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.