a problem. Very often, “truth” is messy. People don’t just umm and ahh but say things that are ambiguous, or that don’t truly capture what they really think. And even “hard facts” are subject to multiple interpretations or are only suggestive of some conculsion or other.

What do we do in such cases? Johann’s solution was to try to polish the turds of reality to create an elegant “intellectual accuracy“. The alternative was to acknowledge that people are often inarticulate and that their thoughts are scattered. This would have been inelegant, at best and useless at worst: what if he had written up his interview with Toni Negri along the lines: “I didn’t understand a word the guy said”?

http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2011/06/johann-hari-art-vs-reality.html

People don’t just umm and ahh but say things that are ambiguous, or that don’t truly capture what they really think. And even “hard facts” are subject to multiple interpretations or are only suggestive of some conculsion or other.

Yes, but it’s the job of a good interviewer (and I’ve carried out quite a lot of interviews both as a pretendy journalist and as a research academic) to ask the sort of questions that draw out articulate and interesting answers. What Hari did was google the interviews that these good interviewers had done, steal the best answers and pretend that they’d been in response to his questions. It wasn’t the subject of the interviews that he was trying to make look better, it was the interviewer.

26. Mr S. Pill

What Hari did was hardly a hangable offence but it’s f-cking embarrassing: we (on the left) constantly berate the tabloid tactic of bullshit &c and when one of our gang doos the same it takes the piss – dress it up in fancy language about the relativisticness of truth or whatever academic crap you want, it boils down to the simple fact that Johann Hari was bullshitting when writing up his interviews. And my estimation of Laurie Penny has also declined since reading the above link about her making up quotes or being subbed – not good enough, I’m afraid. I cannot trust journalists who willingly cut and paste and are so free and easy with what people are saying, and I will not trust either of aforementioned journalists until they issue a full apology and never use such tactics. As I say – it’s embarrassing and we can hardly expect to be taken seriously with people like Hari and Penny not even recognising that they’ve done anything wrong.

Greater truth my arse.

27. Torquil Macneil

When I did journalism, we were expected to be able to back up any quotation in writing. Oddly recordings weren’t allowed, it had to be shorthand. Going back a bit mind.

“Greater truth my arse.”

Well, yeah. How can it be a greater truth if the interviewee was, in fact, ambiguous and inarticulate?

29. Mr S. Pill

The best bit about Hari’s “defence” was he said no interviewee has complained of his journalistic technique. Well no, Johann, that’s because you make them look/sound better or more articulate than they actually are, you plank.

At least Hari didn’t distort what his interviewees said, unlike one case we may mention in the Guardian; see here and here.

Brendan O Neill and Toby Young are lecturing others on good journalism and ethics!

Right-wingers do really inhabit their own irony-free universe

32. Mr S. Pill

@31

Yes agreed, the irony levels are defeaning (or some other non-mixed metaphor), but that’s kinda my point – leftie journos shouldn’t be giving ammunition like this to the enemy, it shows us up as fools.

Sunny @31 – if I were them I’d keep quiet, now journo-bashing season has been declared open…

Johann Hari’s not very good and what all this fuss shows us is that he fundamentally doesn’t understand how to do journalism.

But then he went to Oxbridge, so he doesn’t have to be any good. He’s just another second rate member of our self-selecting establishment.

Is it fair to call Brendan O’Neil a right winger? I thought he made some fair comment on that Telegraph blog. Brian Haw – Glastonbury protests – ”How Palestinians became the baby seals of the Western human rights lobby”.
He does play a bit fast and loose though I admit.

As for Johann, it will be difficult to read of some of his exploits again without wondering how much of it is padded out. Having sex with Nazis and jihadis?
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/dec/13/gayrights.thefarright

The excessive discription of someone who has lived in the UK since they were five, making them sound all very exotic and clandestine.

Usama is a big, broad bear of a man in a black blazer and wire-rimmed glasses. He greets me with a hefty handshake; he has a rolled-up newspaper under his arm. He takes me upstairs to a pale-green prayer room. This building was once a factory, then a cinema; now, with Saudi money, it is a Wahabi mosque. Men are kneeling silently towards Mecca, rising and bending in reverential waves.

http://johannhari.com/2009/11/16/meet-the-ex-jihadis

@Tim J, No13

“They want to marketise our education,” says Ben, 21, his breath clouding in the bitter air. “So we’re going to educate their market.”

I think I know who that quote came from, and its quite possible he said it. It was written on a banner at UCL occupation so theres a good chance that it was shouted out at some point. And it was probably cold at the time. It all sounds very romanticised with the pause in the middle, breath clouding in the bitter air, but I don’t think anything is incorrect in that sentence.

37. Torquil Macneil

“Is it fair to call Brendan O’Neil a right winger?”

I suppose it depends on yoor point of view, but I think he considers himself a communist.

Idly settling on Johann Hari’s claim that Che Guevara had said that there was “not a single discrepancy” between his views and those of Mao[though not actually in an interview with Hari himself], I found that all the sources of the quotation on the web in English without his name attached all lead back to his piece. I wonder.

Even when I have sympathised with him, I have been no great fan of Hari as I felt he was fashioning a literary persona for himself -that of the the earnest, high-minded Orwellian intellectual-in articles which were often not that profound: the obituaries to Jacques Derrida and Harold Pinter were just poor hatchet jobs.This style has been mistaken for principle by both the ‘Eustonite’ and ‘real’ left whenever it suited them. What rankles is not just that he plagiarised quotes, but that he has been creating the illusion of a profound personal dialogue with an interviewee that he didn’t actually earn. The point now is not that he should be silenced (as I think he still has something to offer) but how he should atone; perhaps go to the news desk for a while?

40. manoamano

@31 Hey, look over there! Some right wing guys are idiots so Hari’s off the hook!

Didn’t you used to complain about whataboutery on issues like the Middle East conflict, Sunny?

It’s really embarrassing that people like Ben Goldacre and Charlie Brooker have run to Hari’s defence, esp now that the New Statesman has posted more plagiarism over an interview with Chavez. You kind of expect it from Laurie Penny and Polly Toynbee.

Why is he being accused of plagiarism? I always thought that was passing off somesone elses work as your own. All Hari has done is to include things his interviewees said to someone else (or in their own work). Which isnt plagiarism, if rather stupid.

And yes, of course his interviewees havnt complained – its made them look and sound better than they aer.

All Hari has done is to include things his interviewees said to someone else (or in their own work). Which isnt plagiarism, if rather stupid.

That’s totally plagiarism. Think about what the job of an interviewer actually is: talk to someone and find ways of making them say interesting things. By inference, Hari is not a terribly good interviewer (if he were, he wouldn’t need to make up what people said to him), so he’s looked at the work of good interviewers, and stolen it, pretending it was his. That’s plagiarism, virtually by definition.

One editor I write for has made the follwing distinction to me.

Lifting quotes from written works by the interviewee, fine, just mention where they come from.

Lifting quotes from other people’s interviews: plagiarism. Unless you point to the source that is, when it comes under fair use of copyright.

Note that this was said to me yesterday, in reaction to the Hari thing. Thus by this editor’s reasoning, Hari is in fact a plagiarist. He has lifted quotes from other peoples’ interviews with the same interviewees and not acknowledged the source.

Plagiarism.

44. manoamano

Sunny, have you rescinded your defense of Johann Hari yet?

Richard Littlejohn does far worse with every single coloumn he writes. Where’s his fucking twitter storm?
Ironic that this storm is being fueled more by expectations that Johann would behave better than the average journo, but no, turns out he actually is a journalist.

Cylux – to be fair, Littlejohn twitter storms come around roughly as regularly as the new moon. Funny thing is, though, nothing ever happens as a result.

Tim J – re the ‘they want to marketise our education, so we’re going to educate their market’ quote, erm, I was there. Ben did say that.

47 – Blimey. So it was the source material that was cliched drivel rather than the journalism. Who’d have thought it?

But then he went to Oxbridge, so he doesn’t have to be any good. He’s just another second rate member of our self-selecting establishment.

Utter bollocks. I know plenty of Oxford and Cambridge grads with journalistic aspirations who haven’t achieved anything even vaguely resembling Hari’s levels of success, years or even decades further through their careers than Hari. Whether his success is down to his writing ability, his talent for self-publicity, his ruthless ambition, or some combination of the three is up for debate – but suggesting it’s the Cambridge graduation certificate is moronic.

Think about what the job of an interviewer actually is: talk to someone and find ways of making them say interesting things.

That’s a ludicrously self-aggrandising view of how journalism works. For a news story, it’s to talk to someone and find out whatever the facts may be. For a profile piece like Hari’s pieces, it’s to write down what someone who’s famous for having a lot of opinions thinks. Beyond a basic level of competency (“can write things down; doesn’t piss off the interviewee so much that they leave”), interviewers are totally substitutable.

A hatchet piece is the only example where things work as you suggest: it does require genuine skill with leading questions and knowing when to shut up to help someone dig their own grave. Hari’s contested pieces aren’t examples of this.

50. Charlieman

@49. The Original john b: “…doesn’t piss off the interviewee so much that they leave…”

Which reminds me of the John Wilson interview with Chris Martin. See http://fastfude.org/topic.php?id=27209. I assume that interviewing some subjects requires more than short hand ability.

On plagiarism: A couple of years ago I complained to the Guardian that the obituary for racing driver and engineer Tony Rolt contained sentences lifted from the obit published a couple of days earlier in the Telegraph. The Guardian’s response was that the two writers worked closely together…

Say what you like, but AFAIK only Johann’s managed to make the Dalai Lama get a bit snappy in an interview :

“We take some quick photographs, and, as he poses, I try to ask him to elaborate on his comments criticising the massive inequalities of wealth in the West. “Yes, it is wrong,” he says as he smiles. “Why do the rich need so much? We each only have one stomach. Well, not you,” he says, looking at my belly. “You appear to have two.””

He’s a tough interviewee…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlIrI80og8c


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    What Woodward and Bernstein told me about Johann Hari http://bit.ly/lTRcOf

  2. John H

    "I have heard one rising star invents quotes and puts them into activists’ mouths". Gosh, who could @davidosler mean…? http://t.co/WzfAhAl

  3. John H

    "Young woman", "rising star", "lack of professional technique", writes about "activists". I'm mystified, @davidosler. 😉 http://t.co/WzfAhAl

  4. John West

    What Woodward and Bernstein told me about Johann Hari http://bit.ly/lTRcOf

  5. Ed Gerstner

    What Woodward and Bernstein told me about Johann Hari http://bit.ly/lTRcOf

  6. Tony Young

    What Woodward and Bernstein told me about Johann Hari http://bit.ly/lTRcOf

  7. Mike Shallcross

    What Woodward and Bernstein told me about Johann Hari | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/a21xwyy via @libcon

  8. Rosamund Urwin

    Interesting Liberal Conspiracy blog from Dave Osler: http://tinyurl.com/5s3yox4. I wonder who the "rising star" he is referring could be…

  9. Bella

    Must read RT @RosamundUrwin Interesting Liberal Conspiracy blog from Dave Osler: http://t.co/tH8cNQZ.

  10. ganglesprocket

    @LudditeWebDev Remember the left leaning rising journo I refferred to in the wake of Hari? I think this person does to http://bit.ly/jD8eiO

  11. Ian Adamson

    @fluxusevent re:our convo y'day, here's a left-wing critique of Hari http://t.co/C9FltYz & here's a less vitriolic one http://t.co/7eTgsL8





Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.