Johann Hari’s feet of clay

We all, I suspect, have a tendency to want to forgive more easily the errors of those with whose views we are in broad sympathy than we would the same errors committed by our intellectual foes. At a certain point though, the opposite tendency kicks in. When our friends let us down the disappointment and the sense almost of betrayal lead us to judge the perpetrator even more harshly.

Both of these tendencies have been on view during the Johann Hari affair. For those (are there any such?) not familiar with the main elements of the furore, they are well captured in this BBC blog post which brings together both the accusers and Mr Hari’s self-defence. The article refers to the Twitter storm yesterday, which followed the pattern we’ve now become well used to: outrage from some and robust defence from others are followed by prolonged ridicule by just about everyone – generally the most entertaining part of the genre. Some of those mostly leftist tweeters defending Hari were challenged over whether they would have so supinely accepted similar behaviour from one of their right-wing hate-figures such as Richard Littlejohn or Melanie Phillips. In symmetrical opposition, rightist tweeters condemning Hari were accused of picking on the mote of his faults whilst ignoring the plank of the faults of their own darlings. And to complete the picture there were those leftists who, more in sorrow than anger, tweeted the pain of discovering that a comrade was not as saintly as they had always supposed. I guess that I was one of the latter.

Well, actually, not quite. Johann Hari is one of those rare people who can royally piss off even those who want to agree with him. Many of his articles have me nodding and hurrah-ing in impassioned assent. Quite a lot of them also have me retching at the sort of self-satisfied right-on-ness that only Hari seems able to exude. His writing frequently has the sort of earnest humourlessness that verges on – and sometimes goes right past the verge and into the ditch – of self-importance.

I think it’s this latter characteristic that has fuelled the tsunami (and these days everything more than a trickle is de rigueur a tsunami) of disapprobation that is now swirling around this erstwhile darling of the tortured middle-class conscience. This and the only-too-Hari-esque nature of his defence. He protests that using quotations from his interviewees’ other writings, or their responses even to other interviewers, is not so much about his unethical behaviour, but more about his gracious compensation for those interviewees’ inability to express themselves as adequately in response to his questioning as they have done in other circumstances. Including in their blurb on the dust jackets of their published works. So I’m sorry if I’ve inadvertently misled anyone, but I was only doing it for my interlocutors.

No Johann. That is arrant poppycock. It adds to your bad behaviour: it most certainly doesn’t excuse it. How much better it would have been to admit culpability, to come clean, and to ‘fess up. We could then perhaps have all moved on. But you chose not to do that decent thing, and for this friend of yours at least, you have permanently blotted your copybook.

2 thoughts on “Johann Hari’s feet of clay

  1. Hear, hear! As a journalist, this sort of behaviour is considered unethical. Every reporter knows that in an interview, one quotes exactly what the subject says (taking out the obvious ers, um, etc.) To lift passages from the subject’s interviews with other reporters is shoddy journalism. Hari’s response smacks of hubris, as does the Independent’s response and those of certain other correspondents, who defend Hari by saying what he’s done isn’t as bad as Murdoch’s hacks. Hari’s bad behaviour casts a spotlight on all journalists, making the public more distrustful and less willing to accept what they read as fact.

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