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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.