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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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.