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.)

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.