In what has to be one of the worst-reported stories on this side of the Atlantic, the Independent newspaper reporter Johann Hari, who was under investigation by the paper for allegedly editing his interviews for his stories in ways that inserted words the interviewed had written or said in previous publications or speaking engagements, has taken a leave of absence from the paper following his apology. In addition to his interiews being altered, Hari has also admitted that he used dummy Wikipedia accounts to discredit or harass his critics. On the face of it, Hari metaphorically put words in people’s mouth.
After the paper’s internal review found that Hari had included outside quotations and attributed them to the interviewed, in direct violation of ethical behavior and to be frank, intelligence, the Independent gave him a slap on the wrist. Hari is returning his Orwell Prize, and issued an “apology’ in the paper.
In his apology. Hari reveals his motivation for editing his and others Wikipedia pages:
The other thing I did wrong was that several years ago I started to notice some things I didn’t like in the Wikipedia entry about me, so I took them out. To do that, I created a user-name that wasn’t my own. Using that user-name, I continued to edit my own Wikipedia entry and some other people’s too. I took out nasty passages about people I admire – like Polly Toynbee, George Monbiot, Deborah Orr and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I factually corrected some other entries about other people. But in a few instances, I edited the entries of people I had clashed with in ways that were juvenile or malicious: I called one of them anti-Semitic and homophobic, and the other a drunk. I am mortified to have done this, because it breaches the most basic ethical rule: don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. I apologise to the latter group unreservedly and totally.
This reveals Hari to be a much more petty writer than previously thought. Instead of writing better and explaining to the public why his critics were wrong, he went ahead and went the route of a teenager in high school. It was childish.
In what can be best described as piggybacking on a better writer’s reputation, Hari cites Hitchens as his motivation to send back his Orwell Prize. Not his, you know, conscience.
But offering words of apology is not enough. 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.
Andrew Sullivan at the Dish offered his friendly, elder-brother style comment:
The report on his alleged plagiarism convicted him only of sloppiness, and the charge against his reporting in one instance were counter-balanced by two sources who backed him up. The Independent concluded there was no solid evidence he had made anything up. Nonetheless, the meddling with Wikipedia under an alias was deeply dumb, and Johann has done the right thing here. I hope after a period in which he is not so frantically working at writing copy, he’ll return with guns blazing (and a clear, online tape recording of every interview he’ll ever do).
While it is all well and good that Hari is going to University to get a better grip on his trade, I can’t help but think that a few university classes are not going to teach a person not to plagerize again.
And this apology is more meaningless than most. Like his last one, it’s shot through with self-justification, self-regard and petty swipes at his critics. Most unforgivably, Hari still chooses to cast his sin as one of ignorance rather than calculation: because he “rose very fast in journalism straight from university,” he never had a chance to learn that making it look like someone said something to you that they actually said to someone else is wrong.
“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,” he writes. “It was arrogant and stupid of me not to ask.”
No, Johann, it’s arrogant and stupid of you to think anyone you’re not related to by blood is going to buy this. Journalism is filled with people who rose fast and/or received no formal training. Most of us (I’m in the latter category) never had to be told you can’t steal quotes. You’re smarter than most. You knew this. Until you admit it, you’ll never have a chance of regaining your credibility.
I predict it will be a long and hard road back to credibility for Hari.