Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I’m Johann Hari! No, I’m Johann Hari...

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.


Geoff said...

Maybe it's "Now I'm going to ask you some questions. If you would kindly read these passages from your book in reply this interview will be over in ten minutes and I'll bugger off and leave you alone. Neither of us want to spend more time in each other's company than we have to, do we?"

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Only we could all cobble together a piece using previous interview clippings, presumably without even needing to meet the subject, and if not actually plagiarism, it is certainly dull to read repetitive interviews. It is up to a good journalist to ask the right questions to obtain freah angles and insights on the subject, surely? Must go and work on my cover version of TS Eliot's 'The Wasteland' now.

Vicus Scurra said...

I sense a campaign to discredit one of the few journalists worth reading. The majority of that profession spew out trivia, lies and cretinous opinions, which as long as they follow the Rothermere/Murdoch/Barclays line are lauded and accepted.
The simple solution would be for Mr Hari to tell them all to fuck off.
I hope that this helps.

Billy said...

My problem with it is that the answer previously given may be to a different question, and therefore context is lost or altered.

Seeing Toby Young getting all self-righteous about it was amusing though.

Rog said...

I think This indicates rather more than tidying up a few "ums" and "ers".
Hari isn't quite as clever as he thinks he is.

Tim F said...

I think you may have touched on something, Geoff, even in the depths of your elegant sarcasm. Very often interviewee and interviewer reach a tacit agreement that enables them to achieve their own ends (plugging a product; filling a space) with as little effort as possible on both their parts. "Would you say that this novel embodies your rejection of magical realism?"/"Yes, that sounds about right." becomes "I'd say this novel embodies my rejection of magical realism." And nobody minds.

That's a good point, PL: people demanding that all interviews to be faithful transcripts should be careful what they wish for. Read Hansard lately? Zzzzz...

All true, Vicus, but Hari shouldn't get special treatment just because he's one of the good guys.

But that's also the case in a conventional interview, Billy. Comments get rearranged and reordered all the time.

Some sound points, Rog, but if it's plagiarism, who is being plagiarised? The person who originally said it? Or the person who copied it down? And if the latter has sufficient creative input to make the quotation his/her own, doesn't that make it just as fake as what Hari's supposed to have done?

Rog said...

Certainly not Tim. He's done a cut-'n-paste and been caught out. Plagiarism is very difficult to define but nicking slabs of text from a published article and ingenuously adding hints that you were the one writing it down is not.

Anonymous said...

Smells bad, this does. Don't like it.
Though I take your point about writing down what people mean to say, rather than what they actually say.
It was the bane of my life when interviewing pontificating politicians in N. Ireland accidentally commended rather than condemned the latest sectarian killing - no matter how many chances you gave them to get it right - bit more awkward to manipulate in radio than print.