A false and malicious identity is admitted.
A couple of months or so ago, my friend Nick Cohen sent me a draft of a proposed diary piece for the Spectator. It concerned a mysterious figure called “David R”. Cohen first described a spat with Johann Hari, and then added:
I thought no more about it until I looked at my entry on Wikipedia. As well as learning that I was a probable alcoholic, a hypocrite and a supporter of Sarah Palin, I noticed that all reviews of my work were missing except Hari’s effort. […]
I put Hari to the back of my mind again until Cristina Odone told me a strange story. She was deputy editor of the New Statesman during Hari’s time there, and had the sense to doubt the reliability of his journalism. After she crossed him, vile accusations appeared on her Wikipedia page. She was a ‘homophobe’ and an ‘anti-Semite’, the site alleged, and such a disastrous journalist that the Catholic Herald had fired her. Her husband, Edward Lucas, went online to defend her reputation, but ‘David r from Meth Productions’ tried to stop him.
Mr ‘r’ gave the same treatment to Francis Wheen, Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson after they had spats with Hari. It didn’t stop there. Lucas noticed that anonymous editors had inserted Hari’s views on a wide range of people and issues into the relevant Wikipedia pages, while Hari himself had a glowing Wikipedia profile — until the scandal broke, that is — much of it written by ‘David r’. Because Wikipedia lets contributors write anonymously, it cannot tell its readers if ‘David r’ is Johann Hari, or a fan of Hari’s with detailed knowledge of his life, or someone with an interest in promoting his career.
But just as the effect of Hari’s phoney interviews was to make it seem that he elicited quotes no other journalist could match, so the effect of Wikipedia is to make him seem one of the essential writers of our times.
In truth he disgraced himself because he was an ambitious man who might have been a good journalist, but yearned to be a great one, and so tried to summon a talent he could never possess by bragging and scheming.
This was astonishing stuff. At this stage I was unaware of “David R” and, whilst I had been mildly critical of Hari’s journalism, I generally regarded him as a journalistic hero to those of us who promote liberalism and secularism.
However, one look at the hundreds of Wikipedia edits showed that Hari or someone close to him had been smearing other journalists in an on-going systemic manner for years.
I did not want this to be Hari. In fact, I could not see how Hari would have been malicious and deceitful. After all, this was an established and salaried writer who would not need to do this. He also would always be the first to call out others for bad conduct and duplicity.
On the other hand, the evidence was stark that it was either Hari or someone close to him, and it raised serious issues. It thereby seemed sensible just to see where the evidence would go. However, this in turn would be risky, as Hari was known to use libel threats against those who questioned his integrity. For example, in 2007 he used libel law to have a post taken down (the original is here).
Then I had an idea. Instead of questioning the integrity of Hari, I would do it the other way round. I was confident that “David Rose” (at least anyone with that actual name with the remarkable range of accomplishments, including a doctorate in environmental science) did not exist. He was patently a construct, and one cannot defame a construct. As long as I was careful not to ever publish an allegation that Hari was “David Rose” then I would be fairly safe from any meaningful libel threat. Like the dead, “David Rose” could not sue me.
So I wrote the post “Who is David Rose?“.
I did this over at “Jack of Kent” rather than here at the New Statesman for two reasons. First, I could manage the libel risk, including by pre-moderating the comments. Second, there is an established band of blog followers at that site who would share in the investigation. And so it proved: over the course of 140 pre-moderated comments, the elaborate fiction of “David Rose” was dismantled. It also became clear that “David Rose” was not what many of us first thought (and hoped) he was: an over-enthusiastic fan. It was clear it was Hari himself.
And then someone emailed what was (for me) conclusive proof. The metadata of something uploaded by “David Rose” showed that it had been created only seconds before in a social media account which was under the control of Hari. There would simply not have been time for Hari to have supposedly “emailed” the item to his alter ego: it must have been part of the same quick exercise by the same person.
However, by this time, Hari had been suspended. I have no wish to see Hari or anyone sacked (my suggestions of sending him on a journalism course and putting in place measures to make readers confident in his journalism is here). When I offered to provide the conclusive evidence to the Independent, I was told “it would not be needed”. So I just held back, to see what the internal investigation would produce.
Yesterday, Hari provided an apology in respect of a range of journalistic failings, and in this he has admitted to having been “David Rose” all along.
Many will now want to “draw a line” and “move on”. This is a commendable reaction, but it is unlikely to happen overall – at least in respect of the “David Rose” affair – as the terms of the apology do not really approximate to what was actually done. Something very wrong happened, over a significant amount of time, involving a systemic exercise of malice and dishonesty. I am afraid there may be a lot more to come to light on all this.
However, I am drawing a line and moving on. There is really no pleasure to being involved in this sort of activity, especially against a fellow secularist and liberal, and someone whose writing I still admire. The identity of “David Rose” has now been admitted, and it may well not have been but for the legally-safe “back-to-front” approach adopted in that July post, and for the excellent and selfless work of the commenters on it.
David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman.