Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The editing conventions of Johann Hari

I’ve just sent an email to journalist Johann Hari from the Independent about the plagiarism allegations surrounding him. I got an auto-response saying he was away till Wednesday and if he does respond I’ll publish it here.

This is what I said to him:

My argument is that what you did was not plagiarism but the introduction of an editing convention that is generally not accepted by readers. It is perhaps accepted by writers - who face similar challenges to you - which might be why none of your subjects complained.

Indeed, it is not much different to say, changing around the order of answers in an interview or the TV habit of re-recording the questions at the end of an interview.

Nonetheless, I wouldn't want your convention to be too widely adopted because there are other ways - usually involving attribution - of solving the problem.

Do you think I'm being fair?

-end of email quote-

Johann Hari is an award-winning young British journalist now in the wars over allegations of plagiarism. Hari has made a high profile for himself and plagiarism is one of the biggest sins in journalism so it is no surprise the charges have warranted close attention. He was outed by the anonymous blog Deterritorial Support Grouppppp. On 17 June, DSG found a 2004 Hari interview with Italian philosopher Antonio Negri. It compared that interview to one of Negri in the 2003 book “Negri on Negri” by Anne Dufourmentelle and found many parallels. “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...which is almost entirely fabricated,” DSG observed.

The DSG findings were incendiary and split Britain across political lines. Most on the left forgave Hari what they thought was a minor indiscretion. Daily Telegraph Blogs editor Damian Thompson took a predictable Torygraph sideswipe against everything Hari stood for. His description of those who follow Hari’s writing was “student radicals re-tweet[ing] his tirades against Tories, bankers, Catholics, Americans etc before rolling out of bed at noon.” It was only when Thompson moved beyond the lazy party line, he made some good points. He said Hari was like an athlete caught doping: his fans would ask whether any of his past triumphs were quite what they seemed.

With these triumphs including the Orwell Prize under a cloud, Hari responded on 27 June in a blog post called "interview etiquette”. Hari said he only used the technique whenever the quality of the interviewee’s answer was inarticulate and the talent had made a more coherent answer elsewhere. “It’s a way of making sure the reader understands the clearly as possible, while retaining the directness of the interview,” he said. To Hari, this seemed the most "thorough means" of getting a point across.

This seems hopelessly naive. As a writer of strong and controversial pieces laced with often barbed (but usually very well-written) opinion pieces, it is hardly surprising Hari would make enemies. Nor is it surprising as a public figure his words would be parsed very carefully. With enough eyes all bugs are shallow and enough eyes went through Hari’s work to spot some heavy-handed use of other people’s work without attribution. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this would be seized on by those he bugged.

Indeed, no sooner did he post his feelings on the matter did Irish journalist Brian Whelan pop up and find further examples. Whelan found similarities in Hari’s interview with Gideon Levy with an article in Haaretz six months earlier. “I know many hacks lift quotes and thats not a crime but Hari appears to be passing off copy-pasted text from Levy’s writings in Haaretz and interviews with other hacks as an exclusive interview,” Whelan concluded.

Whelan said Hari appears to perform churnalism but appearances can be deceptive. As I said in my email to him, what he was doing was a creating (or least reinventing) an editing convention. Hari intended the convention to get an articulate point across in a way that does not detract from the flow and confines of the interview. In this sense, it is not dissimilar to the way “noddies” are later edited into TV interviews or written interviews presenting in a different order to the way the way the questions were asked, or even the way photographs are cropped for news purposes. These too are editing deceptions for the purposes of narrative flow, but they are generally accepted by audiences with the proviso they are not too blatant and there is no outright lying.

Hari’s convention, however, is not so generally accepted. Hari did not lie but he didn’t tell the full truth either. Even if he didn’t intend it, his readers could be forgiven for thinking Negri or Levy made those comments directly to Hari in the interview setting. To find out they didn’t, destroys the atmosphere of trust he is trying to build with his audience. Hari said his interview subjects never minded. Possibly, but all this means is his convention is accepted by writers, who are faced with similar issues of flow and comprehension. Readers are right, however, to expect more honesty and precision.

The subterfuge is all so unnecessary. Hari missed an opportunity to turn his obviously fine research skills into an advantage. He said he wanted to stay in the mode of “direct interview” but it would not have been too much damage to the flow if he took time out to quote some other authority and name the source. It would have shown he wasn’t plucking these ideas from thin air. It might take more time and imagination but Hari could have then segued back to his own interview without unduly disturbing the sense of tempo. Online it could be as simple as a hyperlink, though newsprint might be tougher. Either way, attribution is a common courtesy and one which Hari failed. I hope he will learn the lesson well as he is a young man and a fine writer. Handled properly, this painful experience will make him an even better one.

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