Sep 11

Hari: act of contrition for the weekend

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post here about the Independent writer Johann Hari which made a mistake. Time to rectify that.

Two days ago, Hari handed back his Orwell Prize and published a long and somewhat weaselly mea culpa in The Independent. (Readers new to this saga start here). Hari’s confession included confirmation that he had gone to considerable lengths to boost his friends and smear his enemies on Wikipedia under an assumed identity. The full extent of his lifting material to embroider his interviews is also now clear (see the critical comments at the foot here).

I didn’t condone Hari’s actions in my premature post. But I did argue that George Orwell would have taken the view that ridicule and revelation were enough, and that Hari needn’t have been stripped of the prize. That judgement looks particularly foolish in the light of what we now know; it was silly as it was. As Bagehot of The Economist pithily says, this isn’t a matter of training and teaching but a more basic one of character and integrity.


Jun 11

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.


May 10

Channelling George Orwell

The last time I attended the award ceremony for the George Orwell Prize some years back, the party was in a small room and seemed to be attended by 19 people, most of whom worked for the New Statesman. Since then, the prize and the party have grown and there are now three prizes: for a book, journalism and a blog.

But the unexpected thrill of the evening lay in the homage to Orwell’s cantakerous and contra-suggestive spirit. The judges refused to be either predictable or politically correct. They gave the journalism prize not to the (excellent) people from The Guardian or The Times but to Peter Hitchens for his pieces of long reportage for the Mail on Sunday. The judges for that category – in case you were thinking that Orwell’s heirs had managed to smuggle neocons onto the jury – were the film-maker Roger Graef and the pollster and journalist Peter Kellner. As well-qualified a pair of establishment liberals as you could hope to find.

The blog prize went to Winston Smith for a blog called Working With the Underclass. I’ve never looked at it but I will now. Aspirant prizewinners will now be mining Orwell’s novels for noms-de-plume with the right ring to appeal to next year’s judges. And the book prize went not to books on international or political topics but to Keeper by Andrea Gillies, a memoir of dealing with Alzheimers. The subtitle “A book about memory, identity, isolation, Wordsworth and cake” probably catches the flavour.

Almost certainly everyone on the shortlists is worth reading and they can be found here. I bought four of the six shortlisted books afterwards and look forward to them all.

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