God knows journalists find it hard enough to win people’s trust.
I’ve knocked on enough doors, stood in enough post-match mixed zones, and faced enough hard stares from interviewees to know this, too.
It would be nice to think that readers or viewers could trust what is being presented to them as being an honest interpretation of actual events by a reporter.
Trust is a precious commodity in journalism (it’s precious in real life too, but fortunately this tends to be a more forgiving arena).
Having it betrayed is like being given dodgy notes by your bank manager. The likelihood is that you won’t bank there again – and you’ll view other bankers with suspicion.
Well, if you’ve been kind enough to trust us so far, be prepared to have a rethink.
On Tuesday, one of the UK’s leading print journalists, Johann Hari, was honest enough to admit that he was routinely dishonest in his award-winning work for the Independent newspaper.
Hari had been called out for passing off an existing quote from an interviewee as something said to him as part of their conversation.
He then claimed it was normal practice to lie to the reader in this manner, and was backed up by his editor.
Johann Hari may be a great writer. He may have done some great reporting. I’ve enjoyed some of his articles immensely.
It’s just a shame they now belong in the fiction section. Even the ones that are largely true. Because how can we tell the difference?
Let’s take an example that has been widely quoted in the British media today.
Hari writes of an interview with Gideon Levy, the Israeli Haaretz journalist, in a Scottish bar.
“After saying this, he falls silent, and we stare at each other for a while. Then he says, in a quieter voice: ‘The facts are clear. Israel has no real intention of quitting the territories or allowing the Palestinian people to exercise their rights. No change will come to pass in the complacent, belligerent, and condescending Israel of today. This is the time to come up with a rehabilitation programme for Israel.'”
How dramatic. The silent meeting of minds. The hushed voice.
The quote comes line-for-line from one of Levy’s own previously-published articles.
The Haaretz man has now leapt to Hari’s aid in a rather predictable closing of ranks. So at least we know that they are both cool with hoodwinking their audiences.
“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,” he said on his blog.
“My test for journalism is always – would the readers mind you did this, or prefer it? Would they rather I quoted an unclear sentence expressing a thought, or a clear sentence expressing the same thought by the same person very recently?”
I’d prefer you just did your job as an interviewer, Johann. Get some good quotes.
Or if you find yourselves falling silent and staring at each other, just ask for some good ones. Agree with the interviewee how they can express themselves better, if you like.
If that doesn’t work, give us some better quotes from somewhere else.
But tell us where they’re from. Don’t pretend they were whispered to you across the bar as a roaring log fire lit up your intelligent faces.
Twitter users reacted gleefully to all this, coming up with quotes under the hashtag #interviewsbyhari.
My personal favourite is from @mattwithers, who imagines that Hari is interviewing former Liverpool and England footballer John Barnes.
“Barnes articulated his footballing philosophy. ‘You’ve got to hold and give,’ he said, ‘but do it at the right time’. #interviewsbyhari”
Those backing up Hari’s insistence on portraying moments that never happened have equally betrayed their craft.
His editor Simon Kelner said that the newspaper had “not had a single complaint about his misrepresenting anyone” in Hari’s 10 years with the paper.
He may not have misrepresented anyone’s views, because they clearly said these quotes at some point.
But he is still pretending that they took place in a conversation with him. If that’s not misrepresentation, then it’s lying.
We all get information from somewhere – no journalist ever presents his work through a filter that is purely his own. I read a news report in The Times before I wrote this.
But then this is just an opinion piece, and as the great Manchester Guardian editor CP Scott told me over a plate of hot-buttered crumpets in 1921: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred, Rhysie old boy. Another cup of tea?”
One of a journalist’s many jobs is to crystallise experience so the reader or viewer can take an impression of what that experience was like, what it meant, what message it put across.
That can be done successfully or unsuccessfully. But it must be done honestly. Otherwise, you’re breaking your contract with your audience.
Hari has apologised, despite his slightly skewed reasoning. I hope he can now get on with the fine journalism he is undoubtedly capable of.