Johann Hari: ridicule and revelation work just fine

George Orwell, who gave his name to a prize won the other day by the beleaguered columnist and interviewer Johann Hari, would have smiled at the row over Hari’s ethics and methods.

My guess is that Orwell would have taken, as he often did, a view against the herd. Hari has been revealed as playing fast and loose with quotations from his interviewees and misrepresenting what happened in the interview itself (new readers start here). Social networks carry many kinds of material, but they thrive on strong emotion, outrage and suspicion foremost among them. So there have been plenty of voices calling for Hari to be sacked and/or stripped of his Orwell prize. There is an entire Twitter-borne genre of parodies and jokes at Hari’s expense. I took part in an earnest radio discussion on this yesterday.

Orwell would have told the thundering herd of hyper-critical tweeters to stop and think. Hari did wrong; he and his editor have said so in plain terms after initial attempts to bluster it out collapsed in the face of the evidence. Everything Hari has written will now be toothcombed for flaws and, if found, they will be widely available for all to read. He has been attacked and criticised; far more effectively, he has been ridiculed. Many of very best 140-character stingers manage to say a surprising amount about taking quotations out of context. My favourite points out that when Winston Smith delivers the most famous line of 1984 – “I love Big Brother” – you need to know the context to be clear that he’s not talking about reality TV.

As I write, the judges of the Orwell Prize are apparently considering what to do. I hope that they do nothing. I think the great man – no, he would have hated that phrase. I think that the man himself would have said that ridicule and revelation are remedy enough.

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3 comments

  1. Hi George!

    What about the Martha Gellhorn Prize? Hari won the award for three features (see here: http://blogs.pressgazette.co.uk/wire/6554) one of which – about former jihadis – does, on an initial inspection, appear to feature quotes taken from elsewhere.

    The problem is that this quote pinching – and let’s face it, it is pinching – is absolutely endemic in Hari’s work. He doesn’t just do it a few times. He appears to do it ALL the time. Some interviews are little more than digests of books, dressed up as extraordinary encounters. See here for an example: http://islamversuseurope.blogspot.com/2011/06/more-evidence-of-johann-hari-lifting.html

    You’ve probably seen my blog posts in the Statesman about all this, so I won’t direct you to them.

    In the meantime, hope all well? I’ll be having another book launch before too long, so will send you an invitation.

    Best

    Guy

  2. I don’t think you are fully up to speed with the latest discoveries. Read the post at http://islamversuseurope.blogspot.com/2011/06/more-evidence-of-johann-hari-lifting.html for an analysis of the quotations from Hari’s Malalai Joya interview.

    Rather than just “playing hard and fast” with quotations, it seemt that as more of these discoveries come to light it is clear that Hari systematically fabricates copy. The number of examples of “quotations” from the Malalai Joya interview that come instead from her book is staggering. “Hard and fast” doesn’t cut it. This practice distorts the interview to such an extent that it becomes closer to propaganda or hagiography.

    Hari is a fraud. Yes, he has been subject to (deserved) ridicule, but to say that the Orwell committee should do nothing is absurd. This man’s reputation is based on work that has been demonstrated to be false. He has benefited professionally and monetarily from work that he has knowingly falsified. True, his integrity is in tatters and his reputation ruined, but to put forward that in light of all of this he should retain prizes and awards for outstanding journalism is shameful.

  3. There have now been accusations that he has lifted work from other interviewers though. Such as an interview with Chavez where he lifted from Jon Lee Anderson.
    See this from New Statesman.
    http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/guy-walters/2011/06/chavez-hari-interview-goodbye

    Surely this is an entirely different category than cleaning up quotes or lifting from other published work of the interviewee, which themselves are in different categories?