16 September 2011


The long-running saga of Johann Hari's dubious journalistic ethics seems to have come to an end of sorts with his public mea culpa in the Independent. He admits that he "improved" his interviews by presenting quotations from his interviewees' writings as words spoken to him; and he admits having used a pseudonym to post vitriolic and untrue Wikipedia entries about his critics and perceived enemies. He says that he has returned the Orwell Prize he was awarded in 2009 and that he will be taking a journalism course to learn what he hadn't previously taken in about how journalists should behave.

The Hari affair is  small potatoes by comparison with other recent scandals of journalistic ethics.

As far as we are aware, his plagiarism was not on the scale of Jayson Blair, whose ripped-off and made-up reporting so damaged the reputation of the New York Times.

Hari played faster and looser with the quotes and attributions than any journalist ever should, but every journalist knows the temptation to which he succumbed. Whether you're writing news or doing interview features, you have to clean up quotes, and every journalist knows there are times when you have to do quite a bit of interpolation to make an interviewee's spoken words coherent.

Lifting whole sentences (or more) from an interviewee's book or previous interviews and presenting them unattributed as spoken quote is wrong, of course. But no one uses unadulterated verbatim spoken quote for anything written: when did you last see an "um" or an "er" or a "sort-of" or a "like" in a news story except for effect?

Where you draw the line on modifying and improving quotes is, in short, a grey area. Hari went out of the grey and into the black in spectacular fashion, but he's not the first to do so, and he won't be the last. I don't think, one-off, that it's a sackable offence, though if you do it systematically, as Hari appears to have done, it is.

Writing pseudonymous libellous Wikipedia entries about journalistic rivals is a different matter. Anyone can do it, and a couple of morons have done it to me. And if you're found out, it should be out-the-door time, though if you're in the process of a nervous breakdown there are extenuating circumstances that demand that the ejection be humane.

All the same, it's a minor infraction by comparison with the systematic invasion of privacy engaged upon by the News of the World's phone-hackers. I know how Nick Cohen and Cristina Odone feel about Hari's attempts at character assassination, but they're big enough to fight back (as indeed they have done). Nothing Hari has done has endangered anyone's life, and he doesn't seem to have told substantial lies in the interests of governments, corporations or any of the myriad causes he supported.

Which takes us to Hari's punishment or treatment – a year off from the Indy and a course in journalism. I've been teaching journalism for 25 years now, and I think I know what journalism training can do. It can teach you how to write a news story, how to structure a feature, how to lay out a page, how to make a news programme for TV or radio, how to set up a blog, how to do an interview. What it can't do is teach you what is right. Even after the most intensive course on journalism ethics, a plagiarist remains a plagiarist, and I don't know any journalism course that addresses the habit of denigrating one's peers anonymously on Wikipedia. At best, Hari will be made aware of the shades of grey that are everywhere in the business of journalism. He might learn how he should behave, but it won't make him behave any better.

The only way that Hari's doing a journalism course fits the bill is that it's humiliating for him to go back to basics after a decade in the limelight. As rehabilitation, it's useless. As an editor, I would have fired him, end of story.

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