Journalist and commentator Johann Hari was in trouble yesterday after he admitted to adding quotes from the writings of people he had interviewed and passing them off as comments made during the interview. The piss-taking which followed was very funny, if a little cruel. The #interviewswithhari tag on Twitter had him interviewing everyone from Ramesses II to Jane Austin.
As those who defended Mr Hari pointed out, his crimes are minor when measured against the vitriolic and mendacious drivel written by some columnists but, as Kevin Arscott said, we expect better from people writing for publications like the Independent, especially when they attack the fact-twisting and propaganda in other papers.
Like Kevin, I agree more often than not with Johann Hari’s stance and I find his articles entertaining. However, as I said earlier this year, I stopped taking him seriously some time ago when I noticed that some of his claims had little to back them up and a few were just plain wrong. When Private Eye reposted this piece from 2003, questioning the basis of Mr Hari’s early articles, I wasn’t at all surprised.
Journalists might have got away with this sort of thing a decade ago but today’s technology enables people to check their claims within a couple of hours. Given that it is so easy for anyone with a PC and an internet connection to poke holes in an article, it makes me wonder why journalists don’t spend a little extra time backing up their assertions with proper links and references. Not to do so betrays a certain arrogance, as does making up quotes and assuming that no-one will bother to check. There is still a sense that writing under the banner of a respected newspaper means gives journalists what Ben Goldacre called ‘institutional credibility’. It’s in the Independent, the Guardian or the Telegraph, so it must be true. Some writers seem to think this gives them a licence to make all sorts of claims without needing to do anything boring like reference them.
But this won’t do any more. Deference for all hallowed institutions has collapsed. Politicians, priests, police officers and even members of the royal family have discovered that the respect they once had has long gone. Titles, uniforms and the trappings of power no longer inspire the awe they once did. This is as true for journalists as it is for dukes, MPs and bishops. As a leftie, Johann Hari must surely understand that.