The truth and Johann Hari

"Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying" philosopher Richard Rorty once said. Earlier this week journalist Johann Hari discovered he’d made a mistake about what was true and what wasn’t.

Guy Beres at Larvatus Prodeo writes: "When I read an interview, I should have the right to assume that what it has been reported that the subject contemporaneously said is what they actually said". And with Johann Hari interviews that’s not always the case. As Hari explains:

When you interview a writer – especially but not only when English isn’t their first language – they will sometimes make a point that sounds clear when you hear it, but turns out to be incomprehensible or confusing on the page. In those instances, I have sometimes substituted a passage they have written or said more clearly elsewhere on the same subject for what they said to me, so the reader understands their point as clearly as possible.

Hari now admits this is wrong: "Why? Because an interview is not just an essayistic representation of what a person thinks; it is a report on an encounter between the interviewer and the interviewee."

But Hari’s initial response was less apologetic. He argued that none of his interviewees ever complained about being misquoted and other journalists admitted that they did the same thing. Not everyone is so accommodating.

According to Brian Whelan, Hari doesn’t just take quotes from his interviewees’ own writings, but "he is also taking other people’s interviews and passing them off as his own." In a recent post Whelan takes apart Hari’s interview with Gideon Levy showing how he lifts quotes without attribution. At the New Statesman Guy Walters provides more examples.

Some people are calling this plagiarism. But conventions about what counts as plagiarism seem to vary depending on who is presenting the material. For example, most people understand that senior politicians don’t always write their own speeches, opinion pieces, autobiographies or book forewords. Back in 2008 Andrew Norton wrote:

If the sin in plagiarism is passing off other people’s work as your own, then for senior politician it is a sin that they commit just about every day. They rely heavily on advisers (and for those in government, bureaucrats) to prepare speeches, media releases, position papers and correspondence. Their staff are trying to second-guess the politician – to say what he or she would say, if he or she had the time – but nevertheless the words are not the politician’s.

This doesn’t stop journalists, biographers and bloggers from quoting these materials as if they were written by the politician themselves. When a journalist pulls a quote from a politician’s media release, they don’t normally check to see whether the politician actually uttered the words. While you’d hope the politician reads their own media releases before they’re sent to the press, even that isn’t a certainty. But journalists are allowed to get away with quoting politicians this way because it’s become conventional.

So the question about Hari is whether he’s made an honest mistake about how flexible journalistic conventions about quotes are, or whether he’s just been ripping off other people’s work.

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Paul Bamford
Paul Bamford
10 years ago

Haruki Murakami’s Underground is going to get him in a lot of trouble if Whelan and his ilk ever get hold of a copy.

Paul Bamford
Paul Bamford
10 years ago

Don,

Pretty much – sounds a lot like getting his interview subjects to write and edit his book for him, doesn’t it?

Personally, given the sensitivity of the subject matter, I think Murakami’s approach is quite appropriate.