Johann Hari’s interview “augmentation”

Most readers at some point will have come across the writings of Johann Hari, a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Independent here in the UK. Hari has a distinctive, uncommonly direct writing voice; he is known for his strident left-wing views and for speaking out in the international media on a wide range of issues, from the immorality of some aspects of capitalism through to climate change, gay rights and the war on drugs. He is also known for his compelling interviews with global players.

It is this latter oeuvre that has landed Johann Hari in hot water. In the last twenty-four hours, it has emerged that the methodology he employs in conveying the responses of his interviewees may leave a little to be desired. Blogger Brian Whelan has discovered that some verbatim passages from Hari’s interviews attributed to the interviewees are textually identical to previously published quotes. Co-incidence? Well, no, as Johann bravely and perhaps a little naively decided to clear up himself on his blog:

When I’ve interviewed a writer, it’s quite common that they will express an idea or sentiment to me that they have expressed before in their writing – and, almost always, they’ve said it more clearly in writing than in speech. (I know I write much more clearly than I speak – whenever I read a transcript of what I’ve said, or it always seems less clear and more clotted. I think we’ve all had that sensation in one form or another).

So occasionally, at the point in the interview where the subject has expressed an idea, I’ve quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech.

The debate has since exploded on Twitter, (#johannhari, #interviewsbyhari), with many or most contributors seemingly allowing their political views or sparkling Twitter-wit to addle their judgement. Editor of the Indy Simon Kelner has been forced to weigh in but has so far declined to act decisively, somewhat meekly noting that he has not received any complaints about Hari in the decade for which he has written for the paper. CJ Schuler has contributed a blog to the Indy website that also somehow manages to miss the point, neglecting to mention Hari’s confessional blog post.

Is Hari a great writer and iconoclast of the left? Yes. Can his occasional “rewording” (sans explanation) of the responses of his interviewees be justified, whether in the interests of clarity and flow or for any other reason? Not a chance. When I read an interview, I should have the right to assume that what it has been reported that the subject contemporaneously said is what they actually said. It is surely a prime obligation of the interviewer to make clear to the reader where any obfuscation or alteration in their presentation of the remarks of their subjects has taken place. I don’t necessarily need to read the subject’s “ums” and “ahs”, but what is conveyed to the reader needs to align as closely as possible with what they actually said. If it is permissible to substantively diverge from this for stylistic reasons, the whole point of conducting conversational interviews is called into question. What is the point – so that a hyper-edited amalgam of the subject’s best ever quotes can be published together with a bit of journalistic “over lunch”, “he shifted in his chair” wrapping?

It’s not for me to judge what The Independent should do, but I would be very surprised if the paper didn’t move immediately to implement guidelines explicitly banning this sort of practice. Johann’s interesting but ultimately self-destructive mea culpa on his blog surely would probably not have warmed the cockles of his various editors, publishers and professional colleagues. Given how unedifying this episode has been for all these folks and arguably the broader journalistic profession, one would have to think that a firm public reprimand is in order for Hari, together with some further organisational consideration regarding the rights and responsibilities of journos who blog.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.