Johann Hari and plagiarism: What implications for journalism?

This article first appeared here in The Commentator

Journalist Johann Hari

Johann Hari - in hot water?

When does journalism cross the line into plagiarism? The author William Ralph Inge, in a pleasingly-modern, under 140-character missive, once wrote: “Originality is undetected plagiarism”.

When it comes to writing, who’s to say that an apparently-sparkling turn of phrase is not simply the cleverly-worded, and wholly acceptable, culmination of all other ideas to which we’ve been witness thus far?

Enter Johann Hari (left), Independent columnist, darling of the Left and Orwell Prize winner extraordinaire, whose views on everything from the IMF to why Republicanism is Britain’s only sensible option frequently light up the Twittersphere with their biting assessments.

This week, however, the micro-blogging phenomenon has once again proven that where Twitterers go, the news can only follow – and at the centre of the latest gathering storm, Hari himself, unwitting subject of the mighty hashtag, #interviewswithHari.

At lunchtime, it started trending. And then, as is Twitter trends’ wont, all hell broke loose.

Put simply, Hari stands accused of plagiarism. Irish journalist Brian Whelan “blew the whistle” when he noticed that a fair number of Hari’s interviewees’ responses bore a near-identical resemblance to quotations from said interviewees in already-published books and articles.

By not even attempting to clarify that the often-eloquent sentences were in fact carefully edited phrases lifted from already-published works, even if by the same speaker, Hari has faced a deluge of criticism, with The Telegraph taking great joy in pronouncing him “Busted!”

Although Hari yesterday replied to the accusation, purporting to see his interviews as more “intellectual portraits” than word-for-word transcriptions, with the lifted sentences there merely because “almost always, [the interviewee has already] said it more clearly in writing than in speech…”, the implications of what one might have been tempted to term a storm in a Twittercup could be more far-reaching than one may initially have assumed.

Not a day goes by without alert Twitterers finding something to comment on, and usually the stories drop quietly off the trend list as quickly as they ascend.

But while the hashtag #interviewswithhari proved to be one of the most hilarious streams of gently-mocking content to flow from Twitter in a very long while, was it all as benign and harmless as it seemed?

Well-known users jumped on the bandwagon. Guardian Head of Digital Engagement Meg Pickard wrote: ‘”I think we’re alone now,” Tiffany sighed at me as we stood on the desert island, “there doesn’t seem to be anyone around”’, while BBC Political Editor Robert Peston chimed in with “Blog now open for comments again. By all means cut and paste from Hari interview if you can’t think of anything to say”.

The list went on for several hours, in the manner of snickering schoolkids at the back of the class, propelled onwards by the knowledge that the teacher can hear them, and what’s more, is listening.

Several voices came to Hari’s defence, with writer of the moment Caitlin Moran commenting that “Johann Hari generally writes good, thoughtful, brave journalism”, while several others remarked that there is “much worse” journalism out there.

But although Hari has the full support of his editor, the story has proven, if any more proof were needed, that in this day and age, one should ignore Twitter at one’s peril.

And what of the implications for journalism itself? The Media Standards Trust has already called for an inquiry into Hari’s behaviour, questioning whether the writer should be stripped of his Orwell Prize.

What Moran (who, despite her defence, said she was “crying with laughter”) and many others were just hours previously calling hilarious now looks ever more serious.

Hari himself said “My test for journalism is always – would the readers mind you did this, or prefer it?” as a justification for his actions.

But if the ever present swirling waters of the Twittersphere are anything to go by – and, it seems, increasingly, they are – Hari, and those who ape him, may be sailing closer to the wind than previously thought.

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