Why Simon Kelner is wrong to defend Johann Hari

by Stephen Tall on June 29, 2011

Johann Hari is used to provoking controversy – as the Independent’s most outspoken left/liberal columnist its his stock-in-trade – but yesterday found himself on the receiving end of criticism of his integrity.

The reason? His repeated borrowing of quotes from interviews published by other journalists which he then drops into his own interviews as if they had been made directly in conversation.

The accusation first surfaced last week on the DSG blog concerning an interview Mr Hari undertook with ‘Italian communist and every ultra-leftist’s favourite “psychopath”’, Toni Negri. And the accusation went mainstream after Yahoo editor Brian Whelan’s demolition job, citing numerous examples of Mr Hari’s journalistic distortions under the tells-it-as-it-is headline, Is Johann Hari a copy-pasting churnalist?

Johann Hari’s defence is simple: though the quotes have been borrowed because they fit better with the interview than what the subject actually said, at no point has he sought to mislead readers as to the subject’s actual views, nor has he ever invented quotes. In other words, ignore the provenance claimed in the article, and focus solely on the content.

This is a spurious spin on ends-justify-means. A journalist’s first duty is to facts, and claiming that an interview subject has said something “with a shake of the head” when in fact you’ve copied-and-pasted their words from somebody else’s interview is very clearly a deception.

As Joel Gunter on Journalism.co.uk points out:

Hari’s simplistic take on the practice is also disingenuous, and I suspect he knows it. There are all sorts of problems associated with this kind of fudging, not least the question of whether his subjects can be confident of having any control over an interview, or whether his editors and readers will be able to trust what they get given. And once misrepresenting what was said a little bit, where do you stop?

He also highlights the case of the LA Times photographer who was sacked after passing off as real an image that was in fact a composite of two images he had captured. The parallel is clear.

Perhaps the best post I’ve read, though, is on the ironically-named Angry Mob blog:

… a few people on Twitter are making the argument that there are far worse crimes than this in journalism (true) or that Johann is kind of a good guy (also true – in my opinion) as if this somehow excuses him. I know that in terms of bad journalism this is pretty tame, but we expect bad journalism from tabloids who employ people precisely because they have absolutely no interest in the truth and are happy to push any agenda that sells … However, can we not expect something a little better from someone who has regularly written against dishonesty, propaganda and tabloid fictions? It is one of those occasions where you are not angry, more disappointed to discover that someone like Johann could think such dishonesty not important or worthy of any criticism.

Sadly though inevitably, most of this being viewed through a tribal prism. Many of the left/liberal commentariat are rallying to Mr Hari’s cause on the grounds that “it’s not so bad, is it? and anyway he’s basically a good guy” — yet they know they would have responded differently if this had happened to Melanie Phillips. Such subjectivity reduces journalism’s ethics to those of the playground, in which trust is based not on facts but whether you like someone or not.

But it is not Johann Hari who comes out worst of this episode in my view, though. He has made a mistake: some will say it’s unforgivable and he should be sacked; others will be more understanding, accept his semi-apology, and say give him a second chance.

No, the person who I think has most to apologise for is Simon Kelner, the Independent’s editor, who has resolutely abdicated editorial responsibility for his columnist’s deceit. He has claimed that no complaints have been received about Johann Hari in 10 years; a claim that Labour blogger Hopi Sen quickly pointed out was inaccurate, as shown here.

True, an editor should stick up for his staff – when they’re in the right. However, as in this case when they’re in the wrong, an editor should take said columnist to one side, give them an old-fashioned rollocking, and then pen an apology to the newspaper’s readers.

It’s clear that Simon Kelner does not feel in the least embarrassed about Johann Hari’s mistake. In fact, given today’s front-page teaser for his mea minima culpa with the belligerent headline, ‘What I think of the attacks on my professional integrity’, it seems Mr Kelner is enjoying the publicity even if it comes at the expense of his and the Indy’s reputation for integrity.

Earlier this week, his proprietor Alexander Lebedev was touting Mr Kelner as the likely head of a foundation for investigative journalism. It would seem an odd role to gift an editor who apparently cannot grasp why journalistic deception is wrong.