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‘Is there a better way of doing this?’: Johann Hari responds to plagiarism accusations

June 28th, 2011Posted by in Press freedom and ethics

Independent columnist and interviewer Johann Hari has come under fire over the past week for so-called copy and paste journalism.

First the DSG blog pointed out the remarkable similarities between Hari’s 2004 interview with Tony Negri and Negri’s own 2003 book, Negri on Negri. Then Brian Whelan, an editor at Yahoo! Ireland, did a little more digging around and unearthed more similarities. Whelan took a close look at Hari’s interview with Gideon Levy, published in the Independent last year, and found that chunks of it had been lifted from both Levy’s own writing and interviews he gave to other journalists.

It’s important to note the copied passages are not cited as quotes from their original source, which would be perfectly acceptable, but rather passed off as having been said in Hari’s own interview, complete with such dramatic additions as: “With a shake of the head, he says…” and “After saying this, he falls silent, and we stare at each other for a while. Then he says, in a quieter voice…”

What is perhaps more surprising than the evidence that the Independent’s star interviewer has been lifting quotes from elsewhere to neaten up his work, is a blog post from Hari last night defending the practice.

The post, titled “interview etiquette”, explains that he occasionally replaces quotes from an interview with quotes from elsewhere in which the subject has better expressed the same idea.

So occasionally, at the point in the interview where the subject has expressed an idea, I’ve quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech. It’s a way of making sure the reader understands the point that (say) Gideon Levy wants to make as clearly as possible, while retaining the directness of the interview. Since my interviews are intellectual portraits that I hope explain how a person thinks, it seemed the most thorough way of doing it.

Hari claims to be bemused that a blogger considers this plagiarism, and says that he has called round “a few other interviewers for British newspapers” who told him that they do the same thing from time to time.

But Hari’s defence that he would expect somebody interviewing him about Martin Amis to replace something like: “Um, I think, you know, he got the figures for, uh, how many Muslims there are in Europe upside down” with something he’d written “more cogently about him a month before” is disingenuous. No journalist is expected to quote so verbatim as to include ums, uhs, and you knows. Features would be a complete mess. But they should, without doubt, be expected to not pass off other material as having been said in their interview.

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?

It should be acknowledged that all journalists pick and choose quotes from an interview as they see fit, eschewing thousands of words for a few quotes sometimes, and this can carry with it its own forms of misrepresentation. There is a fine, but important line, however, between that and falsifying what was said in an interview.

Hari finishes his post by saying that he is “open to suggestions from anyone who thinks there’s a better way of doing this”.

I have one: ask the right questions, get the answers you are looking for if possible, or if not work with what you’ve got. If your subject has expressed an idea more cogently elsewhere, point your readers in that direction and let them decide for themselves. If they um and ar, cut out the umms and arrs. No one is going to write an accusatory blog post about you doing that.

Hari’s actions aren’t a far cry from the recent case of Brian Walski, who was fired from his job as a staff photographer on the LA Times for filing a composite image. There were few objections to Walski’s sacking, and none from the man himself who issued a contrite apology. Alterations and composites are unacceptable in professional photojournalism, why should it be any different with the written word?

Image by internets_dairy on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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  • http://donnachadelong.info Donnacha DeLong

    There’s another thing he could do – properly attribute the source. Acknowledge that this quote is something they wrote earlier.

  • http://www.blogofmonkeys.com jbayston

    This is a sad situation. He has undoubtedly broken trust with his audience. In my experience in newspapers, quotes are edited to take out the ‘ums and urghs’ and then – if it doesn’t make sense – the journo contacts the subject to clarify and change it so that it does mean what the subject intended. Though it must be said, that if you ask the right question, you will get a straight answer.
    I think there are two big issues here. First newspapers now have so few sub-editors who are knowledgeable enough or have the time to check these things, that a journo can get away with it. Smaller staffs inevitably lead to less checking, with greater onus for honesty upon the supplier. Secondly, Hari is a highflier at the Independent, and a small, but significant media commentator in his own right, appearing on art shows and discussion programmes. I have often wondered how these people manage to produce so much and speak with such authority upon so many diverse subjects. I imagined that perhaps they are naturally gifted, or have boundless energy. I never thought they just lift it from someone else’s hard work. I think Hari should be taken off interviews for a while and allowed to rediscover what drives him in the first place.

  • Nikki Bayley

    I’ve always felt that an interview gives the reader a chance to see a warts and all, up-close-and-personal view of someone. So, for me, that always meant if the person I was interviewing was hesitant, or if they were warm and excited, or if they were off-hand -whatever – I would say so and write up what they said when we were together in that interview. I could also go on to use quotes that they had made, perhaps in more articulate times, and attribute those correctly. What Johann has done, is create an airbrushed essay. It’s not an interview as I think most people understand one to be. Saying that the people he’s interviewed don’t feel misquoted is missing the point. I’m a reader and I feel misled.
    I really admired his work, and was always so impressed that he managed to draw such incredibly articulate copy from his interviewees… guess I know how he did that now.

  • http://twitter.com/yonmei Yonmei

    Johann Hari says he’s “open to suggestions from anyone” but his blog doesn’t have any means of commenting on it, and I and others are blocked from responding to his twitter because we argued with him.

    (I disagreed with Hari’s support of East End Gay Pride, and argued with him over several tweets: others have been blocked for similar reasons.)

    Perhaps if Hari were more inclined to welcome civil disagreement with his views, he’d be more aware that faking interviews is not well thought of?

  • Nikki Bayley

    Aaargh – please can we not de-rail this & make it into something that it isn’t – this should be about best practice in journalism – not gay pride!

    FWIW, I absolutely agree – we desperately need subs…

  • http://heyre.be Sam

    “it’s own”? Really? On a journalism blog?

  • Sarah Booker

    Sam: It has been corrected.

  • http://twitter.com/yonmei Yonmei

    Relevant to the current discussion: in 2003, Noam Chomsky read what Johann Hari claimed as an “interview” – in which it appears Hari was already doing this kind of cut-and-paste fixing of what the interviewee “said”, to make it appear that he and Chomsky had talked together.

    Johann Hari quotes Chomsky’s letter as an attack on himself.

    With the benefit of hindsight – and the knowledge of what Johann Hari’s “interview” standards are – it appears Noam Chomsky’s criticisms were both justified and quite civil, considering.

    My point about East End Gay Pride wasn’t the Pride itself, but Johann’s inability to accept criticism or civil disagreement. Had he been better able to accept Noam Chomsky’s critique of his “interview” style eight years ago, we might not be reading #interviewbyhari tweets today.

  • Kim

    Hasn’t Hari got form on this, though? I remember Private Eye taking him to task a few times when he apparently played fast and loose with the facts. Details here:

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Johann_Hari

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  • Charles

    “Hari’s simplistic take on the practice is also disingenuous, and I suspect he knows it. ”

    I suspect he doesn’t. Investigate precisely what journalism training he has done. NCTJ? NUJ training? Two years on a local paper? Did he do anything approaching a journalism training?

    From his about page: “He studied Social and Political Science at King’s College, Cambridge, and graduated with a Double First, He began his career as a staff reporter for the New Statesman in 2001″

    Not seeing much time spent reporting on weddings, deaths, profit/loss or actually anything there.

    So no, I don’t think he does know it. Or at least, I don’t think he did until earlier today. And now he’s a bit puzzled at why and how these other people actually re-do the whole process of asking famous people what they think, when it’s already in their books.

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  • Andrew Wood

    Is Johann Hari a member of the NUJ, and if so, what is the NUJ stance on what he did?

  • http://www.nuj.org.uk Lawrence Shaw

    Hi Andrew,

    Johann Hari has confirmed on several occasions he is not a member of the NUJ, in spite of the union being recognised at the Independent and also representing thousands of freelances. I have asked him why he is not a member several times via twitter and he has never responded with an answer.

    The NUJ Code of Conduct, which we believe all journalists should strive to abide by, is accessible to all and you can see it here.

    http://www.nuj.org.uk/innerPagenuj.html?docid=174

    Best

    Lawrence

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