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14 September 2011

Johann Hari: “I did two wrong and stupid things“

Independent columnist admits altering Wikipedia entries and massaging interviewees' quotes.

By Helen Lewis

Johann Hari has admitted to altering quotes from interviewees, in a “personal apology” posted on the Independent website.

The columnist has also confessed to editing his own Wikipedia entry — as well as those of others with whom he had disagreements, in “ways that were juvenile or malicious”. The admission follows an investigation into his conduct by ex-Independent editor Andreas Whittam Smith.

The Independent‘s former editor, Simon Kelner, had earlier described the allegations as the product of a “baying Twitter mob with no sense of perspective”.

Hari says he will take unpaid leave from the newspaper until 2012, return the Orwell Prize “as an act of contrition” and undertake journalism training at his own expense. In future, he will also “footnote all my articles online and post the audio online of any on-the-record conversations”.

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He writes:

I did two wrong and stupid things. The first concerns some people I interviewed over the years. When I recorded and typed up any conversation, I found something odd: points that sounded perfectly clear when you heard them being spoken often don’t translate to the page. They can be quite confusing and unclear. When this happened, if the interviewee had made a similar point in their writing (or, much more rarely, when they were speaking to somebody else), I would use those words instead.

On the Wikipedia claims, which NS bloggers David Allen Green and Guy Walters have previously covered, he adds:

The other thing I did wrong was that several years ago I started to notice some things I didn’t like in the Wikipedia entry about me, so I took them out. To do that, I created a user-name that wasn’t my own. Using that user-name, I continued to edit my own Wikipedia entry and some other people’s too. I took out nasty passages about people I admire – like Polly Toynbee, George Monbiot, Deborah Orr and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I factually corrected some other entries about other people.

But in a few instances, I edited the entries of people I had clashed with in ways that were juvenile or malicious: I called one of them anti-Semitic and homophobic, and the other a drunk. I am mortified to have done this, because it breaches the most basic ethical rule: don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. I apologise to the latter group unreservedly and totally.

Many of the Wikipedia edits were carried out under the name of “David Rose”. Following Hari’s admission, Times assistant news editor David Rose tweeted: “So Johann Hari admits editing Wikipedia entries under my name. Don’t think entirely by coincidence since I knew him at university. Not nice.”

The Independent has responded to Hari’s apology with a statement:

Following an examination by a former editor, Andreas Whittam Smith, Johann Hari, currently suspended as a writer from The Independent, is taking four months unpaid leave of absence from the newspaper, following a two month suspension that began in July. This decision has been made in accordance with Andreas’ recommendation that, subject to certain conditions, Johann should be allowed to work again at the paper. The report on his conduct is a private one and will not be published, as would be the case with any member of our staff.

During the next few months Johann will concentrate on a course of journalism, including ethics, in the United States, and will not be writing, tweeting or blogging for any of the group’s titles or website. The expectation is that on successful completion of his studies, he will return to The Independent. Johann has acknowledged and admits the central accusations made against him, that of embellishment of quotations/plagiarism, and that it was he who used the pseudonym David Rose to attack his critics. Johann has also agreed to return the Orwell Prize awarded to him in 2008.

The punishment given to Hari has surprised many commentators, who had expected him to resign or be sacked from the newspaper. David Allen Green, who blogged several times on the saga, has tweeted: “Those rushing to forgive Hari may not be fully aware of the extent of the ‘David Rose’ smears and deceit on Wikipedia and elsewhere.”

However, it seems that Hari still has admirers in the media. Piers Morgan tweeted: “I remain a fan of @johannhari101 and commend him on his mea culpa”. The Guardian columnist George Monbiot, meanwhile, said the suspension struck the “right balance”.

To read earlier New Statesman blogs on the allegations, click here.

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
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