Why Simon Kelner is wrong to defend Johann Hari

Johann Hari is used to provoking controversy – as the Independent’s most outspoken left/liberal columnist its his stock-in-trade – but yesterday found himself on the receiving end of criticism of his integrity.

The reason? His repeated borrowing of quotes from interviews published by other journalists which he then drops into his own interviews as if they had been made directly in conversation.

The accusation first surfaced last week on the DSG blog concerning an interview Mr Hari undertook with ‘Italian communist and every ultra-leftist’s favourite “psychopath”’, Toni Negri. And the accusation went mainstream after Yahoo editor Brian Whelan’s demolition job, citing numerous examples of Mr Hari’s journalistic distortions under the tells-it-as-it-is headline, Is Johann Hari a copy-pasting churnalist?

Johann Hari’s defence is simple: though the quotes have been borrowed because they fit better with the interview than what the subject actually said, at no point has he sought to mislead readers as to the subject’s actual views, nor has he ever invented quotes. In other words, ignore the provenance claimed in the article, and focus solely on the content.

This is a spurious spin on ends-justify-means. A journalist’s first duty is to facts, and claiming that an interview subject has said something “with a shake of the head” when in fact you’ve copied-and-pasted their words from somebody else’s interview is very clearly a deception.

As Joel Gunter on Journalism.co.uk points out:

Hari’s simplistic take on the practice is also disingenuous, and I suspect he knows it. There are all sorts of problems associated with this kind of fudging, not least the question of whether his subjects can be confident of having any control over an interview, or whether his editors and readers will be able to trust what they get given. And once misrepresenting what was said a little bit, where do you stop?

He also highlights the case of the LA Times photographer who was sacked after passing off as real an image that was in fact a composite of two images he had captured. The parallel is clear.

Perhaps the best post I’ve read, though, is on the ironically-named Angry Mob blog:

… a few people on Twitter are making the argument that there are far worse crimes than this in journalism (true) or that Johann is kind of a good guy (also true – in my opinion) as if this somehow excuses him. I know that in terms of bad journalism this is pretty tame, but we expect bad journalism from tabloids who employ people precisely because they have absolutely no interest in the truth and are happy to push any agenda that sells … However, can we not expect something a little better from someone who has regularly written against dishonesty, propaganda and tabloid fictions? It is one of those occasions where you are not angry, more disappointed to discover that someone like Johann could think such dishonesty not important or worthy of any criticism.

Sadly though inevitably, most of this being viewed through a tribal prism. Many of the left/liberal commentariat are rallying to Mr Hari’s cause on the grounds that “it’s not so bad, is it? and anyway he’s basically a good guy” — yet they know they would have responded differently if this had happened to Melanie Phillips. Such subjectivity reduces journalism’s ethics to those of the playground, in which trust is based not on facts but whether you like someone or not.

But it is not Johann Hari who comes out worst of this episode in my view, though. He has made a mistake: some will say it’s unforgivable and he should be sacked; others will be more understanding, accept his semi-apology, and say give him a second chance.

No, the person who I think has most to apologise for is Simon Kelner, the Independent’s editor, who has resolutely abdicated editorial responsibility for his columnist’s deceit. He has claimed that no complaints have been received about Johann Hari in 10 years; a claim that Labour blogger Hopi Sen quickly pointed out was inaccurate, as shown here.

True, an editor should stick up for his staff – when they’re in the right. However, as in this case when they’re in the wrong, an editor should take said columnist to one side, give them an old-fashioned rollocking, and then pen an apology to the newspaper’s readers.

It’s clear that Simon Kelner does not feel in the least embarrassed about Johann Hari’s mistake. In fact, given today’s front-page teaser for his mea minima culpa with the belligerent headline, ‘What I think of the attacks on my professional integrity’, it seems Mr Kelner is enjoying the publicity even if it comes at the expense of his and the Indy’s reputation for integrity.

Earlier this week, his proprietor Alexander Lebedev was touting Mr Kelner as the likely head of a foundation for investigative journalism. It would seem an odd role to gift an editor who apparently cannot grasp why journalistic deception is wrong.

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  • Well said. The number of *reporters* who are outraged at Hari is telling. Pretending an intv is a colour opinion composite piece is disingenuous in the extreme. The twitter fun poking at him yesterday sums up his credibility now.

  • You are right. This is a test not of Hari. His position is clear. The bigger question is what the British newspaper industry will say and/or do about this. Given that Hari was challenged in Private Eye in 2003 over allegations that he had pretended to spend a month in Iraq as a journalist, when he was 2 weeks there on a package tour, and that he had pretended to be part of the ecstasy culture, when in fact he wasn’t, comparisons are bound to be drawn with the Jayson Blair incident in the USA.

    As a reporter who has been forced to bust a gut trying to get quotes, and who has sometimes spent months trying to establish a critical fact, I don’t want my reputation undermined in the USA with the old story about how British journalism has no ethics.

    I heard Peter Wilby on PM yesterday shrugging all this off, presumably because he didn’t want to be seen as casting the first stone. I found it sickening to listen to him. Now let’s see how seriously the Independent takes it. Simon Kelner’s first response was to see how to extract value from this incident, backing Hari and trying to make him even bigger, when Kelner should really be considering his own position.

    If editors don’t stand up for the honesty of what they publish, then their publishers should fire them as well.

  • Kirsten de Keyser 29th Jun '11 - 10:49am

    I’d like a quid for every journo who wakes up this morning with just one thought in mind “There, but for the grace of God…”

  • david thorpe 29th Jun '11 - 11:07am

    as a journalist of a decadess standing I can tell you that most in the industry regard what hari has done as the second most serious offence a journalist can commit, the most serious being making the quotes up, the left always defend their own hoewever so this doenst surprise me

  • david thorpe 29th Jun '11 - 11:09am

    @ lon

    hair sdi this a number of times, not just once, so their is no navety about it.
    and he is around long enough not to be niave

  • More to the point, why the hell is LDV carrying ads for the fundamentally illiberal Tax Payers Alliance?

    Have some common sense

  • lol

    Fair point, but theres always a risk that the odd LDV reader might be influenced.

    Would LDV accept ads for the BNP on the same basis? I sincerely hope not

  • Jules Wright 29th Jun '11 - 1:18pm

    Here’s an interesting quote from Jayson Blair, the NYT journo caught out and sacked for fictionalising his file copy in 2003: “I recreate the events without actually traveling there, correct. It clearly violated the ethics and the roles of the profession. It went beyond cutting corners.”

    Sound familiar Johann?

    [In case you thought that was Blair talking to me in the rural comfort of our garden earlier today, actually he was talking to Katie Couric on a sofa in a New York hotel some eight years ago.]

  • I think there is a large amount of “improving” of things that people say by journalists. I have been quoted in direct quotes in the local press saying things that I didn’t say directly but are not too far away from what I did say. TV interviews will edited together with “noddies” that look as if it is a continual flow of speech from the interviewee which it isn’t – and probably misrepresents them slightly as a result.

    The BBC’s online college of journalism as some quizes etc. as to what is (in its eyes) acceptable “fudges” and what are not.

    There is a difference between not having done an interview and saying that you have and stitching it together from other sources. And what Hari says he has done which is that he has done an interview and they have expressed a thought but they have expressed it better in their own writting or in some instances to another interviewer. In an article “A lot of Mr Bloggs said X but this was expressed better in his book when he said Y” disrupts the follow of a written article. There is debate to add when a fudge crosses the line of being unethical but to pretend that journalists don’t to do it to some degree in every report or article flies in the face of what actually happens.

  • Nobody who reads an interview with a footballer in a broadsheet can possibly believe that they are always quoted verbatim. The writer has clearly tidied up the English to make it more comprehensible. What Hari has done is very similar. Perhaps he should have made it clearer that it was a recycled quote rather than a direct one from his interview but the whole thing is being blown out of all proportion.

  • I have read the Indy since its first issue, but I rarely read hari’s self indulgent twaddle. and struggle to see why anyone would consider him to be either outspoken or left/liberal! If you had read his cheer-leading for the Iraq invasion (or worse, his later chest-beating ‘why i was wrong on Iraq’) you’d see exactly what I mean. He is a journo with no hinterland, having appeared from nowhere with a national column having achieved very little of distinction indeed, beyond perhaps being young and gay. This could have been an interesting base for his writing, but wasn’t. Now he has a little bit of notoriety to enjoy, but for not knowing the rules of his trade.

    Worry about something else, that matters.

  • ‘Tidying up’ quotes is one thing. As long as the sense is retained.
    Lot of people would be very unhappy if what they said was reported verbatim.

    “I, er, think that, look, we all know, um, the fact is we need to, er, do something to, um, you know, tackle the problem of flytipping.”
    Becomes in print:
    Councillor Jones said: “We need to tackle the problem of flytipping.”
    And everyone’s grateful!

    Hari copying quotes from elsewhere and passing them off as if they’d been said to him?
    Discredits him completely.

    The Indie might want to think how it reflects on the paper. But as all it damages otherwise is his reputation/career, it’s hardly the end of the world as we know it.

  • sackcloth and ashes 1st Jul '11 - 3:01pm

    Hari hasn’t just recycled quotes for his interviews. Two of them – with Hugo Chavez and Gareth Thomas – bear striking similarities with earlier interviews conducted (respectively) with Jon Lee Anderson and Matthew Todd:


    This is either a stunning coincidence, or two clear cases of blatant plagiarism.

  • matt severn 5th Jul '11 - 10:48pm

    He should be sacked if he has not the grace to resign. I have read his articles for years. Regardless of whether or not I agreed with him, I found them interesting, Now we discover a lot of his stuff is made up or plagarised. As a reader, I can no longer trust a single word he has written or will write in the future. That is why he has to go.

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