The Johann Hari affair

1 July 2011

9:39 PM

1 July 2011

9:39 PM

I have been surprised by some of the reaction to the news that the Independent’s star columnist and interviewer Johann Hari had played fast and loose with the conventions of journalism.
It’s very difficult to defend what he did.

I always think it’s a little unseemly for journalists to pass judgement on their fellow hacks. But this really is an extraordinary case.

As the Telegraph reports, The Orwell Prize is now investigating Hari and whether
to withdraw his award from 2008. It is worth reading the statement in full:

“The Orwell Prize became aware of allegations concerning Johann Hari, the winner of the Orwell Prize for Journalism 2008, on Monday 27th June. (Johann Hari has also been shortlisted for
the Prize in the past, and entered this year’s Prize.) Given the seriousness of the allegations that have been made, we feel we have no choice other than to investigate further.

The Council of the Orwell Prize takes the integrity and reputation of the Orwell Prize, and the rigour, fairness and transparency of the entry and judging process, very seriously. As stated
on Tuesday 28th June, there is a process to follow in such situations, which we have been following since Monday and continue to pursue.

Our judges in 2008 – Annalena McAfee, Albert Scardino and Sir John Tusa – are highly distinguished and chose the winners independently and in good faith after a thorough judging
process. We do not interfere with the choices of our judges and we ask them only to judge the submitted pieces. No allegations have been made against Johann Hari’s 2008 Orwell Prize-winning

Prior to presenting the award, as part of our due diligence, one of the judges contacted Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent, who expressed his full confidence in the Hari articles. The
Prize cannot investigate the provenance of every piece of work entered, and so relies on the integrity of the entrants and the editorial processes which help produce the work.

Since 2008 the entry process has been made more robust still. The governance of the Prize has been reformed, and all entrants are required to sign a disclaimer, declaring that the submitted
work ‘is wholly or substantially that of the named author or authors, and does not contain any plagiarised or unacknowledged material’.

We are currently in touch with the judges from 2008 and the governing Council of the Orwell Prize, and have written to Johann Hari and his editor, Simon Kelner. We will allow our inquiry to
run its course before issuing a further statement.”


Simply put, Johann Hari has let the side down. Several sides in fact. He has let down his fellow journalists, he has let down fellow liberals and he has let down the Orwell Prize, whose small and
dedicated team of organisers have worked hard to build its reputation as Britain’s premier political journalism award. It has been an honour to be shortlisted and longlisted for the prize in
the past and this year I was delighted to act as a judge and hand the prize to a winner of unquestionable integrity, Jenni Russell.

The Orwell Prize statement shows shows that the Prize’s organisers contacted Independent editor Simon Kelner in 2008, who expressed his confidence in Hari’s work. They then tightened up
the entry criteria after Hari’s win to demand that writers vouch for the veracity of their work and sourcing.

People have always given Johann Hari an enormous amount of leeway because of his prodigious talent as a writer. I feel a genuine sympathy for him on a personal level. There is something
psychologically peculiar about attributing quotes in the way he did. And now through his arrogance he has drawn his editor and the Orwell Prize into this appalling mess.

Johann Hari has disgraced himself. The Orwell Prize must come to its own decision about his prize. I hope his career survives this because he would be a loss to journalism. But if anyone is to
believe what he writes in future he has to stop making excuses and simply explain his mystifying behaviour, honestly and openly. That is a piece I would read.

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Show comments
  • Nicolas Parson

    He’ll be no loss. There are enough ‘campaigning’ journalists and not nearly enough decent reporters. Between him and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown they’ve made the Independent the shrillest and most unpleasant newspaper in the country, this constant state of shrieking outrage, like fingernails on a blackboard. His sole claim to distinction was that he very occasionally published an interesting interview; take away this apparent knack for stimulating other people’s eloquence remarks and what’s left? Nothing.

  • Colin Sloss

    I think Hari should be sacked as soon as possible.

  • growltiger

    When the Independent published a piece by Hari, justifying his method of falsification as being a means of producing higher truth, they offered a comment facility. I used this to point out that, even if there were no other objections, key statements in his articles were frequently untrue (as well as second-hand). These are the passages that read “X looked meaningfully across the coffee table to me and said Y” where Y is not something that would appear on a transcript of the interview, although X may have written or said it some other time, in another context.

    When I came back to the scene of the crime (the Independent website)to see if others agreed with me, or Hari had deigned to respond to this obvious logical point, I discovered that the entire “comment” area had been removed. This is presumably a newstyle editorial action which is deemed more elegant than announcing “This correspondence is now closed Ed”.

  • martin duncan-jones

    ‘The Prize cannot investigate the provenance of every piece of work entered..’
    This is a cop-out: they only have to investigate the winner. Here’s an analogy: when poor Donald Crowhurst, under impossible pressure to succeed, disappeared from the Round-the-World race, he realised that his falsifications had put him into first place, and THEREFORE his logs would be closely scrutinised. This seems a simple principle to follow.

    Personally, I always thought Hari a child of his time; egotistical and sanctimonious. What has been shocking is the shifty way senior editors have tried to circle the wagons around someone who has betrayed everything journalism stands for.

  • Sara de Witt

    I’ve been out of touch for a long time but the ghastly Johann Hari is making waves again is he? Years ago, I remember him wafting round London as a thoroughly obnoxious, charmless, humourless, vicious leftie blankly oblivious to anyone else’s viewpoint except his own. Anyone so convinced of his own magnificence and so wholly wrong about it would be hard to find. Plus ca change.

  • Roamin

    To understand the man better psychologically just google ‘johann hari horror movies’

  • Dante Straw

    It is “frankly reasonable” that Hari be condemned for his “heinous” actions, says Sam Davidson (above). It is a mistake to think that “journalism is literature; it is not.” In fact, it is as rigorously methodical as a “scientific process.”

    Simply taking what others have written, and repurposing it for your own means, is shoddy reporting. Wouldn’t you agree, Sam?

  • Ian Walker

    For those of us in the IT industry, it’s been an absolute quantumsend.

    For over 25 years we’ve been trying to find a quick and easy verb to replace the cumbersome phrase ‘cut and paste. Finally, we have the word we need……

    ……to Hari

  • Simon Stephenson.

    For those who like parody, the Hari interview with Sir Winston Churchill on page 29 of the latest Private Eye is one not to be missed.

  • Capn Flint

    Why was it considered a ‘reform’ to insist – in 2008 – that none of the material entered for the Orwell prize should be plagiarised or copied? That should be a given for all journalism, even if only on legal grounds. Did they bring this in because someone pointed out already in 2008 – coincidentally, the same year Hari won the prize – that his stuff had raised doubts?
    “No allegations have been made against Johann Hari’s 2008 Orwell Prize-winning pieces.”
    If you publish them, I bet someone would be able to find two or three dodgy quotes within a couple of days.
    Hari has clear and consistent form, and he didn’t pick up his present style after 2008. One might say that he simply can’t help himself – except that he does seem to have helped himself, and pretty freely too!*

    *(I leave it to fellow-readers to track down the original source of that joke.)

  • Richard of Moscow

    I think Taylor has it right. Hari was never a talented writer, he merely spouted the same kind of perverted bilge that Blair did, and for the same educationally-subnormal window-lickers

  • James Murphy

    Sam – “journalism is literature; it is not, and should not be, a scientific process. Journalism, like all literature, should be art.” – Eh? Am I missing something here in the history of Western culture over the past 3000 years? Surely Homer is art. Shakespeare is art. Michelangelo is art. Bach is art. Goethe is art. Nijinksy is art. Rilke is art. – Journalism is… – well, journalism: that’s why it’s called journalism.

  • Chris

    Frank P, I don’t think a dick has viscera.

  • Taylor

    Johann Hari is another exemplar of the corruption of our public institutions during the past 15 years or so. What this ornament of the Blairite ascendency did is nothing more nor less than ‘sexing up’ his reports in exactly the same way – even down to cribbing stuff from the internet – that the government sexed up the Iraq dossier. A man celebrated publicly and lavishly honoured for the meretricious debasement of professional standards and ethics. I despise him – and Kelner too if he can’t see the rottenness he’s fostered and rewarded.

  • Bill Due

    “People have always given Johann Hari an enormous amount of leeway because of his prodigious talent as a writer.”

    Prodigious writerly talents should stick to fiction. Fact is too constraining. Hari should write a novel about a young man with a way with words whose tragic flaw is his ability to manipulate reality. In the end he believes his own manipulations and manipulates himself into silence…His will be a fine contribution to the remainders of tomorrow. Possibly even an art-house movie – optioned, not made.

  • Cheradenine Zakalwe

    Someone should also be asking serious questions about Johann Hari’s claim to have “infiltrated” Finsbury Park Mosque. There are various anomalies in the articles he has written about this episode.

  • Duc de Blangis

    I’ve discussed this with a few people, but I wonder if anyone has evaluated the originality of his assessed university work.

  • Osming

    I once read an article by Johann Hari. It was clear that he hadn’t a clue what he was writing about and hadn’t made the slightest effort to find out anything about the subject matter (financial markets). Five minutes googling would have been more than enough for him to learn the basics. I have never read another piece by him and now I find he is just a cut-and-paste merchant so I’ll stick with Google and cut out the middle man (aka Johann Hari).

  • Simon Stephenson.

    Axstane : 2.56pm

    You’re right. The distinction isn’t between left and right, or authoritarian and libertarian. It’s between those who are arguing eristically and those who are not, and the chief difficulty we have in making progress in public discussion is that it is a game-winning strategy of eristic competitors to pass themselves off as truth-seekers as opposed to what they actually are, which is belief-promulgators.

    People like Hari have already made up their minds about what is right and what is wrong, and they are trying to convince as many people as possible to agree with them. The fact that people might induce a different belief from unrestricted data is sufficient grounds for them to be fed only the data that will lead to them reaching the “right” conclusion – but of course not to give any inkling that the data has been pre-selected, or spuriously constructed.

  • Edward McLaughlin

    David Lindsay

    “Isn’t it?”

    ….a canny conundrum, but I for one, choose not be drawn. Despite your appraisal, my favourite remains ‘Man in a Suitcase’. Hang on though, the delightful Miss Bastedo and her two preter-sensitive sidekicks must be in the running.

    Will get back to you on this. Might take a couple of dry sherries. I shall summon them immediately with my characteristic flourish of the old Exchange and Mart.

  • Frank P

    David Lindsay

    I take it that you’re trying to replace the unfortunate Ms Hari as the perfect example of pseudo-intellectualism? But it’s okay, the OED an sport two examples.

  • David Lindsay

    Orwell is good. He is important. But he is still overrated. Not least, his depiction of Wigan is still resented in the town to this day. His famous remark about the goosestep was just plain wrong, like many of his others. And everyone should read Scott Lucas’s The Betrayal of Dissent, London: Pluto Press, 2004, ISBN 0-7453-2197-6.

    However, Orwell’s patriotism, his social conservatism and his anti-Communism are vitally important in reminding the British Left that those are indispensable, and indeed definitive, aspects of our own tradition. All three, though perhaps especially the last, make him a particularly significant figure when set alongside Christopher Hill and E P Thompson in rescuing demotic culture from what Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity”, even though Orwell himself was not above condescension.

    So any prize in his honour should be awarded for contribution to the patriotic, socially conservative, anti-Communist Left that was the best of him, and also, therefore, to ensuring that demotic culture is taken with high seriousness. Would Johann Hari, who has at least recanted his support for the Iraq War and who wrote a very important denunciation of Dubai, win such a prize? I only ask.

    There was a question on my blog, asking if, since Hari had made his name “pretending” (not my word) to have seduced a male neo-Nazi at a convention and a male Islamist at Finsbury Park mosque, he had ever also seduced “the pro-life, pro-family, pro-worker and anti-war voice of an economically social democratic, morally and socially conservative patriotism towards the North of England, the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and Christendom”? I was, and am, happy to confirm that he has never seduced this one. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, has he ever “pretended” to have done so.

    But there is more going on here. Militant atheism is fine. Extreme social liberalism is fine. Highly politicised homosexuality is fine. But to be a repentant and recovered neocon, and an articulate social democratic critic of the Coalition’s neo-Blairism, is on much the same level as to be a pro-life, pro-family, pro-worker and anti-war voice of an economically social democratic, morally and socially conservative patriotism towards the North of England, the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and Christendom. Which is to be on much the same level as a neo-Nazi or an Islamist.

    Isn’t it…?

  • Henry

    Sam seems to confuse journalism with literature and literature with fiction.

    I must admit I find it annoying when journalists and historians claim that they’re “not doing science” as though this excuses their inaccuracies.

    Another variant is “there’s no such thing as objective truth”, which one minute means it’s impossible to be objective, then next it means there’s no reality.

    Pointless writing about it then 🙂

  • tomdaylight

    Martin, there are many young men and women of genuine talent and moral conviction who are struggling to break into journalism. Mr Hari has had his chance, and utterly betrayed the opportunity he was given. Why should he be given another one? Let someone better have a turn.

    If only there weren’t so many bleeding heart employers easily ready to forgive their friends for their discretions, perhaps youth unemployment wouldn’t be so much of a problem these days.

  • Muhammad Haque

    Will “Fleet Street” practise what its outcry bulletins have been decrying in and about the phone-hacking scandal and now in this little matter of Mr Hari’s own diabolical achievements?

  • Axstane

    Many of the most ardent Leftie journalists appear to confuse fact with fiction – Toynbee is just one other example.

    Conversely the most radical of Right-wing journos are precisely as bad. They make little attempt to report facts but seize snippets to build a story that accords with their own world view.

    Those who write for the Spectator are not immune from the disease of journalistic invention. There is a daily requirement to write a column which too often is bricks without straw. An example is the little trickle of stories about rivalry to supplant Cameron between Osborne and Johnson – pure fantasy.

  • Frank P

    Scott Burgess, erstwhile host of the Daily Ablution blog, eviscerated this diminutive dick a few years back before, sadly, abandoning the best site in the blogosphere and retiring to Slovakia. Joan’s credibility has never recovered (supposing it ever existed). The phrase ‘pseudo intellectual’ was coined many years ago, but had to wait for the perfect example: Hari.

  • Terry Collmann

    Simon London, if you think all journalists are liars, why do you read us? And why aren’t you out there waving the sword of truth yourself and bringing the world the true story? DOn’t be a sneerer, Simon, be a doer.

  • Sir Graphus

    I often read Hari for his spectacular ability to reach an exactly opposite viewpoint to mine when presented with exactly the same facts.

  • Simon London

    Journo lies, who would have thought.

    Hari was just doing what his kind do best – deception.

    His massive self importance was always unrelated to to his meagre talent.

    One always had the feeling that his analysis was just regurgitation of the words of other, smarter people.

  • Matt

    It seems to me entirely of a piece with the rest of his journalism. He has a – generally entirely predictable – line that he wants to take on something and he sets about finding one or two facts to bolster his rhetoric. That he should go one step further and actually make something up to fit his case doesn’t strike me as surprising.

  • Ruby Duck

    It’s not very difficult to defend what he did, it’s impossible to defend what he did.

    Just one more arrogant prat.

  • Sam Davidson

    Actually, I’ve now looked into the affair and found out that all the people who agree with me are morons. So, I retract the original statement and bow to Speccie-wisdom.

  • Robin Tudge

    It’s tacky to say the least to put in quotes from interviewees’ works as if they were said to the author, like he’d been the one to intimately elicit from them some marvellously eloquent summation of their thoughts, beliefs and wotnot. And it’s misleading, too. Much of the skill of journalism is not only asking the right questions, it’s understanding the answers and being able to judge what is the worthiest material to use from an interview of hours. Opting just to lift what they’ve written themselves, isn’t really the same.

  • tomasz.

    “Imagine if he decided to put in quotes out of context that put his subjects in a poor light, but which bore no relation to what was actually said…”

    As in the first case to be uncovered, that of Antoni Negri, for instance.

  • DavidDP

    Rubbish, Sam.

    At heart, all journalism is about truth. This particularly applies to interviews with people. Leaving aside the alleged plagiarism of using other people’s work uncredited (your basic undergrad knows this is wrong), interviews are not about the writer deciding to augment what was said because he thinks it is what the interviewee really wanted to say. Imagine if he decided to put in quotes out of context that put his subjects in a poor light, but which bore no relation to what was actually said, would you be so sanguine then? There is no difference in principle with what Hari did. The man is a fraud.

  • English Electric

    I am astounded that this is the first mention of the Dirty Hari affair on the Spectator website. There have been several posts about it on the New Statesmen site. To the credit of the writers there, most are critical.

    I was never a fan of Hari’s preachy tone, but I assumed he was a man of integrity. It seems otherwise.

  • Dwight

    Sam, could I suggest some plausible alternatives to Hari’s “reasonable” explanation:
    1. He had, on several occasions, done little or no in-depth research on his subjects and ended up with no good material. Maybe he’s just a lazy journo?
    2. Perhaps he just isn’t much of an interviewer at all – and he knows it. Adding other people’s material was a way of hiding it. Was he worried tha he was going to be found out?
    3. His professional reputation and financial future would be (and no doubt was) enhanced by his employers and readers thinking him to be a substantial figure who could be relied on to give them non-trivial quotes from important figures.
    4. Maybe his interviewees told a story that he didn’t like and so he ditched it for one he did?

    Hari’s own explanation is the only one that I can think of that flatter’s him. That it was only in the interests of Greater Truth that he (apparently regularly) abused the good faith of his readers and accepted praise (and money) for the work of others.
    Or are we to assume that righteous Indie journos are never motivated by cowardice, greed, glory, or vanity?

  • escapedRoger

    Talent? Smart-alec crap writing. Just bury him and move on.

  • Sam Davidson

    Mr Hari’s own explanation of his actions seems, to me, frankly reasonable. One should bear in mind that journalism is literature; it is not, and should not be, a scientific process. Journalism, like all literature, should be art. And through this lens, I see nothing heinous in Mr Hari’s actions.