We can't let Hari off the hook because he's "one of us"

Johann Hari's indiscretions are not as serious as the casual fakery that goes on elsewhere in Fleet

The Johann Hari saga rumbles on. Of course it's depressing for those of us with a similar political leaning to Hari to see his (and our) enemies whooping around this like a pack of chimps, when ordinarily they couldn't care less about media fabrications, red-top lies or political agenda-driven distortion. Depressing, but we can't let Hari off the hook because he's "one of us".

His editor Simon Kelner may be right to say that there's a political campaign at work to get at Hari, a prominent figure on the liberal left; but even if he is right, it doesn't excuse what happened in the first place. Perhaps it is like a Premiership boss defending his star player at a press conference for a bad tackle, then giving him the hairdryer treatment in the dressing room for the same offence. Good bosses don't slag off their team in public, even when they've done wrong.

In one sense, Hari's errors - I do think they were errors, rather than cynical or manipulative behaviour, but you may disagree - are not as serious as the casual fakery of Fleet Street. The manufacturing of convenient anonymous "sources" to back up stories, the twisting of statistics to fit a ready-baked narrative, and columnists not bothering to check things so long as it fits their polemic - it's all cheerfully ignored most of the time. But in another way, I think it's more serious, because of who Hari is, and whom he represents.

My fellow media blogger Kevin Arscott writes about the kind of wearying disappointment that a lot of us must have felt upon reading Hari's initial article on "interview etiquette" and his subsequent apology. This wasn't an emperor's new clothes moment - and I think the use of terms like "plagiarism" and "churnalism" which I've seen in some articles is slightly misleading - but it was still dispiriting to see someone whose writing you have enjoyed and whose version of events you have often trusted do something that made you look back and wonder.

Look at this article from Hari - it's one of the first of his which I really noticed and enjoyed, in which he travels on a pleasant-seeming cruise ship and eavesdrops on the shockingly casual bigotry of the clientele. Terrific writing. Except... well, I look back on it now and I wonder. And I don't want to wonder. Did it all happen just as described? Are there parts that didn't quite go like that? Can I trust what I'm reading? I want to know that's what happened, and how it happened. I want to be able to trust the author who wrote that piece I enjoyed so much, to know that all of it happened just as it was presented to me. If not then, well why bother at all?

I wanted to wait a while before posting about Hari. This wasn't through any insidious lefties-sticking-together pact not to get a pal in trouble - though by all means trot out that tedious little line if you like - but rather because I felt like I needed to read up what had been written first; to be sure about this. But I did so with a sense of faint dread.

That sense was there, right from the beginning, because I suspected, deep down, that Hari had got things wrong. You don't want people you admire to get things wrong, and doubtless his journalism has done more good for a lot of the causes I support than mine could ever hope to do, so who am I to have a go at him? And yet, and yet... I can't help looking at the words, and the unfolding story, and reaching a similar conclusion to many others. I can't help saying that I think it has eroded my confidence in him and the things he has said. I don't want that to be the case, but I am afraid to say that it is.

It's particularly disappointing that this is happening now, because this is the time when liberals and the left, if I can lump us all together as uneasily as that, need powerful voices, more than ever. We need the likes of Hari, popular media figures with access to thousands of readers, appearing on television programmes and featuring in debates, to be fighting our corner in those closed-off media bubbles. But we need them to be better than the other guy.

If you're in the room, you have to say what happens in the room. I think it comes down to that.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.