Johann Hari and media standards

Why consistency matters.

Johann Hari has now apologised for his "copy-and-paste" interviews.

It was right of him to do so, and it is encouraging for any mainstream media journalist to so promptly own up to mistakes and undertake not to repeat them. It may be that, for some, his apology does not go far enough. There may well still be questions unanswered and unfortunate examples yet to be unearthed (for example, see the New Statesman post by the excellent Guy Walters here).

However, now that Johann Hari has apologised, one wonders if many who rushed to his support should apologise too.

There were many liberal, rational, and atheistic writers and pundits who defended him on Twitter on terms they would never have extended to a conservative, religious, or quack writer or pundit exposed as making a similar sort of mistake.

Naming names would be inflammatory; and they, and their followers, know who they are. What is important here is the basic principle of consistency and its value.

Just imagine had it been, say, Peter Hitchens, Garry Bushell, Richard Littlejohn, Rod Liddle, Toby Young, Guido Fawkes, Melanie Phillips, Damian Thompson, Daniel Hannan, Christopher Booker, Andrew Roberts, Nadine Dorries, and so on, who had been caught out indulging in some similar malpractice.

Would the many liberal or atheistic writers and pundits who sought to defend (or "put into perspective") Hari have been so charitable? Of course not.

That Hari is one of our leading liberal and rationalist polemicists is irrelevant if, as he has now admitted and apologised for, he was making a systematic mistake in his approach to one part of his prolific journalism.

Consistency is a virtue. One cannot attack - in any principled terms - the reactionary and the credulous, the knavish and the foolish, for a casual approach to sources, data, and evidence, or for disregarding normal journalistic standards, if when it is a leading liberal writer that is caught out it is somehow exceptional. It simply smacks of shallow partisanship.

And it is worse than that, for inconsistency also undermines the normative claims for the superiority of a liberal and critical approach.

How can one sensibly call out the "other side" on any given issue in terms which one would not apply to one's "own side"?

It may well be that one's response to the "Johann Hari question" indicates the weight (or discount) which should now be placed on any writer or pundit who complains of bad media practices.

Perhaps the question will linger: "But what would they have said about Hari doing the same?".

 

David Allen Green was shortlisted for the 2010 George Orwell Prize for blogging and was co-judge of the same in 2011.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.