The tale of Mr Hari and Dr Rose

A false and malicious identity is admitted.

A false and malicious identity is admitted.

A couple of months or so ago, my friend Nick Cohen sent me a draft of a proposed diary piece for the Spectator. It concerned a mysterious figure called "David R". Cohen first described a spat with Johann Hari, and then added:

I thought no more about it until I looked at my entry on Wikipedia. As well as learning that I was a probable alcoholic, a hypocrite and a supporter of Sarah Palin, I noticed that all reviews of my work were missing except Hari's effort. [...]

I put Hari to the back of my mind again until Cristina Odone told me a strange story. She was deputy editor of the New Statesman during Hari's time there, and had the sense to doubt the reliability of his journalism. After she crossed him, vile accusations appeared on her Wikipedia page. She was a 'homophobe' and an 'anti-Semite', the site alleged, and such a disastrous journalist that the Catholic Herald had fired her. Her husband, Edward Lucas, went online to defend her reputation, but 'David r from Meth Productions' tried to stop him.

Mr 'r' gave the same treatment to Francis Wheen, Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson after they had spats with Hari. It didn't stop there. Lucas noticed that anonymous editors had inserted Hari's views on a wide range of people and issues into the relevant Wikipedia pages, while Hari himself had a glowing Wikipedia profile -- until the scandal broke, that is -- much of it written by 'David r'. Because Wikipedia lets contributors write anonymously, it cannot tell its readers if 'David r' is Johann Hari, or a fan of Hari's with detailed knowledge of his life, or someone with an interest in promoting his career.

Cohen concluded:

But just as the effect of Hari's phoney interviews was to make it seem that he elicited quotes no other journalist could match, so the effect of Wikipedia is to make him seem one of the essential writers of our times.

In truth he disgraced himself because he was an ambitious man who might have been a good journalist, but yearned to be a great one, and so tried to summon a talent he could never possess by bragging and scheming.

This was astonishing stuff. At this stage I was unaware of "David R" and, whilst I had been mildly critical of Hari's journalism, I generally regarded him as a journalistic hero to those of us who promote liberalism and secularism.

However, one look at the hundreds of Wikipedia edits showed that Hari or someone close to him had been smearing other journalists in an on-going systemic manner for years.

I did not want this to be Hari. In fact, I could not see how Hari would have been malicious and deceitful. After all, this was an established and salaried writer who would not need to do this. He also would always be the first to call out others for bad conduct and duplicity.

On the other hand, the evidence was stark that it was either Hari or someone close to him, and it raised serious issues. It thereby seemed sensible just to see where the evidence would go. However, this in turn would be risky, as Hari was known to use libel threats against those who questioned his integrity. For example, in 2007 he used libel law to have a post taken down (the original is here).

Then I had an idea. Instead of questioning the integrity of Hari, I would do it the other way round. I was confident that "David Rose" (at least anyone with that actual name with the remarkable range of accomplishments, including a doctorate in environmental science) did not exist. He was patently a construct, and one cannot defame a construct. As long as I was careful not to ever publish an allegation that Hari was "David Rose" then I would be fairly safe from any meaningful libel threat. Like the dead, "David Rose" could not sue me.

So I wrote the post "Who is David Rose?".

I did this over at "Jack of Kent" rather than here at the New Statesman for two reasons. First, I could manage the libel risk, including by pre-moderating the comments. Second, there is an established band of blog followers at that site who would share in the investigation. And so it proved: over the course of 140 pre-moderated comments, the elaborate fiction of "David Rose" was dismantled. It also became clear that "David Rose" was not what many of us first thought (and hoped) he was: an over-enthusiastic fan. It was clear it was Hari himself.

And then someone emailed what was (for me) conclusive proof. The metadata of something uploaded by "David Rose" showed that it had been created only seconds before in a social media account which was under the control of Hari. There would simply not have been time for Hari to have supposedly "emailed" the item to his alter ego: it must have been part of the same quick exercise by the same person.

However, by this time, Hari had been suspended. I have no wish to see Hari or anyone sacked (my suggestions of sending him on a journalism course and putting in place measures to make readers confident in his journalism is here). When I offered to provide the conclusive evidence to the Independent, I was told "it would not be needed". So I just held back, to see what the internal investigation would produce.

Yesterday, Hari provided an apology in respect of a range of journalistic failings, and in this he has admitted to having been "David Rose" all along.

Many will now want to "draw a line" and "move on". This is a commendable reaction, but it is unlikely to happen overall - at least in respect of the "David Rose" affair - as the terms of the apology do not really approximate to what was actually done. Something very wrong happened, over a significant amount of time, involving a systemic exercise of malice and dishonesty. I am afraid there may be a lot more to come to light on all this.

However, I am drawing a line and moving on. There is really no pleasure to being involved in this sort of activity, especially against a fellow secularist and liberal, and someone whose writing I still admire. The identity of "David Rose" has now been admitted, and it may well not have been but for the legally-safe "back-to-front" approach adopted in that July post, and for the excellent and selfless work of the commenters on it.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman.

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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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.