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.