Monday, July 4, 2011

Taking Johann Hari On Faith

In his recent article in The Independent, Johann Hari claimed that the accusation he was a plagiarist was totally false’, and explained why:
When you interview a writer – especially but not only when English isn’t their first language – they will sometimes make a point that sounds clear when you hear it, but turns out to be incomprehensible or confusing on the page. In those instances, I have sometimes substituted a passage they have written or said more clearly elsewhere on the same subject for what they said to me so the reader understands their point as clearly as possible.’
He admitted that this was a mistake, and said that he wouldn’t do it again:
Why? Because an interview is not just an essayistic representation of what a person thinks; it is a report on an encounter between the interviewer and the interviewee. If (for example) a person doesn’t speak very good English, or is simply unclear, it may be better to quote their slightly broken or garbled English than to quote their more precise written work, and let that speak for itself. It depends on whether you prefer the intellectual accuracy of describing their ideas in their most considered words, or the reportorial accuracy of describing their ideas in the words they used on that particular afternoon. Since my interviews are long intellectual profiles, not ones where I’m trying to ferret out a scoop or exclusive, I have, in the past, prioritized the former. That was, on reflection, a mistake, because it wasn’t clear to the reader.’
So Hari has admitted that he took words from elsewhere, copy-and-pasted them directly into his articles, and did not acknowledge he had done this or attribute the sources. For anyone familiar with the basics of journalistic practice, this is the dictionary definition of plagiarism. But Hari has provided three arguments to distance himself enough from that charge to call it totally false’ – and for it to have been accepted as such by other journalists – which I would summarize as follows:

1. He only did this occasionally, and only in interviews with writers. As their profession entails the use of words anyway, there’s nothing all that wrong with using their earlier words to represent their thoughts.
2. He occasionally did this with his interview subjects’ written words, which tend to be clearer and more articulate than speech. Writers can sometimes speak in a confusing way, so it makes sense to use text they have written earlier where the ideas were better expressed than their oral statements in person. This especially applies when interviewing writers whose first language is not English.
3. His interviews are not scoops or exclusives. They are, rather, ‘intellectual profiles’ primarily concerned with communicating to readers as clearly and fairly as possible a writer’s ideas and positions.

These are crucial elements in Hari’s defence, because if we take these ideas away we’re left with someone simply lifting words from elsewhere, copy-and-pasting them directly into his articles, and not acknowledging he has done this or attributing the sources – ie straightforward plagiarism.

However, not all of Johann Hari’s interviews have been with writers, they haven’t all been intellectual profiles’, and some of them have, in fact, been labelled as exclusives. A case in point is his 2005 interview with the pop star George Michael. You can read the version on Hari’s site, or the version still on The Independents site. They’re slightly different, I suppose because the one at The Independent was sub-edited. On his own site, for example, the title is George Michael – An Exclusive Interview’. The Independent titled it George Michael: Talk without prejudice’. There are other small changes. On Hari’s site, the article begins:
Club Tropica is closed, and its shutters are rusting. In the 1980s, George Michael captured a hedonistic moment and a hedonistic decade when he sang about a Club where “drinks are free,/ Fun and sunshine – there's enough for everyone.” But today the Wham! poster boy – all silk shorts, olive skin and gleaming teeth – is dead, buried beneath his old hang-out. I am sitting with a melancholic fortysomething George Michael, and it is hard to glimpse the boy in the man. He wipes something wet from his eye and says, “This is the first time in a long time I don’t fear the future.” He is telling me a strange story about standing at the top of the world – a story where he walks on stage before a billion people and privately panics, “I am becoming one of the biggest stars in the world – and I think I might be a poof. This cannot end well.” So who killed Wham’s wonderboy? Who dug his glittering grave?’
At The Independent, it opens:
Club Tropicana is closed, and its shutters are rusting. In the 1980s, George Michael captured a hedonistic moment and a hedonistic decade when he sang about a club where “drinks are free,/ Fun and sunshine, there's enough for everyone.” But today the Wham! poster boy – all silk shorts, olive skin and gleaming teeth – is dead, buried beneath his old hangout.

I am sitting with a melancholic fortysomething Michael to discuss the new, authorised film documentary about him – A Different Story – and it is hard to glimpse the boy in the man. He wipes something wet from his eye and says: “This is the first time in a long time I don’t fear the future.” He is telling me a strange story about standing at the top of the world – a story where he walks on stage before a billion people and privately panics: “I am becoming one of the biggest stars in the world – and I think I might be a poof. This cannot end well.” So who killed Wham!’s wonderboy? Who dug his glittering grave?’
It looks like a sub-editor wisely split that long paragraph, and spared Hari’s blushes by spotting that the song was Club Tropicana’, not Club Tropica’. But note, also, the addition in The Independent version, by Hari or someone else, that he was there to interview Michael in connection with a new documentary about him, A Different Story.

It’s especially intriguing because in that documentary, George Michael says the following in relation to the period directly after the massive success of his first solo album, Faith:
It was like, “Oh my God, I’m a massive star, and I think I may be a poof – what am I going to do? This is not going to end well, you know?”’
This is remarkably similar to the quote Johann Hari elicited from him. Now, lots of interviewees repeat themselves and tell the same anecdotes, and it’s possible George Michael did here, right down to the same sentence structure. In A Different Story, Michael also drives around his old childhood haunts in London, pointing out a launderette where his family had lived and providing an impromptu running commentary for the benefit of the camera:
Mum and Dad worked in a fish and chip shop along here. My mum said it was the most disgusting period of her life, because you know how clean Mum was. She said you just couldn’t get the smell of the fish out of your hair, off your skin.
He told Johann Hari much the same:
He leans forward on the virgin-white sofa in his Highgate office and teases open his childhood scars. “It’s only when the kids are in their late twenties that families really face up to what they are. You’ve gone out into the world – you've probably got a family of your own – and you’re finally in a position to look back and see if your own family was normal. I suppose enough of the damage your parents have done to you has left you by then too. It was at that age I realised how dysfunctional my childhood was.”
His mother toiled 24/7 at two kids and three jobs, and George remembers her searing, bitter hated at having to work in a chip shop because “she was obsessively clean and she could never get the smell of fish out of her hair or off her skin, no matter how hard she scrubbed.”’
As the first paragraph shows, with its detailed description of where Michael opened up about his childhood scars’, there is no suggestion that Hari was paraphrasing the remarks Michael made in the film, or from anywhere else, but that Michael was telling him this face-to-face. But even bearing in mind that George Michael is likely to tell similar stories about his childhood in interviews, it’s striking just how similar the wording is here at one point:
...you just couldn’t get the smell of the fish out of your hair, off your skin.

...she could never get the smell of fish out of her hair or off her skin...’
A Different Story also dealt with Michael’s notorious arrest in a Beverly Hills park in 1998, and showed a clip of an earlier TV interview with him about it, in which he said:
Im not presuming that cruising is dysfunctional, cause I don't think it is as a gay man. But cruising as George Michael theres something vaguely dysfunctional about that!’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hari also discussed the incident with Michael, and Michael had similar things to say. In fact, he phrased it in almost precisely the same words and sentence structure: 
“I don’t think there’s anything inherently dysfunctional about cottaging – but cottaging as George Michael? Yeah, there’s something pretty dysfunctional about that,” he says, laughing.’
Hari billed his interview with George Michael as an exclusive, and it wasnt an intellectual profileof a writer. Michael also speaks perfectly good English, and as the filmed interviews in A Different Story attest, he usually communicates his intellectual ideas in an articulate and clear manner when speaking. So this particular interview doesnt fit the methodology Johann Hari described for his intellectual profiles, of only using the written words of writers to get across their ideas in articles not intended to be exclusives. 

Hari doesnt appear to wish to further clarify what his techniques were for other interviews, but perhaps no further explanation is needed. Readers and fellow journalists can choose to believe that when Johann Hari interviewed George Michael, Michael really did repeat, almost verbatim, several sentences he had said in previous interviews, all of which featured in a recent documentary mentioned but not attributed as the source of any of the quotes – by Hari. In short, we can take that Hari doesnt plagiarise on faith. 

That said, it would still be nice to have an explanation, for the sake of accuracy – intellectual or otherwise.

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