The Leveson Inquiry is well into the first stage of investigating the culture, practice and ethics of the media. The past few months have witnessed a fever pitch of celebrities, custard pies and denials of dubious practices carried out by dubious tabloid journalists and owners.
How disappointing, then, to see Chris Blackhurst, editor of The Independent, being led down a dark alley and given a bloody nose during today’s hearing. In his statement to the Leveson Inquiry, Blackhurst proclaimed, “The Independent- of all the national newspapers- prides itself on taking a high ethical stance”. Ms Patry Hoskins questioned what he meant by the phrase “of all national newspapers”, a clear side-swipe at News International. Blackhurst gave the credible answer that the founders of The Independent in 1986 wanted to set themselves apart from “proprietorial influence… and union-restrictive practices that were dominating industry” at the time. So far so good. The Independent has reason to be smug, right?
Hoskins then questioned Blackhurst on the issue of checking sources. He had stated that the source checking issue doesn’t arise very often at The Independent as most of the stories published are “relatively straightforward news reporting, comment and analysis, rather than investigative or in-depth feature pieces which might rely on a wider array of sources.” Proper news, you see. It was clear Blackhurst was trying desperately to remove The Independent as far away as possible from the events and practices involving phone hacking last summer. When Hoskins asked about the practice of paying for tips for the diary page, Blackhurst was at pains to stress The Independent only takes tips from journalists they have a relationship with. Moving swiftly on then, to suspended journalist Johann Hari, the subject of The Independent’s own scandal last summer.
Johann Hari was the rising star of journalism, a staff columnist straight out of Cambridge and winner of multiple writer’s awards. I met Hari briefly at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2003 where I found him to be arrogant and quite rude. I was eventually won round as his arrogance was put to good use in his excellent writings on the 2010 UK elections and commentaries on the budget cuts, student protests and corporate tax avoidance. I even started following him on Twitter.
In June 2011, Hari was accused of plagiarism. In his published articles, Hari had been attributing quotes to interviewees which were lifted from other interviews or books and not taken at the time of the interview. Amazingly, none of the interviewees had complained and it took an eagle-eyed reader to spot a plagiarised quote. On the 27th June, Hari posted an explanation and clearly doesn’t think he has done anything wrong,
“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…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. It’s a way of making sure the reader understands the point that (say) Gideon Levy wants to make as clearly as possible, while retaining the directness of the interview”.
Surely the skill of (say) a journalist is asking the right questions during an interview to get the clearest answers, making sure readers “understand the point”? It shows such disregard for his profession it’s amazing Hari bothered to actually interview anyone at all.
It then transpired that, using a pseudonym, Hari edited the Wikipedia pages of journalists he disliked or had issues with. Cristina Odone, editor of the New Statesmen, was branded anti-Semitic and homophobic on her Wikipedia page. Nick Cohen was declared an alcoholic and all reviews of his work deleted from his Wikipedia page apart from a damning review by Hari.
On September 15th, Hari accepted wrongdoing and published an apology, using almost the exact wording of the June explanation, but with a much humbler ending. In his apology, Hari says on his return to work, “I will footnote all my articles online and post the audio online of any on-the-record conversations so that everyone can hear them and verify they were said directly to me.” He is also giving back the George Orwell writing award and has “taken unpaid leave of absence” to study journalism ethics at Columbia and NYU. Poor thing.
At the Leveson Inquiry, Blackhurst referred to an internal disciplinary report which alluded to Hari’s medical history being taken into account as some explanation for his actions regarding Wikipedia and concluded the offences were not serious enough to lose his job. Blackhurst confirmed Hari will return to the paper in “five to six weeks”, but purely as a columnist, not an interviewer.
Perhaps worse than losing his job, Hari has called his entire body of work into doubt and his reputation will probably never recover. Furthermore, he is now half a journalist after being barred from interviewing people, like the kid in class who’s not allowed to handle the scissors. Most annoying is that he wasted an opportunity to be one of the best journalists we have and to inspire thousands of talented young writers. Maybe he still will, but for different reasons.
*The author would like to acknowledge this is borrowed phrase, originally used by Arthur Sulzberger Jr, chairman of the New York Times Company, in describing the effect on the paper after the discovery that journalist Jayson Blair had fabricated and plagiarised hundreds of stories in 2003. There, not so hard is it?