Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Is this Johann Hari business the death rattle of the old way?

I wonder if this current to-do about Johann Hari using quotes from previously published sources in interviews is one of the dying twitches of traditional journalism. If I've understood it correctly he inserts quotes from elsewhere if they seem to make the point better than the interviewee did when his own recording machine was turned on.

I'm sure the interviewee doesn't mind this because it makes him sound more eloquent. The reader probably doesn't mind either because for them clarity is all. But I think most journalists would consider this sharp practice, particularly if the quotes are not flagged up with something like "as he said in an earlier interview". He may well have said it but the fact is he didn't say it to you.

Interviewing is like fishing. Sometimes you get a bite. Most of the time you don't. In fact increasingly you're going to a lake that has been intensively fished for some time before you got there. Interviewees don't have an endless supply of original things to say. Mostly what you get is what they've been saying to the person who interviewed them half an hour ago. You may get a slight variation but the essence remains the same. All that makes your encounter distinct is your ability to write a more nuanced account.

The current pretence that each encounter is in some way exclusive is dear to the hearts of editors and journalists, who think of themselves as competing in the traditional fashion. The new way, in which all information and opinion merges into one giant Wiki, is the way of the future. And where do big-name columnists and the newspapers who pay them stand in that world?


  1. I had a bit of a chat to some readers this morning, and they all minded. Not that he was using the quotes, but that he was passing them off as having been spoken to him, in person, creating a false impression of the situation. A couple expressed worries that if he'd lie about that, he'd lie about other things too. This is a trust issue. If he'd just attributed his sources properly from the start there wouldn't be a problem. That to me says that Hari's way is the old way. Open, transparent, linking to your sources even if they're your competitors - that's the new way, surely?

  2. Is this not just pure laziness? It's definitely bad journalism. If I discovered anyone who worked for me was doing this they'd be in hot water for sure.

  3. Strikes me that he's actually caught in a spot between the old and the new, rather than representing tradition versus modernity. Nobody's got a problem with using quotes from previous work, as long as they're presented in a transparent way.

    That seems his mistake: to believe that he's taking the best of wiki-like forms with the best of traditional publishing, when in fact he's doing the opposite.

    Both the traditional, flat form of citation ("as he said in an earlier interview") and the hypertextual one (citing and linking to the source) are based around a form of transparency. Hari, instead, mixes the two without ever letting the reader in on it — combining the closed form with the open without allowing transparency. As ever, it's the cover up that kills you.

  4. According to Polly Toynbee, Ben Goldacre and others, what Hari did isn't plagiarism. But I suspect the journalists whose earlier interviews featured - and whose questions, rather than Hari's, elicited - the quotes that he's filched and passed off as the fruits of his own labours might disagree.

    If he's as crap at interviewing as his (and, alarmingly, his editor's) blasé acceptance of this practice suggests, then he should come clean and stick to the columns. The man's an Orwell Prize winner, for crying out loud.

    If a work-experience kid starting out on some local rag was caught doing this, they'd be booted out of the building with no reference.

    I hope.

  5. By his own admission, A A Gill's been doing it for years. The whole not taking notes and writing it up days later method is fraught with memory failure: did we talk about that or did I see him/her talk to Jonathan Ross about it on TV last night? At the end of the day, nobody died. And anyway, nobody wants to see the transcript of a 60 minute interview in full stenographer style with every verbal tic from interviewer and interviewee. And you can quote me on that.

  6. I don't know how widespread this is, but my wife was recently interviewed by a regional newspaper and the finished article showed that the journalist had certainly done a Hari. She was pleased that he had, because, as you say, she made the point much better in the earlier article than she did in oral interview. I'm struggling to see who loses here?

  7. its just arrogance. he knows the score - actually does he? has he even done his nctj? all he had to do was reference those quotes, but he either couldnt be arsed or 'forgot'. either way, he's a terrible journalist and a pompous writer. i hope he gets run over by a manure truck, if such a thing exists.

  8. also, if i have to tickle a quote up (almost always) i run it past the interviewee first - always. it's basic practice.

  9. Biff, he won the Times' Student Journalist of the Year Award when he was at Cambridge. After that he probably thought he was one.

    Every hour that goes by, yet another example seems to turn up of Hari's quote-nabbing and even brazen invention to "sex up" the meagre fare he's been able to glean as a reporter. (One of my favourites: he has cactuses sprouting, a la Speedy Gonzalez, in the desert surrounding Dubai - a place where the only cactuses to be found for thousands of miles around were actually those in the garden of his hotel.)

    To finish (and I really will shut up about this now, David, honest - at least here), almost more sickening than the practices of Hari was the instant rank-closing exercise yesterday by his like-minded colleagues (and, yes, Alexis and Caitlin - that includes you).

    "Save your wrath for Murdoch," Polly Toynbee tweeted with waggy finger, in a textbook case of what another journalist has termed "what-aboutery":

    "There is one particular type of bad argument that has always existed, but it has now spread like tar over the world-wide web. When you have lost an argument - when you can't justify your case, and it is crumbling in your hands - you snap back: "But what about x?" You then raise a totally different subject, and try to get everybody to focus on it - hoping it will distract attention from your own deflated case"

    Who was that other journalist? It was Johann Hari.

  10. Know what you mean, Archie. "What-aboutery" is the bane of the web. Whenever that kind of argument is introduced I feel like I'm back in the students union.

  11. Johann Hari has suffered enough over the last 24 hours. Let that lie. What I find, if anything, more disturbing is the argument that his mistake had anything to do with lack of training or professional naivete. I've never had a day's journalistic training in my life but even on Smash Hits all those years ago we knew that you didn't take quotes from other sources and *pass them off as having been elicited by you*. It doesn't take professional training to know this. It takes basic common sense.

  12. Exactly. Hari can be forgiven for not knowing this because he's still "young" apparently (he's 32, and has been called up for his "shortcuts" at least since he was 24). But it's Kelner's "yeah, so?" acceptance of the practice that, for me, is the big deal about the whole story. If the editor of a quality broadsheet - albeit one with the same circulation as the Manchester Evening News - writes off anyone who's appalled by such a clear breach of every editorial code ever written as a politically motivated member of a "braying mob", you have to wonder how many other ethical corners are being cut to bring us the Stories That Really Matter.

  13. "Who was that other journalist? It was Johann Hari. "

    Actually I think it was Newton Emerson (very) late of the often-hilarious Portadown News, usually apropos Norn Irln. Back in the 20th century. Hari stole it.