Bagehot, the Economist’s columnist on UK affairs, has posted on the magazine’s website a brilliant denunciation of Johann Hari, the Independent columnist who was caught nicking stuff from books and passing them off as his own work in interviews with the famous. It’s not just that it was stealing, but there was a violation of the writer/reader trust – when reading an interview, we trust that the words spoken by the subject were spoken during the interview.
Hari’s first response, on his website back in June, is here. (More links to early coverage here. ) It’s a bit different from his apology in the Independent yesterday.
Bagehot rips that apology to shreds. Hari’s main line of defence is that he didn’t go to journalism school, so didn’t know that what he did was wrong. Bagehot nails that – he didn’t go to journalism school either. Nor did I, but we both know that what Hari did was wrong.
Do read the piece – it is not only a stinging denunciation of one person’s malpractice but also a passionate argument in defence of journalistic standards. Two quotes:
This is what baffles me about those colleagues leaping to Mr Hari’s defence. It is as if they imagine conducting an interview is mostly an act of stenography: you find someone interesting, ask them things, and then write down what they say. It is not stenography. Perhaps 80% of the knack of interviewing involves the ability to get people to open up and say striking things. When a subject is bored, or tired, or hostile your job is to charm or provoke them. It can be hard work. Surprisingly often, it can feel like (non-sexual) flirtation.
That last sentence is, surprisingly often, true. And this:
I once knew a correspondent with the amazing gift of diving into a Chinese crowd and coming out, 30 seconds later, with the perfect quote, despite pretty limited Mandarin. I never had the heart to say: great quote, now tell me how you say that in Chinese.