The journalist Johann Hari stands accused of plagiarism, but plagiarism of a very specific kind. He has admitted that when writing up interviews, he sometimes takes remarks that his interviewees have made in other media and inserted them in his own piece, if they make the relevant point better.
The fact is that printed interviews are seldom accurate transcriptions of the words spoken. “Um”s and “ah”s are excised; evident malapropisms and grammatical infelicities are corrected, especially if someone is not speaking in his or her first language; very often, what goes in is what the speaker clearly meant to say, not what was said. If this didn’t happen, interviews would be all but unreadable. If journalists are being dishonest in tidying text up in this manner, then I plead guilty to dishonesty.
Hari has been accused of deception, in suggesting that his interviewees have said things to him that, in fact, they said or wrote on other occasions. But people who are interviewed on a regular basis often find themselves being asked the same questions, and inevitably come up with similar answers each time. (I mentioned this phenomenon in my Leonard Cohen biography, if anyone out there has yet to acquire a copy.) All Hari has been doing is to offer the most elegant variation on a theme that his subject has uttered.
In fact, it could be argued that Hari’s behaviour is marginally more honest (less dishonest?) than that conducted by most hacks. When someone just tidies up a transcript, the resulting phrase is something the interviewer never said; when Hari lifts from the interviewee’s previously reported comments, at least it’s the real deal.
(Although, come to think of it, if Hari’s lifting from an earlier interview, who’s to say that the relevant journalist hasn’t already done a bit of judicious tidying to the text? And if he’s lifted from the interviewee’s own writing, it’s quite possibly been edited to a greater or lesser extent – by someone other than the writer – before seeing the light of day.)
Hari may have been rather more cavalier with his sources than his readers might have guessed, but provided the meaning is intact, little real harm has been done. Perhaps those of his fellow hacks baying for his blood should be required to swear to the absolute accuracy – remember those “um”s and “ah”s – of the quotations in their own material.
PS: And then, the inevitable Downfall video...
PPS: Hari’s own take on the brouhaha.