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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.