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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.