Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The trial of 'Mata' Hari

Hari: facing the Twitter firing squad
Johann Hari is the award-winning exotic dancer of British left-wing journalism who, like his Dutch namesake Mata, has been accused of going over to the other side. Rather than spying, his alleged crimes are fabricating stories, plagiarism, stealing quotes and lying. Many are hoping that his fate will be similar to Mata's, at least metaphorically. 

The story broke last week when it was revealed that quotations in a couple of interviews of his came not from the interview itself but from previously published work. The charges were irrefutable, since all the evidence was in the public domain and was efficiently disseminated on Twitter as the micro-blogging site showed its true worth (if you're prepared to ignore all the childish name-calling that went along with it). We didn't have to rely on what Hari's chums in the media said: we could see the evidence for ourselves. 

Hari was forced to explain himself. You can read his two attempts at this on his own site here, but here's the essence of them. I have included every point he's made in his defence and distilled them as accurately and honestly as I can. Neatly, there are ten of them. Items 1-6 are from 27 June; 7-10 were posted a day later.
  1. Sometimes interviewees have expressed the same idea better before. 
  2. None of my interviewees has ever claimed they were misquoted, even if they've complained about other things.
  3. It's not plagiarism or churnalism.
  4. Other journalists tell me it's normal practice.
  5. It makes the interviewee's ideas more accessible.
  6. If you've got a better idea of how to do it, please tell me.
  7. I only ever used clearer expressions of the same sentiment, and especially for foreigners.
  8. Every word I have quoted was used by the interviewee.
  9. I was wrong: an interview is a report of an encounter. It was a mistake to prioritise intellectual accuracy over reportorial accuracy.
  10. I'm sorry. I'll learn from it.
I won't tell you whether you should accept that, but I don't. Here's my take on his defence.
  1. I don't care if they've expressed the idea better before. I want something new. What if I've already read their book or their previous interviews? If I go to a restaurant I want a fresh meal, not the last customer's reheated vomit.
  2. Who cares whether the interviewee complains (though at least one of them has)? What are you, their PR? A correspondent for Hello! magazine? Your duty is to your readers, not the people you're interviewing.
  3. Yes, but whole sections of your interview with Malalai Joya were lifted from her book, and not just the quotes. Plagiarism and churnalism.
  4. I have no respect for such journalists. Nor should you, but you should perhaps work on the self-respect first (self-respect is not the same as ego. That seems to be in fine shape).
  5. Then you're a rubbish interviewer. Imagine if Newsnight had a live guest on the show, and every time the interviewer asked a question the producer cut to stock footage of the same interviewee answering a similar question on another show several years before. Would you feel cheated? I would.
  6. Read on.
  7. Gareth Thomas is Welsh. Some of them pretend not to speak English, but only to annoy tourists. Some poor bastard from Attitude magazine got some great quotes from him, and then a big-shot hack from a major newspaper nicked the quotes he worked hard to get and then passed them off as his own. And that is plagiarism.
  8. Yes, but he didn't say it to you, did he? If you write, "We stare at each other…then he says…" and then quote something he didn't say then, it means you're lying. You're also pretending that you're a better interviewer than you are.
  9. You don't really believe you were wrong. I can tell. You still see it as a value judgement between two kinds of truth. After a decade in journalism at the highest level, you're pretending you still don't know what an interview is.
  10. I don't think you are and I'll be surprised if you will.  
These are not isolated incidents. More and more interviews are being dissected to show that Hari's quotes are often verbatim or near-verbatim copies of quotes given to other interviewers at other times. The English courts have previously asserted that intellectual copyright exists in quotes, so he is guilty of plagiarism. He is using other people's interviewing talents to push his own career, while showing no respect for the issues he claims to care about. If he did care, he'd try to find something new rather than rehash other people's hard-won quotes.

Reading a lot of Hari's work in a short space of time, the corny repetitiveness of it gets a bit cloying. There's always a moment when the interviewee pauses, does something emotive (maybe looks away, perhaps wipes a tear from their eye or puffs on a cigarette) before leaning in and saying… 

…and you can almost guarantee that what follows is a quote lifted from somewhere else entirely. It's not as bad as copying your homework off Wikipedia, but it's close.

I was a journalist for fifteen years and I never did this. Mind you, on the trade press we did have some ethics, or maybe we had few enough readers that we valued and respected them more than Hari and the media friends who support him do.

Mata Hari was accused of sleeping with the enemy. One of Johann Hari's proudest boasts was that he had done the same. If it turns out he didn't, he could be in even more trouble. Me, I've seen enough already. I hope his ten-year ego trip ends here.

Further reading
Hari despises the Daily Mail, but he's happy to copy from it: 
Hari churns George Michael:
Hari gives (sells?) the same interview, now three years old, to the Huffington Post and calls it an exclusive:
Brian Whelan pulls several Hari "interviews" apart:
"But stealing quotes isn't plagiarism or breach of copyright!" Yes it is:
Then just type "Johann Hari" into Twitter.

Moral: No morals at all.

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