Johann Hari: not angry, just disappointed

I know lots of people have already written about Johann Hari’s confession that often when he writes up his interviews he includes quotes that were not actually said by the person he interviewed. For example:

After saying this, he falls silent, and we stare at each other for a while. Then he says, in a quieter voice: “The facts are clear. Israel has no real intention of quitting the territories or allowing the Palestinian people to exercise their rights. No change will come to pass in the complacent, belligerent, and condescending Israel of today. This is the time to come up with a rehabilitation programme for Israel.”

The text in bold is Hari’s dramatic fictionalisation of a conversation that didn’t really go like this because the following quotation is lifted from another interview conducted a while ago by somebody else. Essentially, it is as if I claimed I had interviewed David Cameron by merely lifting stuff he has said in the past that has been covered and pretended that he was talking to me in a nice quiet room. All I’d have to do is make up some cliched descriptions of how he looks and sounds when he talks and bingo, a wonderful interview by me has been conducted without me having to leave my cosy little study. As @ropestoinfinity puts it: ‘I’d like to see Hari do a TV chatshow where he asks questions and then it crudely cuts to archive footage of interviews from other shows.’

Amazingly Johann has defended this blatant act of deception, arguing that:

When I’ve interviewed a writer, it’s quite common that they will express an idea or sentiment to me that they have expressed before in their writing – and, almost always, they’ve said it more clearly in writing than in speech. (I know I write much more clearly than I speak – whenever I read a transcript of what I’ve said, or it always seems less clear and more clotted. I think we’ve all had that sensation in one form or another).

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.

And that’s fine, as long as he make it clear to the reader that this is what he was doing. But he didn’t. He purposefully dressed it up as being spoken directly to him.

Now, a few people on Twitter are making the argument that there are far worse crimes than this in journalism (true) or that Johann is kind of a good guy (also true – in my opinion) as if this somehow excuses him. I know that in terms of bad journalism this is pretty tame, but we expect bad journalism from tabloids who employ people precisely because they have absolutely no interest in the truth and are happy to push any agenda that sells (Littlejohn’s column today for example is another crime against good journalism). However, can we not expect something a little better from someone who has regularly written against dishonesty, propaganda and tabloid fictions? It is one of those occasions where you are not angry, more disappointed to discover that someone like Johann could think such dishonesty not important or worthy of any criticism.

The sad fact that far worse journalism exists does not defend Johann’s dishonesty. It’s a silly argument that sadly even Charlie Brooker is wheeling out, which seems odd because this is really the sort of thing you would expect him to criticise.

I respect Johann as a writer and I do think that he has written an lot of powerful and important pieces in the past (heck, he’s even linked to this blog in the past when I wrote a few pieces about Richard Littlejohn). This makes me understand why such sympathy exists for him, and why so many people want to look past this deception and instead focus on how other writers are much worse. However, we shouldn’t forgive him quite so easily, nor dismiss the way in which he nonchalantly bats away any suggestion that he was being dishonest. In many ways we should be extra critical because Johann set himself up as a champion of truth in an inherently dishonest industry, only to be less than honest in some of his own articles.

You cannot demand honesty and accuracy from others if you cannot apply it to your own writing.

16 thoughts on “Johann Hari: not angry, just disappointed”

  1. Johann has become a “cause journalist” who now thinks he is the cause. His articles are needed and I welcome most but when he wrote about Ed Miliband’s speech patterns he used a description of isiXhosa to make a poor joke. I objected, with reasons. His response was to block me on Twitter.

    He loves to be adored but hates any criticism or correction. I blogged on this back in April.

  2. I’ve been trying to work out my own feelings on this. I can kind of see both sides to it.

    On one level, I’m uncomfortable with it, since it makes the interviewer look like he’s obtained better quotes than he actually has. I’m also uncomfortable, perhaps oddly, with the idea that the interviewee is being represented as being more eloquent than they actually are.

    However, at the same time, if Johann Hari is being truthful in the manner in which he uses quotes like that, I can see the argument of replacing that kind of wording with the same person’s words from elsewhere. After all, that kind of non-eloquence can be awkward, and can be misleading.

    When I’ve interviewed people in the past (not for anything mainstream), I have cleaned up their language a little bit, in the sense that they magically end up speaking in complete sentences. For space reasons, I would also cut the irrelevant stuff that was said.

    However, personally, I’d be uncomfortable writing up an interview of someone where I put words into their mouth – even if it were their own words. I can see the reasons behind the practice, but I’m not massively comfortable with it either.

    That said, if it’s as prevalent as Hari has said (and I can entirely believe that it is), then it’s possibly unfair to round in on the person who has been caught out.

    Logically, I think I’m on his side. Emotionally, it makes me uncomfortable.

  3. “The sad fact that far worse journalism exists does not defend Johann’s dishonesty. It’s a silly argument that sadly even Charlie Brooker is wheeling out, which seems odd because this is really the sort of thing you would expect him to criticise.”

    Especially true given that Hari has devoted an entire article to criticsing this type of “but what about the Daily Star” argument:

    I personally think he should be kept off interviews permanently after this. He’s given the false impression that he was a good enough interviewer to elicit the quotes he lifted himself; that he was slick enough to get Giddeon Levy (presumably a stranger to him before the interview) to share a quiet moment with him and confide in a quieter voice in the short time they had together.

    This is why he is paid to go and meet these people and why he was previously respected. If he did attribute the quotes in the proper way he’d be no more worthy of note than anyone else.

    His “defence” is essentially an admission he was too crap at his job to get his subjects to say anything of note, so he had to steal it from elsewhere. And if that’s true then why pay him to go and meet these people in the first place?

  4. For me, this rests entirely on how similar what he was told was to the quote he picked.

    Most interviews are re-written to some extent, if only to tidy up bad grammar. Very few are published ad verbatim.

    If he chose quotes that did match exactly the meaning of what his interview subject said, I personally think it is fair enough.

    I’d certainly rather a journalist report the meaning of what was said accurately than use a word-for-word quote out of context to twist its meaning.

  5. The ‘other people do it too’ defence (which he gave on his own website) doesn’t really hold much water.

    Still it’d be interesting to hear if anyone else admits to doing the same thing. He claims they exist. Will they stick their head above the parapet in his defence?

  6. I can understand using old quotes that effectively say exactly the same thing as the interviewee actually said during the course of the interview, but it’s still not something I’d like to see happening in all honesty. The potential for either accidental distortion of meaning or outright abuse is just too great. Sure, clean up a quote by taking out ums, ers and stutters or whatever, but I’d rather not have someone’s earlier quotes re-used. People can change their opinions, and even if it’s a subtle shift using an older quote could end up misrepresenting someone’s views.

    I like Johann, and I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt when he says that he only does this when the old quote and the new quote express the same sentiments, but it’s something I’d rather he didn’t do, even if it is common practice.

    Still, it is odd that people are kicking up a fuss over this when the tabloid press and our politicians are guilty of far worse distortions on a regular if not daily basis.

    Overall I agree with this post though. The fact that the other side is doing worse doesn’t really excuse less bad practices from your own side.

  7. “You cannot demand honesty and accuracy from others if you cannot apply it to your own writing.”

    Rearrange these words to form a well known phrase: nail, head, hit, on

    When annoys me the most (and has always slightly annoyed me with Johann) is the pompous arrogance of the man. His reaction shows what an arrogant ass he is “Who me, the mighty defender of the downtrodden Johann Hari, did something wrong? Whatever do you mean?” If anyone’s ego needs deflating a bit it’s Johann’s

  8. I’m dissapointed in Johann.
    We have entered a world where a reporter can write, without, shame, what he believes a person is thinking and not what they said.

    This attitude is similar to Piers Morgan’s when the he printed fake photographs of Iraqi soldiers being abused.
    He basically said even though the photos where fake they showed what was really happening in Iraq! WTF?

  9. A good test case for me is Hari’s interview with Gerry Adams in September 2009:

    In the article, he uses several quotes which actually came from a blog post on the Sinn Fein website:

    He quotes accurately, is 100% faithful to Adams. But the way his article frames the interview, Hari describes himself walking into a community centre in Belfast, meeting Adams flanked by burly ‘security guards’, and interviewing him ‘determined to dig out his true story’. He does no such thing. He quotes a Sinn Fein blog. He has a dishonest relationship with the reader

  10. Tricky. Personally, I’m mainly on Hari’s side with this, not because I’m a fan, (he’s written some good stuff), but in terms of practicality. I interviewed a couple of people for a student paper, and one of the chats was three hours long. To be fair, I was not a good interviewer. When I wrote it up, I changed the order, shifted things around, made sentences full, edited etc. In an interview, it’s usually obvious what someone means to say, and if it isn’t clear, that’s something to report in itself.

    If someone asks you what you think of something, and you talk about that for five minutes, you can’t simply re-write what that person said. It’d be extremely difficult to read. And I’d rather someone meandered and explored a topic naturally than came to an interview with pre-planned soundbite responses.

    What should be made clearer is sources of quotes though. There’s no reason why Hari couldn’t have said, on the day he told me this, which matches up with what he wrote here and here.

    The Guardian recently got screwed because the interviewed the so-called Dascus blogger, and didn’t make it clear they hadn’t met the person face to face. The interview was conducted by email. As the blogger was a man and not a woman, meant the Guardian misled by omitting the style of interview. This has to be stamped out.

  11. Not angry, just disappointed, because he’s one of your own. If it was Melanie Philips or anyone on the right, they would not be receiving all this pitiful defence and excuse making from the Left. “Oh but tabloids have done far worse!” What a fucking pathetic excuse. That’s like saying I can stab someone as long as they don’t die.

    Hari is a hack who deserves to have his career decimated and his awards stripped from him. The Left’s defence of him tells me that they think lies and deceit are alright as long as it’s against the big bad capitalism monster.

    1. @ Bob

      In what way have I defended Hari? One of the key points this blog post makes it that the “Oh but tabloids have done far worse!” is not an excuse (it is, however, true; but that is a different matter).

      Learn to read without your anger-specs on and you might see what is actually written, rather than merely what you want or expect to read from a particular author.

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