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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.