Top UK journalist in plagiarism row
Johann Hari, an award-winning newspaper columnist, faces a storm of condemnation after misrepresenting quotes in interviews. Should journalists ever bend the truth?
Johann Hari was interviewing Israeli writer Gideon Levy for the Independent: 'He falls silent,' writes Hari, '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".'
It's a dramatic moment, with one problem: that's not what Levy actually said. Instead, it has just been revealed, the quote comes not from the interview but from an article Levy had written one year earlier.
When this was discovered by bloggers, the media world erupted with a mixture of scorn, sympathy and outrage. 'This falls way outside any acceptable definition of journalism,' wrote Robert Shrimsley, who works in broadsheets. 'Not attributing existing quotes correctly is as bad as making them up,' commented an anonymous tabloid writer. Others rushed to Hari's defence, calling him a 'brilliant and inspiring journalist' whose writing is 'good, thoughtful and brave.'
Hari himself acknowledged an 'error of judgement', and apologised to his readers. At the same time, he denied that what he did counted as plagiarism. Sometimes, he said, interviewees don't choose the clearest wording when they explain a point in person. In such cases, he would sometimes use a quote from the subject's other writings instead, if he could find one which made the same point better.
He claims never to have misrepresented what the interviewees believed – only to have helped them express themselves more clearly. No one, he says, ever complained of being misquoted.
So why all the fuss? Because underlying this story is a tension that lies at the heart of journalism itself. On the one hand, reporters want to write stories that are interesting, important and meaningful. On the other, journalism relies on a bond of trust between writer and reader. People read the news because they believe that what they're reading is true. Any lie damages that trust, and damages the whole profession.
Hari faced a dilemma because what his subjects said didn't effectively communicate what they meant. He lied about what happened in the interview in order to convey the truth about the beliefs of the interviewee – 'because some people have messages we desperately need to hear.'
For many commentators, however, good intentions are no excuse for deception. Journalism relies on a code of ethics: you acknowledge your sources; you don't pretend other people's words are your own and you don't falsify any detail, however small.
- What is plagiarism and why is it wrong?
- Many poets use quotes from other works to enrich their own. T. S. Eliot, for example, was famous for this. Is this different from plagiarism, and if so why?
- Imagine a world where everyone told the exact truth all the time. What would it be like? Describe the situation in a short imaginative essay.
- Conduct a short interview with a classmate (and, if possible, record it on video or audio). Then try to write up the interview in an interesting and lively way. Do you find yourself wishing the interviewee had said something that they didn't?
Some People Say...
“Sometimes, a small lie can communicate a deeper truth.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Did Hari commit plagiarism?
- He says not. Plagiarism is when you steal someone else’s work and pretend it’s your own. Hari was copying other people’s words, but he never claimed to have written them – just to have heard them as part of an interview.
- But that was a lie.
- Indeed. It also made Hari’s interviews sound more interesting than they really were, and made him appear a much more skilful interviewer. There have been much worse scandals though.
- Like what?
- In 2003, Jayson Blair, a reporter from The New York Times was found to have used whole paragraphs of text from other newspapers in his own reports. He also made up fake interviews. Politicians have done it too: the UK Universities Minister, John Hayes, recently gave a speech which had been partly copied from Wikipedia. He blamed his speechwriter.
- Writers of online blogs. A lot of investigative journalism today is done by bloggers, who are often enthusiastic amateurs rather than professional journalists.
- 'Broadsheets' in the UK see themselves as serious newspapers, more interested in accuracy and analysis than sensational stories or celebrity gossip. The name comes from the broadsheet format which has large pages.
- 'Tabloids' are printed on smaller pages than broadsheets and are more interested in celebrities and gossip. Tabloids like the Sun and the Mirror are known as 'red tops' and are regarded as the least serious.
- Copying words from another source and pretending they are your own. Schools and universities see this as a serious offence. It can sometimes be illegal.