Thursday, September 15, 2011

Johann Hari’s latest apology: some thoughts

I’ve written a few articles on this blog about Johann Hari recently. Hari has now, after several months of outright denial and two rather self-serving articles claiming very limited wrongdoing, finally admitted that he is a plagiarist:
I’ve written so many articles over the years laying bare and polemicising against the errors and idiocies of other people. This time, I am writing an article laying bare and polemicising against the errors and idiocies of myself. If you give it out, you have to take it. If you demand high standards of others, you have to be just as damning when you fail to uphold them yourself.’
I’ve been hoping he would do this for some time, so it’s refreshing to see him finally step up to the plate, give a full account of everything he’s done wrong and apologize for it wholeheartedly.

Except... has he?

Hari starts his article with a bold and emotive claim that he is going to lay bare all his failures, but he immediately steps back from doing just that:
I did two wrong and stupid things. The first concerns some people I interviewed over the years. When I recorded and typed up any conversation, I found something odd: points that sounded perfectly clear when you heard them being spoken often don’t translate to the page. They can be quite confusing and unclear. When this happened, if the interviewee had made a similar point in their writing (or, much more rarely, when they were speaking to somebody else), I would use those words instead. At the time, I justified this to myself by saying I was giving the clearest possible representation of what the interviewee thought, in their most considered and clear words.
But I was wrong. An interview isn’t an X-ray of a person’s finest thoughts. It’s a report of an encounter. If you want to add material from elsewhere, there are conventions that let you do that. You write “she has said,” instead of “she says”. You write “as she told the New York Times” or “as she says in her book”, instead of just replacing the garbled chunk she said with the clear chunk she wrote or said elsewhere. If I had asked the many experienced colleagues I have here at The Independent – who have always been very generous with their time – they would have told me that, and they would have explained just how wrong I was. It was arrogant and stupid of me not to ask.’
Sadly, I think Hari has completely missed the point here, or pretended to. First of all, what he describes having done though he avoids using the word is quite simply plagiarism, of the kind that any journalist would usually be sacked for on the spot. But he hasn’t been sacked by The Independent, or chosen to resign. Instead, he’s off to the States for a four-month journalism course, after which he will be welcomed back to his old job.

Secondly, he has by omission minimized what he has done wrong, conveniently not mentioning some of the accusations that he invented episodes in his articles from whole cloth. I think he has chosen instead to admit to only what he feels has been proven beyond any doubt, and is hoping enough people will say Leave him alone now’ that he’ll get away with the much more serious stuff.

But even if he is only guilty of what he now admits to, the arrogant and stupid thing wasn’t neglecting to ask his colleagues about this practice of his – it was arrogant and stupid (and dishonest) to do it at all. It’s not some mysterious journalistic convention’ that you don’t pretend words others have written or said elsewhere were said to you, and you don’t need to ask other journalists about it to be let in on the secret. Anyone over the age of five knows that copying others’ work is wrong.

It also looks like Hari is not going to explain precisely what he did in which articles, and that neither will The Independent. Compare this to the New York Times’ reaction when they discovered what Jayson Blair had been up to: a very thorough investigation and explanation to their readers of what he had done, published in full within a fortnight. You can read it here – and yes, that’s 18 pages. 

In continuing to claim that he was only trying to clarify the positions of some people’ he had interviewed over the years, has Johann Hari really laid bare what he has done? Was this, as he seems to suggest, an occasional pecadillo done through ignorance of obscure journalistic practices, or has he plagiarised on a much greater scale, in many articles, for years? His interviews with Antonio Negri, Gideon Levy, Gareth Thomas, Hugo Chavez, Malalai Joya, George Michael and Ann Leslie all have quotes lifted verbatim or near-verbatim from other sources – and those are just the examples that have been discovered by bloggers and others so far. (None by The Independent, who only opened their investigation once several of these examples came to light.)

In a few of those cases, Hari plagiarized articles that had been written by his subjects. In others, he plagiarized previous interviews with them by other journalists. And in none of the cases does it look like this was something he did simply because his interviewees did not express an occasional point clearly enough: there’s far too much plagiarized material for that to be plausible. Let’s take his interview with George Michael. Here are a few quotes Hari has from Michael:
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.”’
That’s a vivid memory of his mother, articulately expressed. But here’s what George Michael said on camera in an interview for the documentary A Different Story, which had just been released:
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.’
Spot the difference. It’s possible that this is one of those occasions Hari mentions in his latest apology. George Michael could have repeated this about his mother but said it in a more confusing way, and so Hari went back to the documentary. But that would be slightly odd because, as the quote from the documentary shows, George Michael is very capable of giving good unconfusing quotes spontaneously in face-to-face interviews. The lifted quote is not a garbled chunk’. And it seems that several of the quotes in Hari’s interview are taken from ones shown in the documentary.  

A Different Story:
I’m not presuming that cruising is dysfunctional, ’cause I don’t think it is as a gay man. But cruising as George Michael – there’s something vaguely dysfunctional about that!’
Hari’s article:
“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.’
A Different Story:
‘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!”’
Hari’s article:
‘“I am becoming one of the biggest stars in the world and I think I might be a poof. This cannot end well.”’
Either George Michael coincidentally said almost precisely the same things in several previous interviews, but for some unknown reason when he said them to Johann Hari it was in such a garbled way that Hari felt he had to go back and plagiarize the previous interviews. Or Hari is lying in his latest apology, and George Michael didn’t tell him these anecdotes at all, but Hari just took them from the documentary, changing a few words here and there to try to digsuise his plagiarism.

If this had happened in one interview, with only three quotes, the first option might be just about plausible. But the sheer scale of stolen quotes in Hari’s work suggests otherwise. Here’s an excerpt from Jon Lee Anderson’s 2001 interview with Hugo Chavez in the New Yorker:
“It is possible I have something of this . . . tragic sense of life,” he [Chavez] acknowledged. He recalled that on the eve of the 1992 rebellion he had said goodbye to his wife and three children, and led his soldiers out of their barracks. He was the last to leave. After locking the big front gate, he threw away the key. “I realized at that moment that I was saying goodbye to life,” Ch├ívez said. “So it is possible that one has been a bit . . . imbued with that . . . ever since, no?”’
And here’s Hari’s exclusive interview’ with Chavez from 2006:
The spectre haunting Latin America – the spectre of Hugo Chavez – furrows his big, broad brow, pats my knee, and tells me about the night he knew he was going to die. “I will never forget – in the early hours, I said goodbye to my wife and three little children. I kissed them goodbye and blessed them.” He knew in his gut he was not going to survive that long, bloody day in 1992, when he and his allies finally decided to stage a revolution against the old, rotten order loathed by the Venezuelan people. “I realized at that moment that I was saying goodbye to life,” he says, looking away. “So it is possible that, after surviving, one has been a bit... imbued with that sense ever since, no?”’
Are we expected to believe that Hugo Chavez told Johann Hari the same story about the night he knew he was going to die’ as he told the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson five years earlier, but that for some reason he suddenly became so much less articulate when talking to Hari that Hari had no option but to plagiarize Anderson’s article to get a cleaner rendition of it?

This is implausible for several reasons, not least of which the fact that in both Anderson and Hari’s articles the quote in question has ellipses, indicating hesitancy on Chavez’s part. But Hari claims he only did this when he was looking for clean, ungarbled quotes. This raises several questions, none of which Hari addresses in his latest apology. Why is it that his interview subjects express themselves so well when interviewed by others, and yet seem to become so garbled when he speaks to them that he needs to plagiarize other journalists’ work?

And, more importantly, what about Hari’s accounts can we trust? If some of the quotes in his articles are not the words Hugo Chavez or George Michael or Ann Leslie or Malalai Joya said to him, which ones are? How do we know that the bits in between the quotes are accurate? If Hugo Chavez gave Hari a garbled version of the same thing he said to Anderson, did he also look away when doing so, as Hari claims he did? How about the  part when Chavez patted Hari on the knee – did that really happen, or is it simply dramatic effect to heighten the interesting quotes he has stolen? Once you start reading Hari’s interviews and taking away the plagiarized quotes, you realize that there’s very little of substance left to the articles, but much melodramatic looking away, cigarette-smoking and knee-patting from the subjects. The details of body language he uses to surround so many of his plagiarized quotes don’t suggest a writer searching for clarity in order to offer an X-ray of his subjects’ finest thoughts’, but rather one who has deliberately and systematically misled his readers.

I fear Johann Hari’s latest apology is, rather like his last two, both manipulative and self-serving. If he is serious about regaining the respect and trust of his readers perhaps he should start by detailing, in The Independent or elsewhere, precisely which articles he did this with, to what extent, and be honest about why he did it. Taken as a whole, the plagiarism that has been discovered so far points to far worse than the occasional theft of prior quotes for the sake of clarity, but instead someone who has plagiarized major parts of many of his interviews, for over a decade. There are also still serious unanswered questions about whether he has fabricated quotes and even entire incidents in his articles on Dubai, the Central African Republic, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

I think Johann Hari’s latest apology is unconvincing and less than completely honest. He’s still trying to cover his back and minimise what he’s done, but I don’t think it is going to help him in the long term. I think it’s time he stopped dodging the most serious questions about his work and came clean about all of it, with an apology that does more than make himself out to be a naive soul whose only error was to care too much about clarity. His readers, and those whose work he has stolen, deserve a complete and genuinely remorseful account of his actions.