In journalism an Exclusive is defined as:
a piece of news, or the reporting of a piece of news, obtained by a newspaper or other news organization, along with the privilege of using it first.
Fine – so it’s a story you’ve got hold of first, or something for yourself only. The same applies to “Exclusive Interview”- we hope.
On Friday 9 December 2005, the Independent carried an interview between Johann Hari and George Michael:
George Michael: Talk without prejudice
With a film and marriage in the offing, George Michael is happy at last. The singer talks to Johann Hari about his life – and a curious friendship with a princess
Johann Hari also reproduced the piece on his personal site, also on 9 December 2005:
Also fair enough, though was I the editor of the Indy I might raise an eyebrow that the “Exclusive” tag went to Hari’s personal site.
However, three years later, on 13 January 2009, Johann Hari ran the identical piece, George Michael – an Exclusive Interview, on the Huffington Post in North America:
Hari ran the piece under an “Exclusive” tag, and it was identical – and I mean word for word identical – to the piece he’d published on his own site, and on the Independent website, three years earlier.
That is, except for one single change. This sentence from the 2005 version:
This story begins in Edgware, one of the most middling chunks of Middle England, forty-two years ago.
contained the only word of Hari’s interview updated for the 2009 version:
This story begins in Edgware, one of the most middling chunks of Middle England, forty-five years ago.
(Checked using the Copyscape service.)
So, the piece was deliberately repurposed from its 2005 incarnation to pass as a 2009 Exclusive, without any of the George Michael material being updated to reflect possible changes over the 3 year interim. At this point I haven’t tracked down anything Hari has lifted from elsewhere and passed off as his own in this case.
[Update 13:15 4/7/2011: However, Jeremy Duns has found the third party source from where Hari lifted some quotes to use unattributed. Why am I not surprised?]
Are there any other cases?
Here, for example, are two more “exclusives”, both recycled into the Huffington Post almost a year later, and both checked with Copyscape as being identical – except for minimal sub-edits on the Independent versions.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
johannhari.com. November 27, 2007.” Ayaan Hirsi Ali: An interview”
independent.co.uk. November 27, 2007. “Ayaan Hirsi Ali: My life under a fatwa“
huffingtonpost.com. November 30, 2008. “The Refugee Who Rocked Islam: an Exclusive Interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali”
johannhari.com. January 30, 2008. “Martin Amis: The Interview”
independent.co.uk. January 29,2008. “The two faces of Amis“
huffingtonpost.com. December 3, 2008. “The Two Faces of Amis: An Exclusive Interview With Martin Amis“
Hari has reproduced a large number of previously published profiles and interviews, and I have only looked at a small sample. There may be others.
This leaves a number of questions hanging:
- Does the Huffington Post know that this is being done?
- Is the Huffington Post happy that it’s mainly American audience is being served up old copy from the UK, under the impression that it is “Exclusive” and up to date?
- Do the interviewees know that their thoughts from months or years ago are being recycled as contemporaneous?
- Do they mind?
- Were they asked to recheck the ‘interview’ as still being valid current reporting?
- Is the Huffington Post actually paying for this stuff? According to the Huffington Post policy of not paying bloggers, the answer is no. However, they have in the past paid ‘freelancers”.
To my mind the most serious point is that Hari both runs the risk of misrepresenting his interviewees, and ignores the possibility of their views developing.
One final point. In his ‘defence‘ of his conduct in copying quotes to embellish his interviews, Hari has relied on claims about doing “intellectual portraits” rather than “interviews”; this despite the fact that he continued to call his pieces “exclusive interviews”.
It perhaps illustrates, but does not explain, his confusion, that Hari has quite happily used “profile” and “interview” to describe the same article in different places. Your interview, which is my profile, is Hari’s intellectual portrait. Again – journalists can tell the difference.
Personally, I’d consign the phrase “intellectual portrait” to The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 and three-quarters, and to John Rentoul’s “banned list“.
[Update. Paragraph removed – see comment].
My personal opinion is that Hari has been reckless as to the basic principles and practices which go towards making a reporter, a journalist or a newspaper credible and trustworthy.
In a way this is not surprising; Hari is not a professional journalist, and he has never been trained to be one.
To the shame of Simon Kelner, nor has he seemingly ever been competently mentored to grow into one, either.
These building blocks may seem like small things, and in an ‘interview’ they include those practices which Hari has abandoned – accurately sourcing quotes, crediting others with their work and not lying to your readers about the context of your interview to spice up your piece, just for starters.
But these small building blocks are precisely the bricks from which journalists build their credibility. If a writer can’t get the basics reliably correct, then how can that writer be trusted or believed on the rest of it; they can’t be trusted.
We haven’t seen the end of this, despite Hari’s defenders trying to put a firewall around ‘Johann’s little mistake’ or passing off ‘attacks’ as ‘politically motivated’.
I’ve shown above that Hari is as reckless with claiming ‘Exclusives’ as he has been with passing-off quotes made to others, manipulating the context of previous quotes to give a ‘suitable’ answer to a different question he wants to be recorded as having asked, and lying to his readers about the context in which those quotes were made.
More of Hari’s interviews are unravelling. Beyond his interviews, Hari has a corpus of hundreds of articles. I can see no reason why much of this corpus should be of a higher standard. To raise a few queries:
- What of the way Hari’s embroiders facts as the basis for his polemic, his opinion, or his ‘reporting’?
- What about Hari’s habit of inserting ‘scene setting lies’ (the phrase is Guido’s – [update, as far as I have ascertained!]) into much of his output? This has been amply documented now for interviews, but it’s a regular occurrence in his opinion columns, too.
- What about the contempt he seems to hold for his subjects on occasion? For one I’d quote the recent Larry Flynt interview, which to me bore more resemblance to an opinion piece, incorporating Larry Flynt as a 69 year old wheel-on stooge cum punchbag. Hari followed this up by twitter gloating over a complaining email.
- What about the contempt he shows for ‘little people’ who dare to question his wisdom, his facts, or the basis of his argument?
- What about Hari’s tactic of haranguing people loudly with questionable claims, rather than engaging in a reasoned debate which allows those claims to be debated?
- What about the interviewees who have been traduced – from celebrities such as George Michael to people risking their lives such as Malalai Joya?
- And, I suppose, what about the poor saps who have spent the last few years believing everything he says?
This is why I have used the graphic of a can of worms; I think there are likely to be 57 varieties of worm in this can, and as yet we have only seen a very few.
There’s still a lot more to come on this story.