Johann Hari, a journalist with the London Independent, has been at the centre of a “shit-storm” over the past 24 hours. JOE talks to Brian Whelan, the Irish journalist who helped to blow the lid on the award-winning columnist.
A new day, a new Twitter storm. The microblogging platform has given new meaning to Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. These days, fleeting fame often comprises a raft of tweets and a spot of worldwide trending, before the Twitter traffic spike slides back towards the flat-line of silence and oblivion.
Today’s furore surrounds Johann Hari, the award-winning Independent journalist. Hari is a big swing in British journalism. For an Irish equivalent, think Kevin Myers, perhaps, without the seniority. Hari is just 32.
He’s won the Orwell Prize, regarded as “the pre-eminent prize for political journalism” (I’m quoting from Wikipedia here, but hey, I’m a 21st century journalist). He’s noted as a heavyweight commentator and interviewer, having sat down with political and intellectual giants such as David Cameron, Tony Blair, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Hugo Chavez, Noam Chomsky and Dolly Parton.
The storm around Hari’s work originated a couple of weeks back in a blog post on the relatively obscure website of self-styled ultra-leftist website DSG about an interview with Antonio Negri, the Italian Communist. And there it may have died, until Brian Whelan, an Irish journalist now based in London as editor of Yahoo! Ireland, decided that it needed a bit more investigation.
And it didn’t take a great deal of digging to hit what he describes as “the jackpot” – clear evidence that Hari had passed off quotes in his interviews that the subject had either told someone else, written in their books or, in the most damning instance, had originally formed part of a press release.
Speaking to JOE.ie today, Whelan said, “I don’t read the Independent, so he’s not a journalist whose work I’d read, I’m not a fan of self-indulgent columnists and I wasn’t really aware of his work until I saw that blog post by the DSG. I think a lot of people just dismissed it as some weird far-left blog, that it was just cranks, but I had a bit of an interest in Negri’s work in my life before journalism, so I had a read of [Hari's piece] and I thought there was something in it.
“I decided to have a look through this journalist’s work. I typed ‘Johann Hari interview’ into search engines and the first interview I got was one with Gideon Levy. I searched for some quotes, set it to exclude any results from Johann Hari and that was the jackpot, this really bizarre moment when I realised that this really well-known columnist was pretty much passing off pre-produced work as his own.
"I didn’t really believe it, but I started finding more and more. And then I found things like ‘He looked across the table and told me...’ It’s completely dishonest. If somebody working for the Murdoch press [had done it], he’d go to town on it. And I think someone working for a prestigious paper like the Independent, and interviewing top academics like Noam Chomsky and Antonio Negri, has a duty to be much more careful with the accuracy of his reporting. It’s not a local paper he’s working on. This is a newspaper of record.”
Instead of owning up, though, Hari launched a passionate defence of his methods in a blog post on Monday night, insisting that he had received support from media colleagues that he had done no wrong. What’s more, he wrote, not one of his 50-plus interviewees had ever complained about being misquoted.
It’s this sense of infallibility and righteousness, which seems to be coloured by the cliquishness of parts of the UK media set, that may well be the most galling aspect of the whole episode.
Not everyone is satisfied by his reasoning, and the people behind the Orwell Prize have ominously suggested that they may revisit his award. Neither is Whelan convinced by Hari’s defence.
“He says there’s never been any complaints but there has been,” he says. “In 2003, Noam Chomsky said that quotes Hari ran were a fabrication. The people who were with Negri on the day of his interview said that a lot of the mood setting, where he said Negri was in a bad mood, he had some bottles of wine, they claim a lot of that never happened. Complaints have been made, so he’s not being entirely truthful.
“If you’ve followed it on Twitter, there is definitely a split. People who know Hari, and are in his clique, people like Polly Toynbee from the Guardian, have come out and defended him. Others are saying, ‘you’ve done something bad, come clean’. The split is most obvious at the Guardian where you have some people saying this is a witch-hunt, and you have others, people like the news editor and the chief reporter saying it’s not okay.”
Whelan is also anxious to repel notions that his highlighting of Hari's malpractice is politically-motivated.
“It’s definitely not,” he says. “Johann Hari is a left-wing commentator – I come from the left all my life. Some of the best journalists I know are right-wing hacks, and there have been great left-wing journalists. So it’s not political. If you’re doing something dishonest, there’s a public interest in that. That’s why I went after it, and I think it was worth it.”