Paperback Rioter has had a quiet few weeks. Today, I can finally reveal what has been happening in that time. I’ve been travelling the country interviewing journalists, bloggers and activists for this post on the Johann Hari plagiarism scandal.
First I met with the writer of Deterritorial Suppport Group, who were the first to expose Hari’s idiosyncratic interview technique a few weeks ago. They compared Hari’s interview with Italian communist Toni Negri with a book written by Anne Dufourmentelle called “Negri on Negri”.
DSG found that Hari had copied and pasted quotes from Dufourmentelle’s book and inserted them into his own interview with Negri, complete with atmospheric descriptions of the interview.
For instance, here’s Johann Hari on the subject of memory:
I met with the writer of the piece in a Brighton pub. Over a pint of the local bitter, I asked what the significance of this was. After taking a sip of their beer, he replied:
It’s rather ironic that an article whose main premise is that Negri negates a “truthful memory”, essentially attempting to fabricate history to fit his own political agenda, seems to be based upon an encounter in the ICA which is almost entirely fabricated.
Is it really that serious? After all, Hari is quoting Negri accurately. He’s not being misquoted here, is he?
My interviewee sighs.
To take Negri’s answers to entirely different questions, and recontextualise them around Hari’s agenda, which involves the sustenance of the very systems of power that falsely accused and imprisoned Negri for decades of his life as a political prisoner in Italy, seems especially disingenuous.
DSG’s post was picked up upon by journalist Brian Whelan. He also found that Hari had been copying and pasting quotes, in an interview with Gideon Levy.
I met up with Brian to discuss his findings, which were the catalyst for the story gaining greater traction. I asked him what exactly Johann Hari seemed to be doing with his interview.
He appears to be passing off copy-pasted text from Levy’s writings in Haaretz and interviews with other hacks as an exclusive interview. Also, Hari seems to be freely creating mash-up quotes out of disparate statements levy has made over the years. This is definitely not the practice of an award winning hack.
After pausing to drink his coffee, Whelan fixes me with a stare. “If the Indy really did send him to Scotland for these quotes I think Hari’s editor needs to sit him down for a chat.”
I met with Johann in an Islington coffee shop to discuss these accusations. He was very honest about what he had been doing in his articles. Sipping a latte, Hari explains that
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. It’s a way of making sure the reader understands the point that, say, Gideon Levy wants to make as clearly as possible, while retaining the directness of the interview.
Surely this is dishonest? You can’t just copy and paste from another reporter’s interview, and pretend you got those quotes, can you?
Since my interviews are intellectual portraits that I hope explain how a person thinks, it seemed the most thorough way of doing it.
That’s not an interview, is it, because it’s not an accurate portrayal of what was said? Here Hari became quite animated.
After doing what must be over fifty interviews, none of my interviewees have ever said they had been misquoted, even when they feel I’ve been very harsh on them in other ways.
I’m a bit bemused to find one blogger considers this “plagiarism”. Who’s being plagiarized? Plagiarism is passing off somebody else’s intellectual work as your own – whereas I’m always making it clear that (say) Gideon Levy’s thought is Gideon Levy’s thought.
These are comments echoed by Guardian Science writer Ben Goldacre, who said to me in a telephone conversation that “it’s not plagiarism, but it was a bit unstylish”.
However, very few mainstream journalists seem to share the view that what Hari did was acceptable. I spoke to New Statesman journalist Guy Walters, who has also written about Hari’s lifting of quotations, at the magazine’s offices in Old Marylebone Road and asked for his views.
This is straightforward dishonest reporting. Hugo Chavez never said those words to Mr Hari. He said them to Mr Anderson. And Lally Weymouth.
Now that Johann Hari has apologised, does he think the story will end there? He shakes his head, ruefully. “This one, like phone hacking, is going to run and run.”
I put Hari’s remarks to Esther Addley, a senior news writer at the Guardian, at the paper’s offices in Kings Place. In an outraged tone, she said,
I’m astonished by that response. It’s dishonest, pure and simple. I know of no journalist I respect who considers this ‘normal practice’. I consider it indefensible.
Another blogger I spoke to, at Fleet Street Blues, said that the remarks said much about Hari’s interviewing technique.
The main art of being an interviewer is to be skilled at eliciting the right quotes from your subject. If Johann Hari wants to write ‘intellectual portraits’, he should go and write fiction. Do his editors really know that the copy they’re printing is essentially made up?
Hari also said to me that one of the main reasons he used quotes from another source was to tidy up what a writer was said.
If somebody interviewed me and asked my views of Martin Amis, instead of quoting me as saying “Um, I think, you know, he got the figures for, uh, how many Muslims there are in Europe upside down”, they could quote instead what I’d written more cogently about him a month before, as a more accurate representation of my thoughts.
This defence cut no ice with Jamie Smith, a journalism blogger and Wannabe Hack:
Other journos have said they tidy up quotes from interviews. Yep, that’s standard practice. But it’s totally different to what Hari has done in his columns. He’s falsified situations, painted a picture in the reader’s mind of an occurrence that never happened.
It seems that Hari’s editor, Simon Kelner, does not share these criticisms. Speaking to him at the newspaper’s office in London, he said that
Johann had suffered enough with the vilification he’s had on Twitter. He wouldn’t face any disciplinary action, apart from being spoken to at great length.
Paperback Rioter will have more on Hari-gate as the story unfolds.
It has been alleged that the interviews I claim took place never actually happened. Some bloggers have suggested that I’ve completely made up meeting the people I claim to have interviewed in this piece. So just to clarify: what I have done is quoted their words as they expressed them in writing, rather than how they expressed it in my
non-existent interview with them.
Below is a list of places that I have quoted from. If you think there’s a better way to interview people than simply copy and paste different bits of what they’ve said and pretend they said those things to you, please let me know in the comments.