Lots of very smart friends of mine wonder how in a week with such a huge scandal about newspapers, so many journalists are concerned about a very minor fringe story, concerning an Independent columnist named Johann Hari (editor's note: Hari is also a HuffPost blogger).
On top of the existing furore, it emerged over the weekend that some of the material Hari used to win his Orwell prize uses copied and pasted material from an interview carried out by Robert Birnbaum in 2004. Not in a particularly egregious way; but the material was not sourced, the original interview was not credited.
One friend in particular said "Why is it a big deal if a journalist quotes someone using words they wrote in a book or said to someone else? It's obviously not plagiarism. Bad journalism, but not plagiarism, or very important surely?" Another assured me that "it's only right wing weirdos who are threatened by what Hari has to say" who give a damn.
Well, I care. Why?
It's very much down to what it does for competition with other journalists. Hari always gets the "perfect quote", because while he interviews these people, he subsequently quotes their books and dresses it up like an interview, making him look much better than he really is as an interviewer.
In the profession, interviewing, coming back with the best quotes is the core skill. It's what separates the greats from the also-rans. It's what gets you access to the best interviewees, what advances your career. It's particularly egregious that he uses answers given to other journalists -- that is absolutely their work that he has literally stolen, it's what they elicited after developing a rapport with their subject.
If you say it's an interview, it should be an interview. If it's from their book, you should say it's from their book. Otherwise, you're just making up a fairy story in print. I could interview David Cameron, Ed Milliband -- or George Orwell or Abraham Lincoln -- or even Captain Kirk -- using the Hari method and look amazing.
In my opinion, it's immensely, immensely lazy -- indeed, there are some "interviews" (especially the Chavez one, which uses quotes ten years out of date, mashed together two other articles, and contains no original quotes and the Malalai Joya where he quotes her book 42 times and pretends it was all said to him) where I doubt Hari has even met the subject.
I've done plenty of interviews where I wish the interviewee had said something better, something they had said before, but they didn't. So I wrote up what they said, rather than composing a perfect piece, taking the best of other people's material, spiced with material quoted from their books.
That's why other journalists hate it, not because he's left wing, but because he's a thief and a cheat. I ask myself, is that the sort of work that should win the most prestigious prize in British journalism? Hari's award was won not by perseverance and skill, but by adept pressing of his control-V keys. He has made a name for himself as one of the best in our profession by cheating -- that is what outrages us, across the political divide.
Hari shouldn't be fired for this (as Kelner said, the online humiliation he's suffered is enough) -- but he's guilty of greedy, self-aggrandising dishonesty, and the Orwell Prize committee should really wonder whether they want to reward that; and if they do, they should expect a submission from me for 2012, containing an exclusive, tell-all interview with Jesus Christ.
Editor's Note: An original version of this blog post has been modified by the blogger.
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