Just before you accept Johann Hari's apology ....

... ask how many more interview quotes he has ripped off.

Yesterday I blogged about Johann Hari and his tendency to insert into his pieces quotes made by his interviewees on previous occasions. I decided not to accuse him of plagiarism, because I felt that, although he was playing somewhat fast and loose, he wasn't really trying to pass off someone's else work as his own. Besides, the incidents appeared to be fairly infrequent and isolated. This morning, Mr Hari apologised on the pages of the Independent, and many people seem to be accepting his (somewhat grudging) contrition.

However, today, thanks to some sleuthing carried out by my friend Jeremy Duns, I'm not so sure that I'm minded to accept Mr Hari's apology. It now appears that Mr Hari has made quite a habit of pinching quotes given to other interviewers, and claiming that they were given to him. Just look at this:

"It is possible I have something of this . . . tragic sense of life," he [Chavez] acknowledged. He recalled that on the eve of the 1992 rebellion he had said goodbye to his wife and three children, and led his soldiers out of their barracks. He was the last to leave. After locking the big front gate, he threw away the key. "I realized at that moment that I was saying goodbye to life," Chávez said. "So it is possible that one has been a bit . . . imbued with that . . . ever since, no?"

Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, The Revolutionary, 10 September 2001

The spectre haunting Latin America - the spectre of Hugo Chavez - furrows his big, broad brow, pats my knee, and tells me about the night he knew he was going to die. "I will never forget - in the early hours, I said goodbye to my wife and three little children. I kissed them goodbye and blessed them." He knew in his gut he was not going to survive that long, bloody day in 1992, when he and his allies finally decided to stage a revolution against the old, rotten order loathed by the Venezuelan people. "I realized at that moment that I was saying goodbye to life," he says, looking away. "So it is possible that, after surviving, one has been a bit... imbued with that sense ever since, no?"

Johann Hari, The Indepedent, Hugo Chavez - An 'Exclusive' Interview, 14 May 2006

Just re-read those last two sentences, the ones in bold. Despite the very slightest of tweaks, it's clearly a straightforward piece of theft from someone else's interview. That's plagiarism. Mr Hari has taken someone else's writing - that of Jon Lee Anderson - and passed it off as his own. Notice how Mr Hari makes it look as though Chavez has actually said this line directly to him - the cheesy pat on the knee, the schlocky looking away. This isn't an 'intellectual portrait', and it is most certainly not exclusive.

To make matters worse, this is not the only line in his Chavez interview Mr Hari has pinched from another interview. Have a look at this:

"I was in close contact with poverty, it's true, I cried a lot..."

Lally Weymouth, Interview with Hugo Chavez in Newseek, October 2000

Just as this is beginning to sound like sepia-tinted nostalgia, he adds, "I was in close contact with poverty, it's true. I cried a lot."

Johann Hari, The Indepedent, Hugo Chavez - An 'Exclusive' Interview, 14 May 2006

Whoops! This is straightforward dishonest reporting. Hugo Chavez never said those words to Mr Hari. He said them to Mr Anderson. And Lally Weymouth. How many more of these examples will we find? And not just from Mr Hari, but from other journalists as well?

This one, like phone hacking, is going to run and run. Mr Hari now needs to do more than apologise.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?