Posts Tagged ‘Andreas Whittam Smith’

I’m just wild about Hari

I confess I was torn over the Johann Hari case. For those who don’t know, Hari is a journalist at The Independent who has been exposed as a serial embellisher, passing off quotes in various interviews as original when he’d actually found them in his subjects’ writings – or even in other hacks’ interviews in a few cases.

In what seems like an odd aside, but which could actually be rather revealing, he also admitted to adopting a pseudonym to make what he himself describes as ‘juvenile and malicious’ comments in his enemies’ Wikipedia entries, as well as buffing up his own entry and those of some people he admires, including George Monbiot and Polly Toynbee.

Following an internal enquiry by the Independent’s founding editor Andreas Whittam Smith, Hari issued a lengthy public apology and promised to return the George Orwell Prize he won in 2008. He also promised to take some unpaid leave to get some journalism training – at his own expense! – which seems a bit of a post-bolt stable door locking exercise but there you go.

His apology includes attempts to explain his behaviour, including this one: “When I recorded and typed up any conversation, I found something odd: points that sounded perfectly clear when you heard them being spoken often don’t translate to the page. They can be quite confusing and unclear. When this happened, if the interviewee had made a similar point in their writing (or, much more rarely, when they were speaking to somebody else), I would use those words instead. At the time, I justified this to myself by saying I was giving the clearest possible representation of what the interviewee thought, in their most considered and clear words.”

This seems to me a bizarre and extraordinary statement that displays a woeful misunderstanding of the contract that exists between interviewer and subject – and which is entirely undermined by his own self-flagellatory comments in the very next paragraph: “But I was wrong. An interview isn’t an X-ray of a person’s finest thoughts. It’s a report of an encounter. If you want to add material from elsewhere, there are conventions that let you do that. You write ‘she has said,’ instead of ‘she says’. You write ‘as she told the New York Times’ or ‘as she says in her book’, instead of just replacing the garbled chunk she said with the clear chunk she wrote or said elsewhere.”

How could someone of his obvious intelligence – and surrounded by excellent journalists to boot – not get this? It suggests to me that including all of that paraphrased stuff was more about ego than a desire to clarify his subjects’ positions. People thought he was getting all this amazing material by interviewing his subjects so well and he liked that this is what they thought.

Even if he was driven by entirely selfless motives – seeking the best way to represent his subjects’ views – this was clearly a foolish and arrogant way to go about it.

But hey, we all make mistakes, right? We’re all allowed to learn from them and move on, right?

Well it depends who you are. I once lost a job I loved because I’d implied that someone had told me something when in fact it was someone working on that person’s behalf…

Oh sod it this isn’t going to work unless I dish the dirt is it?

So I was the business reporter on a small daily newspaper. One of my recurring stories was the impact that high business rates were having on city-centre retailers. One of these small independent retailers decided to put his business on the market. His shop was a family business that had been around for donkey’s years so it was emblematic of the difficult times all retailers were living through.

I tried and tried to speak to the shopkeeper but I couldn’t get hold of him. So I spoke to his solicitor, who wasn’t terribly forthcoming (and quite right too). Then I tried his estate agent, who was rather looser and within minutes had told me what I wanted to hear: the shopkeeper was moving on because he couldn’t afford the rates.

So we ran the story. I fudged the sources a bit but there were no out-and-out lies or even embellishments in the piece.

The next day the editor received a letter from the shopkeeper’s solicitor. He was moving on because of ill health, not unpayable rates. His client had never told me he was struggling to pay the rates and was in fact having no such problems. We’d damaged his prospects of selling the business by highlighting issues that weren’t real so we were going to be sued for the difference between the asking price and the price they finally achieved for the business.

The never-knowingly-pleasant deputy editor hauled me into the editor’s office and the pair of them tore me off a strip or seven. I folded pitifully, admitting that I’d not interviewed the shopkeeper but adding that I hadn’t made anything up and that the estate agent had confirmed what everyone knew was the real reason for the sale.

They were having none of it. I was bollocked more often in the following days than I’d ever been before and ever hope to be again. No one had the slightest interest in my defence. It was soon spelled out to me in no uncertain terms that my position was, to coin that dreadful phrase, untenable. I was strongly encouraged to resign so I wouldn’t have a blot on my CV.

With heavy heart, I trudged into the editor’s office and offered him my resignation, which he accepted with a stony, unforgiving face.

I’d screwed up, no doubt about it. And maybe I just wasn’t cutting it there – maybe they were looking for an excuse to get rid of me, I don’t know. All I do know is that I was given no quarter.

When the sale of the shop went through while I was still working out my notice and the former owner immediately started working there as the new manager there were no questions asked about his remarkable powers of recovery. Nor were there any law suits. But I was too spineless to kick up a fuss. So off I went, tail between legs, to seek my fortune elsewhere.

And that brings us back to the beginning. Hari’s got away with far worse than I ever tried to pull. He’s broken some fundamental laws of journalistic integrity and I think he’s a fool for trying to defend them by implying, as he does in his apology, that his rise was so meteoric that he didn’t have time to learn the rules properly.

So should I be happy for him? Glad that someone’s showed him the kind of tolerance and human decency that I missed out on? Or should I be hopping mad about the way high profile national hacks are treated differently to their lesser-known regional counterparts?

I guess it boils down to how much I believe Hari’s contrition and I’m afraid I’m not sure I do. The fact that he defended his actions so robustly when they were first uncovered and that he took part in those spiteful Wikipedia activities suggests to me that Nick Cohen might have been right when he described Hari as “a journalist who is better at attention-seeking than truth-telling.”

But never mind the irksome Hari, it’s the integrity of The Independent I’m worried about. What are they playing at?