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
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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.