Johann Hari Is Still Lying To You
I. ‘You Are Being Lied To About Pirates.’
It's not his best-known article, but the title of this 2009 piece by disgraced British journalist Johann Hari strikes me as offering a clue to his success.
Whoever wrote the headline, Hari or a sub-editor at The Independent, had a very good idea of how to appeal to his audience. Despite being published three years before Upworthy was founded, it's a very Upworthy-ish headline, just needing the addition of '... And The Reason Will Make You Rethink Your Life' to complete the effect. It makes you want to Facebook it and tweet it, or retweet it. Pirates were heavily in the news at the time, and people were fascinated and wanted to know more, while perhaps feeling slightly queasy at the shallowness and sensationalism of much of the reporting. Here's the perfect article for that. You think you know about pirates from watching the rolling news about them. But this article will tell you where you've gone wrong and uncover the hidden truth about the subject.
The headline and the article itself appeal to our desire to be shown the light by a daring, truthtelling voice in the darkness, to correct our own impressions – and to correct others'. Because once you've read it you've Seen The Light about pirates, and in sharing it you can gently lord that fact over your less-enlightened friends on social media. Intrigued by your smug certainty and piqued by the same desire of not wanting to be the only one left in the room still fooled by the shadowy forces apparently conspiring to feed us this false narrative, they click and join the circle of those who are free, and no longer being lied to about pirates.
The lies in question are about politics, of course. It turns out that the corporate imperialist West is to blame for piracy in Somalia. By the end of the article, Hari has reached peak Hariness:
'The story of the 2009 war on piracy was best summarised by another pirate, who lived and died in the fourth century BC...'
He's become an eagle surveying the scene from above, and seemingly from a vantage-point in the future. Rather than simply being 'something that's in the news a lot at the moment', the subject of his piece has become 'The story of the 2009 war on piracy'.
Such melodramatic rhetoric works for almost any subject under the sun, it seems – except for the topic of Johann Hari. Few people, especially those on the left, want to see the light about him. Pirates? Sure. The largest scandal to hit British journalism in decades? Look, a new Nicki Minaj video! My headline is but a forlorn attempt to emulate Hari's prototypical clickbaitery, and I suspect this article will fall on deaf ears. Weep for me as I write this on a Sunday morning, for no reason other than I am gnashing my teeth.
Why? Because this week, it 'emerged', as newspapers like to say, that Hari is to make a comeback with a book, Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, which will be published early next year by Bloomsbury in the UK and the US. Hari has written about it on his website. His advisory status to Russell Brand has so far garnered a little attention. The astonishing news that a major publisher is publishing his book hasn't.
Why do I care? I don't know Hari, don't work for a British newspaper, don't have any skin in his career. And fine, he was a plagiarist, but it was a few years ago. Water under the bridge. Let it go, Jeremy. Hari's been punished enough, and will surely have changed his ways by now. Bloomsbury is a very respected publishing house, and will have checked this out very thoroughly indeed. It might be a very good book.
All true. And part of me does feel all that. But another part of me paid some attention to what Hari did, and is still doing, and doesn't think it's that clear. In fact, what should be clear is that no self-respecting newspaper, magazine or publisher should go anywhere near Johann Hari in the foreseeable future. It's the stubborn refusal to apply basic editorial requirements to Hari, and to look seriously at what he did (and what he hasn't done), that makes me annoyed enough to write this on a sunny day, albeit on my terrace and with plenty of caffeine close to hand.
The story of my war on journalistic shonkiness in 2014 is that you are being lied to about Johann Hari, and he is lying to you, and you don't care much, perhaps because you're a liberal progressive and his articles tick all the boxes for you and Christ this Tory coalition is dreadful, welcome back, Johann, we need you in the struggle, take a pew.
II. Keep Calm And Pretend Nothing Is Wrong With Your Ally
I'm as hand-wringing as the next leftie, but this situation shouldn't be good enough for you. You can't take Hari as a fearless, rigorous investigator of injustice in the world if you refuse to apply basic editorial rigour to his work. So let me try to do that, as I've tried to before.
I first became aware of the Hari saga via a tweet by journalist Nina Lamparski in June 2011:
'Is Orwell Prize-winning journalist Johann Hari a plagiarist, asks @brianwhelanhack http://bit.ly/mb1u5C'
I knew who Hari was, and had read and admired many of his pieces. Perhaps even shared them on Facebook. He was one of the most celebrated journalists of his generation. A left-wing firebrand, he primarily wrote for The Independent but was published by many others: The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Slate, The Huffington Post, The New Republic, The Nation, The Evening Standard, GQ... the list goes on. He was a regular on the BBC, with a slot as a cultural reviewer but also in demand on a huge range of political issues. By a relatively young age, he had won several prestigious awards, including The Orwell Prize. He was twice Amnesty UK's 'Newspaper Journalist of the Year', was named Stonewall's 'Gay Journalist of the Year' and won the Martha Gellhorn Prize.
But it all unravelled after Brian Whelan's article.
Despite liking Johann Hari's stuff and broadly agreeing with his politics, I actually read Brian's piece. All the way through, carefully. And by the time I got to the end of it the answer to the question in Nina's tweet was staring me in the face. Yes, incredible as it seemed, Orwell Prize-winning journalist Johann Hari was a plagiarist. The evidence Brian had presented was incontrovertible, and enough to strip him of all those awards, for him to be sacked from The Independent, for him to explain what he had done and apologise, and for that newspaper and others to launch investigations into what had gone wrong and explain it to their readers. My reaction wasn't, I don't think, extreme. I think it is what any journalist, editor or publisher should have concluded after reading Brian's piece.
But very few did. The wagons circled. Those who have since claimed they defended Hari in the early days of the scandal because all the evidence had not yet come out are talking nonsense. There was more than enough evidence he was a plagiarist in Brian's piece, but people chose not to read it properly and decided to ignore the uncomfortable truth instead of looking at it more. The evidence of further plagiarism emerged because others looked at it. It soon became clear that the full extent of it was massive, but Brian's article presented enough that could not plausibly be explained any other way, and which any sensible person should have seen at the time.
Despite sufficient proof of his plagiarism being there for anyone who chose to look, Hari responded to these initial claims by denying any wrongdoing. He tweeted:
'When interviewing a writer for a 6000-word profile, accurately quoting their writing is not "plagiarism" or "cut & paste journalism"'
That annoyed me – he had been caught, and in denying the obvious was only making it worse. But it also annoyed me that professional journalists on the left were so blind to this as to either dismiss or minimise the allegations and defend Hari. Owen Jones tweeted:
'In scheme of things, Johann Hari's "offences" are minor and the reaction is disproportionate. Twitter mob need to put their pitchforks down'
Either Owen Jones did not properly read Brian's article showing these 'offences', or he thought unmistakable and serious plagiarism was minor. I suspect it was the former, because he was on the same paper as Hari and broadly shared his politics. An understandable human reaction, but not, I think even he would admit, a very professional one.
Owen Jones was wrong that the offences Brian Whelan had already revealed were minor, but it is also telling that he thought what had been revealed by that point (a day after Whelan published his article) had to be the full extent of those offences. Allegations of plagiarism, especially if as clear-cut as these ones were, don't suggest looking the other way and dismissing after a day. Rather, they urge editors to investigate further. Jones was a journalist writing for The Independent, not an editor, but as his paper didn't investigate Brian Whelan's claims and as Hari had denied them despite them being blatantly true people were annoyed and so looked themselves. It wasn't a mob. It was people, annoyed that The Independent and others were refusing to look at it, and so looking at it themselves.
In response to this, several other left-wing journalists quickly decided that those who really deserved criticism here were the people pointing out Hari's plagiarism. They accused them of bad faith, of being right-wing, of being homophobic, of engaging in a witch-hunt.
I was accused of all of those, because it was clear to me that Hari's entire career was suspect and I was annoyed that journalists I had long respected thought it didn't deserve to be looked at properly. Every time I looked at another of Hari's articles I found plagiarism, and I wrote about most of them on this site. As Brian's article should already have made plain would be the case, Hari had plagiarised extensively for years.
III. The Unbearable Shonkiness of Hari
It eventually turned out that Hari had also spent a lot of time smearing perceived rivals under an elaborately concocted identity on Wikipedia. This was seen by many as a greater ‘sin’ than the plagiarism – it certainly garnered more column inches. And almost completely ignored in the furore about his plagiarism and the surreal lengths he went to to protect his “David Rose” sockpuppet from being uncovered, it looks like Hari might have fabricated quotes and incidents in many of his articles.
I say ‘looks like’, because that’s based on my own assessment of a small selection of his prodigious body of work. Hari himself has failed to clear any of this up. After more and more examples were found, by Brian Whelan, Guy Walters, myself and quite a few others, Hari finally admitted to being a plagiarist (without ever using the word) and grudgingly apologised for it, as well as for attacking others on Wikipedia.
But he did no more than that. And other than those efforts none of his work has been looked at by anyone else, either. Not by The Independent or any of the other newspapers and magazines who'd published him since 2001. Many of them reported on his fall from grace, but none have conducted an autopsy into what he did in the articles they published by him, or if they have done they haven’t enlightened their readers as to what they found.
Perhaps they were waiting for Hari to do this. After all, why should they trudge through hundreds of his articles trying to figure out what he plagiarised or invented when he could simply save them the trouble by coming clean and telling them? That is what you generally do if you are truly sorry for your mistakes – try to rectify them. But Hari clearly had, and has, no interest in providing a full and public account of his actions. It’s the obvious and I think necessary first step in regaining any credibility as a journalist, because as well as saving all those publications from conducting lengthy investigations and letting them know what to do with his articles – almost all remain on their websites without disclaimers – it would also have helped readers he deceived make up their minds about just how bad his journalistic malpractice was, and how readily and soon they could trust him again, if ever.
A full account of his actions would have been a meaningful and useful way to try to put some of what he had done wrong right, but it would also, of course, have come at a price. Some of those other awards might have disappeared along with The Orwell if Hari admitted any articles he submitted for them contained plagiarism or fabrication. Hari admitted to some very minimal quote-tampering, but I have seen significantly deeper problems in the articles of his I’ve looked at. So owning up to it all might mean the sheer extent of it would lead most people to think that, however sincere his apology, someone capable of such long-term and shameless dishonesty should probably not be trusted to appear in a serious publication again. My guess is he made the cynical calculation that he had a better chance of revitalising his career further down the road if he admitted to a bit of it, but left the full extent unexplained.
If so, he wasn’t really sorry at all, of course. The situation would be rather like a shopkeeper discovering that an employee has been stealing from the till. Confronted, the employee initially denies it, then accuses his boss of ruining his life, but eventually breaks down. ‘I’m so sorry!’ he says. ‘I didn’t mean to, but yes, I did steal a few quid.’ But despite being repeatedly asked precisely how much money they mean by ‘a few’ quid, the supposedly apologetic employee refuses to say. Was it five pounds, or five thousand? He won’t say. A couple of years later, he turns up at the doors of the shop asking to be re-employed in his old job by the till. Would you hire him again?
Well, someone has. Hari’s plan, if it was that, has worked. Bloomsbury is a fantastic publisher. What are they thinking? Yes, he is a name, but Hari’s decision not to offer a full account of what he did – which of his articles were plagiarised, from who, what was fabricated, the lot – should be a serious red flag to any respected editor considering publishing new work by him. But there are more serious issues than his lack of explanation. The way he tried to weasel out of taking real responsibility for his actions is telling in other ways.
In his ‘mea culpa, sorta’, Hari argued that a lot of what he had done wrong had really been about a misunderstanding over the conventions of how journalists use quotes.
'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.'
This is deceptive nonsense in several ways, as previously-furious-enough-to-blog-about-Hari-me argued. Hari is appealing to other journalists here, but eliding what he did (plagiarising others' quotes) with a real problem they have that has other obvious solutions than plagiarism, however experienced one is. Yes, when you interview people, they generally don’t speak in beautiful fully-formed sentences. This can indeed present challenges when you want to quote them. The ageing film actor you’re interviewing might say something that would be good to have in the story but hard to quote because of the way they had said it. Transcribed precisely, they might answer your question about their forthcoming film's box office prospects as follows:
‘Oh, yeah. Yeah, of course. I know. If it tanks. Say it does? Sure. Yeah. I mean. I’d be... Oh, the beanies. Jesus! Imagine. I’d be out. Totally screwed. Totally. Screwed. Yeah.’
There’s not an easily usable quote in that because the sentences don’t flow, the logic is disjointed, and unless you want to make the point they’re an inarticulate fool, it would be jarring for most readers.
Experienced journalists come across challenges similar to this in every single interview they conduct. They’re not insurmountable, but commonplace and usually just require a little dexterity of thinking. Despite Hari’s claims he was some sort of journalistic toddler who didn’t even know that quotemarks are used to represent precisely what someone has said or written, there are very well-established conventions for how to deal with such problems, and you don't need to ask around to discover them. It is widely accepted form that ‘ums’, ‘errs’ and similar prevarications can be removed from quotes, as can unconscious repetitions and any obvious unintended mistakes in grammar – all within reason and applying common sense. If the quote is still too messy to work, you either take it out of quotes and paraphrase it or use a few words from it that punch home. So the above hypothetical speech might end up in print as:
‘Farris is under no illusions that his star is fading. He admits with a laconic drawl that he is “totally screwed” if Commando Red IV disappoints the studio accountants, who he repeatedly refers to scornfully as “the beanies”.’
The essence of the speech is there, and they have been quoted entirely accurately. They said those precise words, in that context. So, no, people don’t speak in perfect quotes, but dealing with this and still being accurate and fair is second nature to most journalists.
Other conventions used by all journalists except it would seem Johann Hari include ellipses to indicate missing words and square brackets to make subjects clearer. Christopher Hitchens made a very good point about the use of ellipses in this article on Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which David Paxton pointed me to yesterday:
'But if you leave out absolutely everything that might give your "narrative" a problem and throw in any old rubbish that might support it, and you don't even care that one bit of that rubbish flatly contradicts the next bit, and you give no chance to those who might differ, then you have betrayed your craft. If you flatter and fawn upon your potential audience, I might add, you are patronizing them and insulting them. By the same token, if I write an article and I quote somebody and for space reasons put in an ellipsis like this (…), I swear on my children that I am not leaving out anything that, if quoted in full, would alter the original meaning or its significance. Those who violate this pact with readers or viewers are to be despised.'
Most journalists know all this, and if they don't they should. There are areas of ambiguity and some journalists might be stricter on certain points than others. For example, if I put something in a quote, with the exception of ums and errs that is precisely what that person said. If I think it won't work as a long quote but I need the information in it, I find another way to do it, like paraphrasing out of quotes, quoting just a few key words in a sentence that does it justice, or carefully using ellipses.
But it's true that not everyone works to precisely the same system, and how to 'clean up' quotes is flexible, to a degree. Hari counted on this in that weaselly apology. He used the flexibility to excuse his own (barely accounted for) plagiarism. A journalist who is more likely to clean up a quote that bit too much is all the more likely to buy Hari’s explanation. But it's a false argument, used by Hari to disguise his own dodgy journalistic practices. Journalists should always strive to make quotes as close to what was said as possible, and preferably identical. Because you don't want to be unfair, inaccurate or lie about what people have said.
With around a decade’s experience as a journalist, Hari should of course have known all of this by the time of his disgrace. In his 2011 'apology', he claimed he didn’t, but that he was determined to learn from his mistakes:
'Christopher Hitchens once wrote: “If you don’t want to sound like the Pope, who apologises for everything and for nothing, then your apology should cost you something.” I agree. So first, even though I stand by the articles which won the George Orwell Prize, I am returning it as an act of contrition for the errors I made elsewhere, in my interviews. But this isn’t much, since it has been reported that they are minded to take it away anyway. (I apologise to them for the time they’ve had to spend on this.) So second, I am going to take an unpaid leave of absence from The Independent until 2012, and at my own expense I will be undertaking a programme of journalism training. (I rose very fast in journalism straight from university.) And third, when I return, I will footnote all my articles online and post the audio online of any on-the-record conversations so that everyone can hear them and verify they were said directly to me.'
Now he has returned. I suspect he is hoping that a number of factors will lead to his rehabilitation. He has received some extremely impressive endorsements for his book, from Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Elton John. Bloomsbury have big promotional plans for it in place. They have, it seems, decided not to inform potential readers of Hari's troubled past. The Amazon page for the book lists all of Hari's awards but for the returned Orwell Prize, and features a quote from The Daily Telegraph:
'Perhaps the most influential journalist of his generation.'
Yes, blurbs are often taken out of context, but this is one of the most extraordinarily dishonest examples I've seen. That quote is from a Telegraph article about his plagiarism.
Early indications suggest Hari has reasons to be optimistic about his rehabilitation. I think it is misplaced.
IV. How Johann Hari Hasn't Learned A Damn Thing
Sometimes in the course of my research I come across an interesting endnote that I think is worth pursuing, consult the source cited... and find that it doesn't really say what was claimed for it. That sort of fudging often works because people are blinded by endnotes. If it has loads of endnotes, people think, it's probably well researched. I've looked at one example of this, Donald McCormick. Many of his hoaxes inform books and articles today.
Similarly, Hari has now published audio extracts on his website of his interviews, to waylay fears he is still cutting corners. Sounds good!
But due diligence isn't simply ‘Oh, there are loads of endnotes – it must be well-researched, then.’ Or ‘Oh, he has posted the audio clips of his interviews: he’s reformed. Phew.’ Sorry, but it isn’t. That is laziness of the kind that allowed Hari to get away with being a plagiarist for so long. You have to follow the endnotes and check that the sources say what is being claimed. You have to listen to the audio clips and check that the quotes accurately reflect them. Hari himself gave this as a reason for posting audio: 'so that everyone can hear them and verify they were said directly to me.' But in just a few minutes of listening to the audio he has posted, I found several alarming problems.
Some of the quotes aren't even in the articles he claims they are in, which suggests a certain level of carelessness. Some present challenges in that he was interviewing people through a translator, but by and large he seems to have been reasonably fair with these, although I think he cleans up rather more infelicities than I would. But there is one audio snippet that made me stop in my tracks and - I'm getting the hang of this Upworthy-style - should make you, too.
It's the first quote from Sarah Brook. The clip is just seven seconds long. She says:
'I was the person who found the – me and my colleague – who found the bullet in the leg.'
I've put it in quotes because it is a direct quote. That is what she said. But it's a little awkward. How to render that in an article? Well, I'd probably not use that quote, but instead write something like 'Brook and a colleague found the bullet in the leg.' And then quote her.
But that isn't what Hari did in his article published this month in the British Airways magazine High Life. Instead, he has this:
'Then a corpse was found. It had been there a while. Most of the meat had rotted away. It was a skeleton with hooves. The horn had been chopped off, and the entire skull was found elsewhere. The tail had been cut off. 'I was the person,' Sarah tells me years later, in a café in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 'who found the bullet in the leg'. It became clear that Sarah had stumbled into a turning point in history — one she couldn't have foreseen.
She was standing over the body of the last ever Vietnamese rhino. This subspecies had survived unchanged for nine million years, and now it was gone forever.'
That quote is inaccurate. I have heard it and verified it was not said directly to Johann Hari, and you can, too. It is significantly inaccurate, too, because it leaves out a key fact – two people found the bullet. There is no valid journalistic reason to leave out the second person his interviewee has told him about. Hari has misquoted his interviewee, and in doing so risked making her come across as boastful when she was not, a liar when she was not, and perhaps even created a problem for her with that colleague. And he has also misled us, his readers.
It's a very short quote, but it is important because of what it shows about how Hari still works. He has the tape, and he has uploaded it, so this must have been deliberate. Why did he do it? Not just to make a complicated story simpler. Two people is not that complicated (although Hari would have had to do a bit of digging to find out who the other colleague was and mention their role in the story). I think he twisted the truth here because it made his narrative cleaner, but also sexier and more important: he, Johann Hari, has grabbed the interview with the person who found the bullet in the last ever Vietnamese rhino in existence. If he had told us the truth, that Sarah Brook was one of the people to find it, that would have been less dramatic. In the sentence after the deceptive quote, he has Brook stumbling into 'a turning point in history — one she couldn't have foreseen'. She has become more important than she was in reality. In truth, she and her colleague had stumbled into it together and there might have been others at the scene, too. The turning point in history is one Hari has chosen to distort to make more powerful for his own ends.
We don't know the full extent of what Hari did in his journalism for ten years, because he refuses to say and nobody has bothered to look. But what about his new journalism? What about his book? Presumably, as per his promise, he will publish all the audio for his quotes for it on his website. Presumably, Bloomsbury has already checked them to make sure, despite not having any record of what he got up to for a decade, that he is now scrupulously honest and accurate in his work.
But I have my doubts. Hari lied in 2011, and he is still lying now. The reasons nobody has bothered to do anything about it should depress you.
I've just received an email from @Archie_V in response to this piece, which I'm reprinting below with his permission. It's about some of the other audio extracts placed on Hari's site last week, the ones involving an interpreter:
'The problems are with all three clips featuring Alex Ferreira, Hari's "fixer and translator" in Montevideo.
Here, A (italics) is what was said in Spanish. B is a reasonable translation of what was said. C is what Hari, via Ferreira, claims was said.
A. Nosotros comenzamos a ver cómo en Uruguay comenzaba a suceder lo mismo que viene sucediendo en otros países de América Latina, y dijimos "Esto hay que pararlo. !Stop!" Y si no, dentro de poco, cuestión de tiempo, estamos como Méjico.
B. We began to see how in Uruguay the same thing was starting to happen as had been happening in other Latin American countries, and we said, "This has to be stopped. Halt!" Because otherwise, before too long, it's only a matter of time, we're going to be like Mexico.
C. If we don't do this now, in a matter of time, what happened in Mexico [will happen here]. We're going to be in big trouble.
A. Corriendo el riesgo de venderla, porque está prohibida, da más garantías de ganancias, que se van a acumular, ¿no? Y transforma a los narcotraficantes en grandes capitalistas.
B. Running the risk of selling it when it's illegal assures higher profits, which are going to build up, right? And that turns the drug dealers into big business figures [lit: "into major capitalists"].
C. By not legalising marijuana, what you do is transfer all that money to criminals, and make the drug dealers into a big institution with power.
A. El mensaje [es] de banalizar el consumo y por lo tanto cuando baja la percepción del riesgo, está comprobado que aumenta el consumo, especialmente el de los jóvenes.
B. The message [is one] of making consumption a less serious matter, so when the perception of risk drops, consumption has been shown to rise, especially among young people.
C. As soon as you legalise ... people will be using more.
In all three cases, the translation is so loose that there can be no justification for quotation marks: it's simply not what the person said. Sometimes the "fixer" even adds his own commentary ("We're going to be in big trouble"), at best as his own understanding of the implications of the interviewee's words, but absolutely not what the person actually said. (Institution with power? Where did that come from?)
By the way, my bona fides: I'm a professional Spanish-English translator of 20 years' standing. I'd stand by the above "B" translations if ever required to do so, certifying them officially if necessary (here that has the same legal force as a notarised affidavit).
I appreciate that Hari's budget may not have run to being able to afford pro interpreting services for his interviews, hence his use of local "fixers" (presumably people from NGOs or other agenda-driven journalists). That's OK to get the gist of what people say to him, but you don't put gists in quotes. There can be no excuse for this. Once back in the UK he could comfortably have got what amounts to three minutes of tape transcribed and translated properly for a two-figure sum, no problem. Couldn't he even afford that?
If it hadn't been for your blog today it wouldn't have occurred to me to listen to those tapes. Doing so and translating them took me ten minutes. Ten minutes that someone might have taken on Hari's behalf, but no.'