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Mea culpa? Johann Hari apologises for ‘error of judgement’

After yesterday’s storm, this morning’s calmer weather brings with it some reflection from Johann Hari about the scandal he has found himself caught up in.

Writing in today’s Independent, Hari has apologised for an “error of judgement” after being shown to have passed off unattributed material from elsewhere as direct interview quotes.

I did not and never have taken words from another context and twisted them to mean something different – I only ever substituted clearer expressions of the same sentiment, so the reader knew what the subject thinks in the most comprehensible possible words.

The front-page headline for his piece seems to have been changed at the 11th hour from “What I think about the attacks on my professional integrity” to “The lessons I must draw from these attacks on my journalism”.

Both have a certain amount of fighting talk about them. The second is softer around the edges and closer to Hari’s piece in the paper, which is an awkward mix of mea culpa and mea innocentia.

I don’t want to harp on about this. I’m not out to get Johann Hari, I don’t want to see him bullied or hounded, and some of yesterday’s frenzy left a sour taste in my mouth. But seeing people on Twitter call his piece in this morning’s paper “gracious” and “exemplary” and so on sticks in the craw a bit.

Hari is a very intelligent guy, intelligent enough for it not to wash that he was innocently doing something for the benefit of the reader. A “gracious” and “exemplary” response would be an honest one, which I don’t think this is. An honest response would admit that he knew then what he was doing was wrong, rather than sees now that it was. An honest response would admit that part of the reason he did it was to improve his own journalism. To make out that it was all about the reader is disingenuous, I think.

Commenting on my previous blog post on this, Guardian technology correspondent Charles Arthur disagreed with my claim that Hari was being disingenuous in his response. He says instead that a lack of proper journalism training is to blame. Arthur claims that the route up through King’s College, Cambridge to the New Statesman and on, didn’t give Hari the journalistic nous to know that what he was doing was wrong or the arsenal to defend himself against the allegations that followed.

It may be the case that Hari’s sentiments in the paper today are genuine, and bear out Arthur’s assessment that he didn’t know any better, but I don’t buy it. This was not about the readers. It does not do a disservice to the reader to give them an unpolished thought, the disservice is giving them one thing and telling them it’s another, and you don’t need to pass your NCTJs or come up the ranks of a local paper to know that.

Of course, phone hacking is worse, inventing quotes from scratch is worse, and there are probably plenty of other things that happen in our industry that are worse. But we don’t need to judge one thing by another, as if the worse of the two mitigated the lesser. Those other bad practices just serve to show that the reaction to this situation was way out of proportion. As James Ball pointed out in a discussion with me this morning, the fact of this 2003 Private Eye piece about Hari adequately demonstrates the amplifying power of Twitter today.

This is the last thing I’ll write about the issue, I hope, but I do think it merits further discussion. It’s a shame that the debate about the practice itself has been somewhat hijacked and deformed by the brouhaha on Twitter. I know these things aren’t black or white, and that Johann Hari is no Jayson Blair. There are shades of grey in between. And I don’t want to see a campaigning writer and someone who is a force for good in journalism end up on the scrap heap over something like this. But I’m just not sure that today’s defence stands up. As Samira Shackle notes in her New Statesman post today, Hari still hasn’t addressed the charge of lifting material from other interviews as well as from the writings of his subjects.

I’m sure that over the coming months Hari will vie with his Independent colleague Robert Fisk for the dubious honour of most-scrutinised journalist, and I’m equally sure they won’t find any new copy and paste jobs. The level of coverage of this has been sufficient to teach anyone a lesson.

It remains to be seen whether an inquiry into his 2008 Orwell Prize will find that his submissions are affected.

UPDATE: A discussion on Twitter between myself and the Guardian’s Charles Arthur followed this post after he commented on it below. You can see the whole thing at this link, starting at the bottom of the page. The first tweet should start “Interesting comment from @charlesarthur…” and the last “@charlesarthur @jeremyduns Sobering. Threatening to escalate…” – if this is no longer displaying properly please let me know: joelmgunter@gmail.com.

Image by internets_dairy on Flickr. Some rights reserved.