I wonder what epithet will be applied to this year? 2011: The Summer of Lies? With public interest in phone-hacking having reached saturation point, the spotlight has turned back onto Johann Hari, who, it can reasonably be inferred, is about to be stripped of his 2008 Orwell Prize for Journalism.
In order to pre-empt and diffuse the inevitable renewal of interest in this story, David Allen Green reminded everyone that Johann Hari is reported as being in a fragile mental state and reminded Hari’s employers at the Independent that they had a duty of care towards him, as well as suggesting that a renewed feeding frenzy and Schadenfreude would not be the most compassionate response. Indeed Guy Walters, Damian Thompson,and David Allen Green (in a later post), all assert that questions need to be asked of the editors of the Independent.
I would agree. It seems to me that all newspaper editors need to be reminded of their duties of responsibility to both their readership and their young journalists. Factual inaccuracies should not be allowed to be passed off as truth.
As I said a few days previously, I was incensed by the lack of judgement on behalf of the New Statesman in relation to Laurie Penny’s article. What Laurie had done was to base her entire article around two lies, entirely unnecessarily. The points she wished to make could have been equally well articulated without needing to resort to untruths. These untruths were nothing more than assumptions or suppositions, ones that needed further explanation and examination and should not have been allowed to be printed unchallenged as truth.
This is important, not because of the issue that was under discussion, but because people still tend to believe and trust in the kind of journalism and opinion pieces of reputable and quality publications. Critique and criticism is vital but it must be based on truth, otherwise any debate and discussion will be meaningless, and any change or reforms brought about by such debate will be misconceived and ineffectual.
I confess to having experienced a touch of Schadenfreude having watched what happened to Johann Hari, because his writing indirectly contributed to a great deal of the abuse and haranguing I received on-line for my defence of Catholicism. In the run up to the Papal visit of last September, acres of column inches were devoted to attacking the Pope, the Vatican, the Holy See and Catholicism in general, not only for the child-abuse scandal, but also in relation to Catholic doctrine regarding sexual ethics. Ill-informed anti-catholic propaganda was being peddled across the media and the internet, anti-catholicism was seen as an acceptable prejudice and catholics everywhere were being pounced upon if they dared to speak up in support of their faith and their pontiff. There was concern that this prejudice had the capacity to turn violent.
I experienced this on-line, to some extent I still do. In the run up to the Papal visit, I commented that David Cameron seemed very enthusiastic to welcome the Pope and capture and explore the Catholic teaching on social justice, he was keen to draw parallels between his big society and Catholic social teaching. By pointing this out and generally defending the Pope’s visit, it was claimed that I was manic and on the edge of a mental breakdown.
In the midst of all this Johann Hari published an article chock full of inaccuracies in which he stated Catholics who supported the papal visit were “cheering a man who facilitated the rape of your children” and that to to support him was to endorse “his crimes and cruelties”. It was nothing other than libelous offensive rhetoric based upon his own irrational prejudices. Hari smeared and slandered the Pope offering absolutely no evidence for his assertions, other than alluding to a canon law document that he clearly did not understand, nor was going to take the trouble to interpret (several canon law specialists could have explained and contextualised it to him) and some cases of child abuse in the US, which had absolutely no links to the Pope whatsoever, but were great for upping the emotional ante and outrage. Thomas Bridge competently fisks the article here.
This article was syndicated everywhere, even the Daily Mail published it, and it was responsible for a surge of criticism. Catholics everywhere were dismayed by Hari’s distortions, his hysteria and his patronising language. Hari’s implications were clear. Catholics were obviously very stupid if kindly and generally benign individuals who didn’t understand their own religion. Hari would condescendingly deign to explain to them what the Gospels really meant, what Jesus would really think and he would have absolutely no problem with them being Catholics, so long as they didn’t agree with a large portion of their Church’s teaching and they attempted to get their leader arrested on his say-so. “Catholics, I implore you” he bleated. If Catholics didn’t agree with him, they were either ignorant, bigots or defenders of child abuse, probably a mixture of all three, but to be despised at any rate.
I had this article sent to me countless times. “Look Caroline, look, see what your pope has done, Johann Hari says it here and he’s always so right about everything. It’s the Independent, they are never biased, why are you so blind, why can’t you look and see”…Bleurgh. It did nothing for the morning sickness. Someone went so far as to say “you would stand by, watch a priest rape your daughter and do absolutely nothing about it. In fact you’d probably encourage it and then blame or disbelieve your daughter”. Somewhat unsurprisingly I snapped.
Since then I’ve never been particularly disposed to our Mr Hari. His polemics were too emotive and too sanctimonious by half and I could never be sure exactly how trustworthy they were, given his propensity to twist the facts. If anyone tried to engage with him, to point out the factual errors and ask him to consider alternative points of view then he simply blocked them. He wrote an article in a similar vein about Muslims, about how Muslim women needed to be shown what their faith really meant, how they needed to have it properly explained to them.
He seemed to suffer from a condition coined by the Curt Jester – homophobia-phobia. An irrational fear or aversion to homophobia, a contagion which seems to be spreading across the press. He wrote another article, beautifully disseminated by Quiet Riot Girl here, about homophobic bullying. Anyone who had any opposition to the notion of gay marriage or of two homosexual people buying into heterosexual norms of marriage and family and objecting to same-sex couples’ use of surrogacy had the blood of dead schoolchildren on their hands. Again, I was sent this article countless times, in some sort of effort to make me change my evil and abhorrent views. (Just to point out, I am categorically NOT homophobic, I have no fear, aversion or hatred of people with same-sex attraction; I defend the Catholic position and the vast majority of my time I have much better things to think about than the sexual peccadilloes, whatever they might be, of other people.).
I wrote about Hari’s ill-conceived campaign to attempt to persuade people to give up a benefit which they are yet to be granted, which grated for several reasons. The response was to cry “Homophobe!”, something of a non-sequitur and a link to said article on homophobic bullying together with a threat to run and snitch to Hari about my “twisted lifestyle”.
My beef with Johann Hari was how he twisted the truth to suit his own ends. Hari is a great writer. His rhetoric has a hypnotic and compelling quality. I can see how easy it is to be drawn into his narrative, but what is infuriating is that The Independent allowed him a platform from which to speak unchecked. The very fact that they were willing to publish him, cemented his reputation amongst his equally young, ideological and gullible readership, who understandably thought that his work had been edited and fact-checked. The Independent with their high standards of journalism wouldn’t publish falsehoods would they? Lately Hari seemed to be on a collision course, almost everything he wrote was critiqued somewhere, he would write lengthy polemics and have an opinion on almost anything, with very little factual grasp of the subject matter in hand, as Tim Worstall demonstrated when he laid into him for his misunderstanding of economics.
Any criticism of Hari was put down to either homophobia, jealousy of his status or age or simply due to opposing ideology, he was the great St Hari, the great campaigner, his views were sacrosanct. I think people were simply over-awed by both his Cambridge degree, his undoubted passion, however misguided, and his complex prose – full of obscure words and neologisms. Ironically I rather enjoyed his interviews, it seemed to me that this was the most honest aspect of his work, the notion of plagiarism did not occur. For those of us who do occasionally get our work published elsewhere, Hari’s actions are galling. I meticulously check everything before submitting work that is going to be published either on another website, or in print. I had nightmares about receiving a lawsuit from George Weigel prior to my piece in the Catholic Herald on John Paul 2 at Easter, given that I had relied on his biography for historical background.
As for Hari’s alleged sock-puppetry on Wikipedia, that is serious matter, as it could, if left unchecked or unedited have ruined lives and reputations. Johann is obviously extremely fragile and pathologically unable to handle any sort of criticism at all. He seems to have become dependent upon his reputation, to crave the glory, the pundits, the accolades and the fame. Who can blame him? It must be heady stuff and it seems that without it, his life is empty, devoid of meaning. There is an irony in the winner of the Orwell Prize covertly operating his own Ministry of Truth.
I said on Jack of Kent’s blog that Hari is a modern day tragic hero, a Henchard or Lear of our time. The Greek word hamartia or tragic flaw is especially apt given that it can encapsulate accident or mistake, as well as error or wrongdoing. I hope that like a tragic hero he can find his redemption and we our catharsis.
I think Johann Hari still has a career, he certainly has the makings of a novelist or even a poet about him. Sir Philip Sidney held that poetry should be mimetic, that it should imitate
” it is a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth–to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture–with this end, to teach and delight…the poets only ever deliver a golden”.
Hari was certainly an artist or word-smith and in the words of Wilde. “No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did he would cease to be an artist.”
I think similar could be levelled at Laurie Penny, who is of an ilk to Hari and for whom concern has been expressed, her highly controversial writing often results with her at the receiving end of personal attack, although she has not been particularly circumspect on her attacks on other people; recent examples include praising Amy Winehouse for spitting at Pippa Middleton and calling Damian Thompson a pathetic excuse for humanity.
Both Hari and Laurie must be seen more as artists than journalists, it can be the only explanation as to why they are allowed so much poetic licence and not pulled up on their loose and sloppy reporting of facts. They want to spin a narrative, create a golden, a talking picture, one that corresponds with their own world view.
Like Philip Sidney, the young courtier to Queen Elizabeth, both have “great expectations” placed upon them, due to their age and stratospheric rise. Like Sidney, Hari must be thinking:
“For since mad March great promise made of me,
If now the May of my years much decline,
What can be hoped my harvest time will be?”
Like Sidney’s Astrophil, Johann Hari has written himself into a corner. If Laurie Penny wishes to avoid a similar fate and extend her influence beyond her coterie, she needs to accept like Sidney, her “young mind marred” and appreciate, unlike Hari, that words may be “right, healthful caustics“.