Hackgate: When Life Imitates Yes, Minister

July 17, 2011

Events are unfolding too quickly for them to be written about. At the moment all I can think to do is to post this from Yes, Minister. It’s from The Whiskey Priest. If you don’t have it on DVD I’m sure you can find some dark corner of the internet where you can watch it:

Bernard Woolley: So what do we believe in?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: At this moment, Bernard, we believe in stopping the minister from informing the Prime Minister.
Bernard Woolley: But why?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Because once the Prime Minister knows, there will have to be an enquiry, like Watergate. The investigation of a trivial break-in led to one ghastly revelation after another and finally the downfall of a President. The golden rule is: Don’t lift lids off cans of worms. Everything is connected to everything else. Who said that?
Bernard Woolley: The Cabinet Secretary?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Nearly right. Actually, it was Lenin.

So let me get this straight…

July 11, 2011

The police are investigating both the police who were investigating the journalists and those journalists themselves. And those journalists were bribing police officers and hacking phones. The police, or the journalists, or neither, covered up the bribes and the phone hacking. And it now turns out that the journalists were hacking the phones of the police officers who were investigating them in the first place. As well as apparently hacking the phones of 9/11 victims, Gordon Brown and the Queen. And this somehow also involves David Cameron because he appointed one of the chief hackers his head of communications and is good friends with another one of them.

Hell, if that makes sense, I don’t want to BE sober. *brain melts, reaches for absinthe*

Paperback Rioter’s exclusive interview with just about everybody who has something to say about Johann Hari

June 29, 2011

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:

And here’s Dufourmentelle on the same subject, pp. 100-101:

Johann on crime:

Whilst here’s the Dufourmentelle book on crime, p. 25

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.












The impact of the spending cuts: an e-interview with Kate Belgrave

March 23, 2011

In the run-up to today’s Budget and the March for the Alternative this Saturday I’m writing a few bits and pieces on the impending spending cuts. Below is an e-interview conducted with Kate Belgrave. Kate has been travelling the country interviewing people who rely on council services. She publishes articles of these interviews here and tweets as @hangbitch.

You’ve been travelling the country interviewing people about the impact spending cuts would have on their area. Could you talk a little bit about that? Where have you been, what have you seen, etc?

I spent December in the Northwest and January-Feb in the Northeast. My aim is to talk to council service users over a year to see how council cuts really play out with people who rely on those services.

I’ve been writing about council for a long time and it occurred to me that not everyone knew what sorts of services councils provided – people know about rubbish collection and so on, but councils also provide care services, carehomes, daycentres for people with physical disabilities and learning disabilities, community centres (which
sometimes provide cheap meals, etc), respite care services, meals on wheels, housing maintenance, advice services, and a lot of complex care packages which are provided between themselves and the NHS.

They also often provide and/or support drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, and fund voluntary groups that support people with serious mental health problems and so on. I felt that the major political parties were glossing over all of this. The focus was on libraries, forests and the NHS (which are all important – it’s just that there’s

So, I saved up for about six months and then headed out in December. I talked to people using housing and care services in Manchester, disabled daycentre users in Shropshire, parents of severely disabled children in Lancashire, council housing tenants in Skelmersdale, drug, alcohol and mental health support service users in Newcastle, community centre users in Middlesbrough, parents of kids at a special needs unit in Cambridgeshire and also a lot of people in London, which is where I’m based.

I’ve been pretty shocked by what I’ve seen – the cutting of that special needs unit in Cambridgeshire, Lancashire county council’s tightening of care eligibility criteria, those severely physically disabled people in Shropshire losing their daycentre and so on. Those cuts decisions will affect lives adversely and it seems unacceptable in this day and age.

At the very least, you want to know that if you have a debilitating stroke at the age of 38, you’ll get decent care
and have a place to go during the day where you can rehabilitate and spend time with other people. You also want to live in a society which provides those services for people. That’s why you pay tax.

What do you think the impact of these cuts will be?

I think for a lot of people, they’ll be truly devastating. Those people in Shropshire say that without their daycentre, they’ll be stuck at home “staring at the four walls.” Lancashire county council is planning to close care respite homes for children with disabilities. Those families rely on that respite care.

Without respite care, you just never get a break. Disabled people who are reassessed and found to have only ‘moderate’ needs will lose their care packages. Others will be charged for care services and if they can’t afford to pay, they just won’t get those services.

One man I’ve been speaking to in Lancashire is extremely concerned that the nursing care his severely disabled son receives will be compromised because the groups that provide nurses are facing cuts. The parent is an elderly man, but he and his wife will have to make up any shortfall in care or finance themselves. They also have the added worry that when they’re not longer around (they’re in their 60s), their son won’t have anyone who can provide that backup.

The parents of kids at the special needs unit in Cambridgeshire were terrified – their children (some were on the autism spectrum) had ended up at that unit because they’d had dreadful experiences in mainstream education. The council was planning to send them back to mainstream schools.

If the Middlesbrough community centre I went to closes, so will the daycentre facilities for people with learning and physical disabilities that the centre hosts. It’s extraordinary that people in these groups are being forced to pay for the banking crisis and zero council tax increases.

There are other issues, of course. An important one is that thousands of people will be made redundant in areas where there really are few other employment options. It seems very likely that people will lose their homes and that we’ll end up seeing a lot more of the social problems that accompany large-scale unemployment.

The other important point is that other nations will take the UK’s lead. Neoliberal politicians in New Zealand (where I’m originally from), Australia and Europe especially will be watching these cuts with interest and will feel inspired if Osborne manages to pull any of this programme off. We’re some way ahead of the UK in dismantling the welfare state in places in NZ, but that doesn’t mean our own Conservative government won’t be taking considerable interest in the UK government’s attempt to sell this “the deficit justifies an attack on the state” rhetoric.

You’ve written a little bit on the difficulties bloggers and citizen journalists have had when trying to report on the activities of local councils. Is this an attitude common to all councils, and what role do bloggers have in holding these officials to account?

I wrote in some detail on this subject recently for Open Democracy.

I have generally found councils obstructive and difficult. It’s not only that they won’t let journalists into council meetings, or try to ban filming and recording. They also actively try to stop you talking to service users, and refuse to take your calls, or provide you with information.

It’s my view that some of the best journalists of this era are bloggers covering local rounds – they’re the people who read agendas, attend meetings, comb reports, talk to people and work up big contact books and readerships. That’s what journalism is. There’s a great deal of professionalism there.

I think the term “citizen journalist” is no longer appropriate for a lot of these people. They’re fully-fledged reporters – real “nose for news” types who don’t suffer politicians at all. They refuse to be pressured. A number of us are trained journalists and NUJ members and are regularly contacted by the mainstream for content and contacts. Local councils are shit-scared of us as well – Roger T at the BarnetEye has put the wind up Brian Coleman on several occasions and councils have tried to throw me out and ban me from talking to people.

Union members have even told me they can no longer access my blog on Hammersmith and Fulham servers.

I’d make the point also that some of us have mixed feelings about participating in the mainstream press. I like getting published there from time to time for obvious reasons and I think there are some excellent people working at some papers, but I tend to feel that generally, the mainstream press is part of today’s political problem.

It’s about opinion, ego, exaggeration and party alignment, rather than good old shoe-leather, grassroots journalism. I really don’t think it’s about talent any more, by and large, and hasn’t been for a while. If you schmooze and push yourself forward and write about “controversial” things like stripping, sex and boozing, etc, you’re probably going to make some – well, headway. If you don’t have the stomach for that sort of “look at me” writing, you won’t.

I think as you get older, you lose interest in that kind of writing as well – I did more of it when I was younger and working in the mainstream. I can’t see that any big paper would pay me a salary to do the work that I do now. Talking about daycentres in small councils, or community centres in Middlesbrough is just not exciting enough and/or likely to shift product in the way that big media is desperate to. They’re important stories, but they’re not “big” stories that will generate advertising.

We’re talking about a mainstream press that will send literally hundreds of people to cover the Chilean miners’ rescue, or the Japan earthquake disaster, but nobody to cover the fallout from, say, a carehome privatisation, or massive funding cuts. That’s not to say major world events shouldn’t be covered – just that some of us passionately believe there are other priorities and are prepared to put a lot of time and money into covering those priorities.

I do think a lot of people in the mainstream feel that way as well – a hell of a lot of them follow respected bloggers on twitter and are regularly in contact and talk as equals. I feel that senior mainstream people like Andrew Marr are dismissive of good bloggers, but a lot of good mainstream people are not. They can see that good work is being done and respect it.

Are you going on the March for the Alternative on Saturday? And if so, what is your alternatve to the coalition’s spending plans?

Yes, I’ll be going. I think a show of numbers will be extremely important.

As for alternatives – depends on how granular you want to get. Possibilities vary from council to council – I (and a number of union branches which presented councils with alternatives) think much more effort could have been made to consider small council tax increases at councils, utilise reserves to buy time, jettisoning consultants (some councils brought in expensive consultants to advise on cuts) and charging works to capital accounts, rather than revenue accounts where that was possible.

Notts County, for instance, had some building works charged to the revenue account. Unison thought there was an argument to be made for charging those works to the relevant capital reserves, which would have freed up revenue. There were probably plenty of examples of that sort of possibility in capital and revenue budgets across the country.

The problem is that nobody wants to hear that sort of suggestion if their reasons for cutting services are ideological. What we’re seeing at the moment is a wholesale attack on the notion of state provision and welfare. I don’t particularly think it is about fiscal realities.

Hardline Tory councils like Hammersmith and Fulham and Barnet have been pursuing the cuts ideology for some years – long before the deficit “justified” cuts and charging. They don’t want to hear arguments in favour of preserving services. That argument is at odds with their whole thesis. Tory councils like Lancashire have built up enormous reserves, which they have done instead of spending money on services. Those people are about road improvements, apartment-building and city development. They’re not about carehomes, hostels for people with mental health needs, or sheltered housing wardens.

That’s why, on another level, I want to hear a new, alternative political rhetoric about fair distribution. UKUncut has started to do this and is making an important point in a beautifully simple way – “big corporations need to make a fair contribution.” It’s simple, but it makes the point perfectly. I’ve heard people in non-political circles talking about it.

There’s also a discussion to be had about political priorities – should we be spending a massive amount attacking in Libya while people in wheelchairs here are being thrown onto the street? Have bankers adequately compensated taxpayers for throwing the economy into recession and for bailouts?

This is not a good time in human history, but it’s an important time. Too many people are suffering when they shouldn’t be. We must redefine our world.

Fantastic Headlines 50-52 – Innuendo Edition

February 7, 2011

Apart from headlines involving Ed Balls, this series has been free of smut. I’m afraid that’s about to end with this set of three headlines. But let’s face it: you only read this for the rude bits, right?

This headline, another found by Selina, is an oldie but a goodie:

Young Boys’ Wankdorf erection woe

The sub-editor just couldn’t resist, could he? I hope believe this refers to a Swiss football team.

Next up, Charlie has surpassed herself with this find:

Tee hee!

One gets the impression that those two headlines were deliberate, however. There’s a “nudge nudge wink wink” aspect to them. God alone knows what was going through the heads of the people who thought THIS headline was suitable for a daily newspaper:

It’s just so wrong. But so fantastic. Thanks to Jim at the Daily Maybe for drawing my attention to this post by David Schneider for that.

If you have any more Fantastic Headlines, please do let me know. It’s becoming a major cottage industry.

Fantastic Headlines 47-49: Not all is as it seems

February 4, 2011

Please keep these Fantastic Headlines coming in. I’m trying to group them by themes now. The theme for this batch is that they are all headlines from a story that is a little bit misleading.

The first of these stories came courtesy of my housemate, which was an article found in the Daily Mail:

How central heating is making you fat

Experts say many of us now keep our homes so cosy that we no longer have to burn as many calories to naturally warm up our bodies.

Everyone, quick! Turn off the heating. Shiver in the cold! That will burn off some calories.

This story appeared in the Daily Telegraph as well, with a less fantastic headline. Which is all well and good, except, according to an article on the NHS website:

The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail have reported the study accurately, but they both imply that the evidence for rising temperatures causing obesity is conclusive, which it is not.

Wait, it gets better.

the methods by which these studies were identified and selected for inclusion are not given. It may be the case that other studies not included may contradict their hypothesis.

So hang on: are you saying the results WEREN’T conclusive?

Overall, this review is not conclusive and does not prove that simply opening a window or turning down the thermostat will make people thinner.

I see.

A friend and fellow electoral reform campaigner Richard made me aware of this Sun article from a few years ago. It’s a work of utter genius:

Nazi raccoons on warpath

In case you were wondering, the Sun even provides us with a picture of what a Nazi raccoon would look like:

So, how exactly can these raccoons be classified as Nazis? Has “Mein Kampf” been translated into Raccoonish?

They are just across the Channel from Britain after marching through France, Belgium, Holland and Denmark in a furry blitzkrieg.

Hitler aide Hermann Goering had the US mammals introduced to German woods in 1934 to “enrich the Reich’s fauna”.

But numbers have soared and they are invading new territory, just like the Nazis did.


Anyway, enough of fun stories about fascist raccoons. This last headline is from Harry’s Place, and the latest target of their ire, Julian Assange:

Isn’t It Weird How Some People End Up Looking Like Their Condoms?

Er, um, well, I suppose so, but I’ve never really thought about it. Do people end up looking like their condoms?

Apparently pictures of Assange’s condom have been, er, leaked.

And the writer of that Harry’s Place post thinks that if you turn that picture sideways, it looks a bit like Julian Assange. He illustrated that point with the help of this diagram. I’m not really seeing the resemblance myself:

Well, I’m convinced. Assange must be guilty. Wikileaks is evil. And raccoons are fascist.

Fantastic Headlines 44-46

February 3, 2011

I am giving my thesis the last rites. It should be finished on Saturday, all being well, and I shall blog about stuff other than Fantastic Headlines. But I know the series is popular, so here’s a batch of some more.

Firstly, Selina has found another corker:

The origin of this story, which I found via Liberal Burblings, appears to be the Evening Standard. I must admit, it’s one of my favourite headlines so far this year.

Next, we can always rely on Sky News for shit stories, and so it proves once more:

Dog Doctor Diagnoses Bowel Cancer in Japan

Apparently dogs can detect whether someone has bowel cancer or not just by sniffing their poo. What fun that must be for them.

Finally, from Charlie, who is becoming a good source for silly animal stories:

Jumping rabbits in Harrogate for ‘grand national’ event

What more is there to add?


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