This year saw two major scandals in the British media. The one that received the most attention concerned cell-phone “hacking” by a private detective hired by the now-shuttered News of the World. Such illegal private espionage has been a practice of other tabloid newspapers—including the left-wing Daily Mirror and the paleoconservative Daily Mail—but the outcry focused on papers owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose Atlanticist, free-market, and populist ethos has long infuriated the British media and political establishment.
The second scandal involved the exposure of Johann Hari, the celebrated young columnist and media personality, as a plagiarist, fabricator, and user of Internet aliases to carry out smear campaigns against his enemies and to promote his own career. The Hari affair provoked less consternation—though it arguably offers as troubling a picture of the state of British journalism as the hacking scandal does. Indeed, the response to the scandal from Hari’s employers at the Independent and from much of the media establishment was arguably even more revealing of a deficit in the ethics of British media culture than were Hari’s original derelictions.
Like several rising stars in American journalism over the past three decades—the Washington Post’s Janet Cooke in the early 1980s, the New Republic’s Ruth Shalit and Stephen Glass in the 1990s, and the New York Times’s Jayson Blair in the early 2000s—Hari, now just 31, achieved his rapid success at a startlingly young age in large part thanks to his deceptions and fabrications. These went undetected for a long time because editors chose not to examine his work too closely. In Hari’s case (as in the case of Glass), his editors did not check his work because he skillfully played to their prejudices, in particular their anti-Americanism and loathing of Israel.
The reaction to his journalistic crimes stood in stark contrast to the American response to Glass and others. Hari’s sins were not greeted with the outrage, disappointment, and deep soul-searching of the sort that went on at all three American journalistic establishments—which led to editors being fired and new standards of exactitude being imposed—but rather with a blasé wave of the hand. In America, if a journalist is caught in repeated invention and deliberate dishonesty, his or her career ends. Not so in Britain. Hari was merely suspended from the Independent and is due to return to it after completing a journalism class in New York.
Born in Glasgow, Hari was hired right out of Cambridge University as a 21-year-old by the New Statesman. He moved from there to the Independent and very quickly became its most talked-about writer after Robert Fisk, the infamous veteran Middle East correspondent (whose propagandistic reporting has problems of its own). Astonishingly prolific, Hari specialized in pithy, personal, no-holds-barred political and cultural diatribes, combining undeniable verbal brilliance and erudition with vituperation that could be savage even by the unrestrained standards of British journalism.
It was typical of Hari that in one of many articles vilifying Israel (a stance popular with readers and editors of the Independent) he wrote, “Israel, as she gazes at her grey hairs and discreetly ignores the smell of her own stale shit pumped across Palestine, needs to ask what kind of country she wants to be in the next 60 years.”
He also wrote about himself with what looked like unsparing if solipsistic openness. He told readers about his issues with his homosexuality, his struggles with his weight, and his battles with depression in articles that were often moving and thoughtful. Hari’s combination of vulnerability and viciousness apparently made it all the more difficult for editors and colleagues to confront him about his suspiciously unconvincing reporting.
His fans were not limited to Independent readers with an apparently insatiable hunger for anti-Israel and anti-American invective. Liberals, centrists, and conservatives also found themselves praising Hari’s columns for devastating attacks on the likes of Harold Pinter, Eric Hobsbawm, George Galloway, and other progressive darlings with soft spots for Stalinists and progressive dictators. Like Christopher Hitchens, whose friendship Hari cultivated, he seemed to bring impressive moral force and democratic convictions to his political writing.
Whether out of conviction or for careerist reasons (or both), Hari occupied a libertarian niche on the left that allowed him to identify with the left establishment while attacking multiculturalism, totalitarianism, “anti-imperialist” support for third-world tyrants, and politically correct blindness to the dangers of Islamofascism. Like Hitchens, he was a strong supporter of Western intervention in the Balkans and then Iraq,1 although he changed sides with snarling vehemence in 2006. This reversal only added to his celebrity. In 2008, he was awarded the prestigious Orwell Prize for political writing. George Orwell was surely spinning in his grave on the evening Hari rose to the dais to accept it.
Long before he ascended these heights, he had been dogged by whispers that the quotes in his articles and columns were too perfect to be real. While he was at the New Statesman, the magazine’s deputy editor, Cristina Odone, was so troubled by the quotations he used in a supposedly reported story that she asked to see his notebooks. He put off bringing them in, then claimed to have misplaced them. After discovering that Hari had been forced off the Cambridge student newspaper for allegedly unethical behavior while still an undergraduate, Odone finally went to the magazine’s editor, Peter Wilby, but without result. Odone subsequently found that her Wikipedia entry had been altered to include references to her alleged homophobia and anti-Semitism as well as other flaws. The changes were made by one D. Rose, of whom more later.
Wilby, like subsequent editors, seems to have felt that Hari’s possibly problematic methods were of lesser significance than his cleverness, his unusually humble background (Hari claims his mother worked as a cleaning lady), his ability to bring in a gay readership and, above all, his ideological soundness on subjects like Israel and America.
Hari left the New Statesman after a year or so and tried to get work at the highly respected, left-leaning Guardian newspaper with the assistance of Polly Toynbee, an elder stateswoman on the left whom he had assiduously cultivated. But the Guardian, which generally holds to serious, almost American standards of journalistic ethics, had suspicions about his methods. The Independent, with a much smaller staff and an increasingly tabloid sensibility, was not so scrupulous.
In Spring 2003, the satirical magazine Private Eye charged Hari with falsehoods in three New Statesman stories, including one in which he claimed to have spent a month reporting from Iraq when in fact he had gone on a two-week package tour of the country’s ancient sites. In another story, Hari claimed to have seen a demonstrator bleeding to death at the Genoa G8 summit. The Eye’s Hackwatch column stated: “As several witnesses can attest, Hari wasn’t there, having hailed a taxi to escape the scene some time before” the killing.
There were other questions asked on the Internet over the following years, but it was not until 2011 that Hari’s reputation was seriously challenged. It was a handful of left-wing bloggers who started the ball rolling this spring—bloggers who disliked his initially pro-war position on Iraq, or the vituperativeness of Hari’s attacks on figures like the ancient apologist for Stalin, Eric Hobsbawm.
Those bloggers pointed out that interviews Hari had conducted with writers such as Antonio Negri included quotations that looked like word-for-word lifts from earlier published writings by those interviewees.
The historian Guy Walters, writing for the New Statesman’s website, pointed out that Hari’s fawning May 2006 profile of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez included quotations identical to those in a 2001 Jon Lee Anderson New Yorker piece.
Anderson’s piece read: “‘I realized at that moment that I was saying goodbye to life,’ Chávez said. ‘So it is possible that one has been a bit…imbued with that…ever since, no?’”
Here is Hari’s, five years later: “‘I realized at that moment that I was saying goodbye to life,’ he says, looking away. ‘So it is possible that, after surviving, one has been a bit imbued with that sense ever since, no?’” It is Hari’s use of the phrase “looking away” that exposes him—with its deliberate, dishonest implication that these are words Hari heard from the lips of the Venezuelan quasi-dictator.
The discovery that Hari had dishonestly “improved” what his interviewees had really said to him gave sudden credibility to the complaints by many interview subjects over the years that he had misrepresented their words. These included Noam Chomsky, who in December 2003 accused Hari of “idiotic fabrications” that were “beneath contempt.” Four years later Hari would claim he saw the light about the evil of the Iraq war as a result of communications with Chomsky, but his response to the claim that he was a fabricator at the time was devastatingly pithy: “If you want ‘idiotic fabrications,’ Professor Chomsky, I suggest you look to your predictions of a ‘silent genocide’ in Afghanistan if the U.S. intervened. Or perhaps your long-standing dismissal of the Cambodian genocide as ‘American propaganda.’”
Conservative bloggers soon joined in the pile-on. One of them, Guido Fawkes, found that one of the four pieces Hari had submitted to the organization that awarded him the Orwell Prize in 2008, entitled “How Multiculturalism Is Betraying Women,” was largely lifted from Der Spiegel. Too smart just to cut and paste, Hari had changed the odd word here and there and given made-up names to anonymous women interviewed by the German magazine.
If Hari’s attackers came from both the left and the right, his defenders tended to come from the media establishment and the liberal center. They included Caitlin Moran of the Times, a columnist equally celebrated for her youth and snark, and the Observer’s media columnist, Peter Preston, who wrote that the complaints against Hari were “ethically ludicrous.”
Those defenses began to sound hollow when article after article turned out to contain invented scenes or dialogue or characters. In a report from the Copenhagen Climate summit, Hari falsely claimed that a large globe erected in the city’s central square was “covered with corporate logos—the Coke brand is stamped over Africa,” alongside the logos of McDonalds and Carlsberg. The only McDonalds sign was on a restaurant across the square from the summit.
Hari won a prize for a story from Central Africa in which he rightly excoriated France’s role in the Rwanda genocide but also claimed—falsely, according to the aid agency that brought him to the region—that French soldiers told him “children would bring us the severed heads of their parents and scream for help, but our orders were not to help them.” The aid worker who was translating for him says that she never heard the French soldiers say anything of the sort.
Again and again Hari’s reportage boasted quotations that were too perfect to be believable and apparently too delicious for his editors to check. When other news organizations looked for people Hari had named as sources in articles reported from Dubai and Caracas, they couldn’t find them. Given the extent of his fabrications, it would be interesting to find out if there really was “a chatty, scatty 35-year-old Californian designer” named Hillary-Ann on the 2007 National Review cruise that Hari went on and wrote about—and if she has any memory of saying, as he claimed in the Independent, that “we need to execute some of these people…these prominent liberals who are trying to demoralize the country…just take a couple of these antiwar people off to the gas chamber for treason.”
Like so many frauds, Hari sometimes made such outrageous claims that you almost wonder if he unconsciously wanted to be caught. At the Independent he claimed in a piece about the dangers of robot weaponry that “the former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was nearly killed a few years ago after a robot attacked him on a tour of a factory.” It was completely untrue, but apparently no one at the paper thought to check.
Hari even lied in book reviews to damage the reputations of his personal or ideological enemies. In a review for Dissent of Nick Cohen’s book What’s Left, he claimed that Cohen, a left-wing supporter of the liberation of Iraq, had said the West was right to support Saddam Hussein when he was gassing the Kurds in the late 1980s. In fact Cohen’s book says the exact opposite. In an equally venomous and dishonest review of a book by the historian Andrew Roberts, Hari tried to smear Roberts as a racist, accusing him baselessly of “links to white supremacism.”
For the most part, though, complaints about Hari during the spring of 2011 were confined to the blogosphere and were ignored by the journalistic establishment. This continued until Nick Cohen wrote a column in the Spectator in July revealing that he had been the victim of pseudonymous vilification by Hari. Cohen and others had discovered that their Wikipedia entries had been altered to include libelous attacks by one David Rose, who claimed to be a Cambridge climate scientist—but who, a simple search demonstrated, happened to use a computer at the Independent and who also happened to write many website comments in praise of Johann Hari.
“David Rose” spent thousands of hours, often very late at night, obsessively promoting Hari’s reputation as an important intellectual figure and denigrating those with whom he disagreed. One attack by “Rose” on the conservative columnist Richard Littlejohn was posted at midnight on Christmas Eve. After initial denials, Hari admitted to being Rose and to having carried out the “sock-puppet” attacks on Cohen, his New Statesman editor Cristina Odone, and others.
It was at this point that the Council of the Orwell Prize decided to investigate the stories for which he been given the prize in 2008. However, the organizations that had given him the Amnesty International Journalism Award and the Martha Gelhorn Prize did not deign to do so.
And yet, even though it was plain as day that Hari had stolen other interviewers’ work and passed it off as his own, even after there was every reason to believe that his reporting was packed with bogus conversations with faked or suspiciously untraceable sources, and even after Hari had admitted to his malicious sock-puppetry, the Independent continued to back its young star. Simon Kelner, editor at the time, lobbied behind the scenes to save Hari’s Orwell prize and refused to supply the Orwell jury with documentation that it asked for.
Eventually the Independent was compelled to launch an official inquiry into the behavior of its star. The investigation was headed by the paper’s founder, Andreas Whittam Smith. Even though Whittam Smith had always presented himself as a kind of Gandhi of British journalistic integrity, in his inquiry he failed to contact editors who had worked with Hari or victims of Hari’s open or pseudonymous smear campaigns.
Hari returned the award just as the committee was about to rescind it. And he published a long quasi-apology in which he admitted to being “stupid” and “arrogant” but not to being dishonest. He blamed his errors on his youth and lack of formal journalistic training. He said he would be taking a leave of absence to study at a journalism school in New York City, where he would presumably be helped to understand the difference between truth and falsehood and why lying, even for some supposed greater good, is not acceptable journalistic practice. He hinted that his downfall had come at the hands of sinister “powerful people.”
The apology was fisked by the British journalist Toby Young, who gave Hari the kind of drubbing Hari had so often dished out to others: “The reason you’ve been put through the wringer by various bloggers and journalists isn’t because they’re the paid lackeys of the military-industrial complex,” Young wrote. “It’s because you’re a sanctimonious little prig.”
To understand the Hari case, you have to appreciate the environment in which he worked. Hari’s reporting habits are far from unique in British journalism. Americans horrified by the ethical lapses in the journalism practiced in the UK have no idea how amoral and unprincipled British newspapers and magazines can be (though they’ve been given a dark glimpse of it in the voluminous coverage of the hacking scandal). That conduct, horrific though it was, at least had as its goal the collection of dark secrets. Hari is part of another tradition—a tradition that seems indifferent to the truth. The star correspondent of one broadsheet won a prize a few years ago partly for a story about the Taliban’s chief torturer. Afterwards the reporter had to admit that this person did not exist and was in fact a composite of several people. The admission had no effect whatsoever on the reporter’s career. The same was true of another habitually dishonest star reporter whose false claims of an Israeli massacre in the West Bank town of Jenin were disproven without question.
Still, it is worth wondering why, even given the looser journalistic culture in the UK, Hari was able to lie and cheat for so long and why his career is even now on hold rather than definitely over. Partly it is a matter of ideology. If he had been a journalist of the right, the Guardian and the BBC would have instantly assigned teams to go through his past work and his activities on the Internet. Instead, they left it to the blogs or implied that Hari was being persecuted for minor errors. It may also have had something to do with the fear he sometimes inspired thanks to the viciousness of his columns and his obsessive pursuit of his enemies on the Internet (Hari was an adroit early adopter of online social networks).
The main reason was almost certainly that Hari was so very, very good at expressing and justifying the prejudices expressed around North London dinner tables that he made them sound not only reasonable but noble. This was particularly so when it came to America and Israel.
There are many anti-Zionist writers in Israel-obsessed Britain; some of them, unlike Hari, are supporters of anti-Israel terrorism. But Hari brought a unique kind of credibility as well as rhetorical skill to the cause. Arguably this was why Peter Wilby and Simon Kelner, his viscerally anti-American and anti-Israel editor-mentors, overlooked the evidence of his dishonesty.
After all, Hari could not be further from the upper-class Arabists or dull dogmatic leftists who had been the primary anti-Israel voices in Britain. Hari had no orientalist fetish for Arab kings and tribesmen or sympathy for pro-“resistance” dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. He just hated Israel, and hated it while being proudly and overtly anti-Islamist, anti-tyranny, young, libertarian, gay, and hip. He both spoke to and represented a new, young generation of Israel-obsessives.
It was an obsession that became increasingly ugly. Hari exploited his reputation as a moderate, morally serious voice to promote pseudo-historians such as Ilan Pappe and the anti-Israel Holocaust revisionist Norman Finkelstein. (“I love Norman Finkelstein,” he once told an interviewer. “I love what he says about Elie Wiesel. I hate the mystification of the Holocaust and the attempt to turn it into a kind of quasi-religious thing.”2 Hari’s take on Israel’s history is typified by jibes about the centrist Israeli politician Tzipi Livni, whose parents were members of the nationalist Irgun movement in Palestine: “In theory…Livni should be in a strong position to understand nationalist ‘terrorists’ who have planted bombs on buses and in cafés—because she was raised by them.”
It is mainly because he specializes in this sort of rhetoric, pickled in bigotry and casuistry, that the Independent is so anxious not to lose him. Its new editor, Chris Blackhurst, has written that the British government opposed proposals for introducing Islamic banking in Britain because of “enormous pressure” from the “pro-Israel lobby.” Given repellent rhetoric like that, it is no wonder that Blackhurst “hopes to see [Hari] back in the not-too-distant future.”
1 People therefore identified him with the briefly fashionable “Eustonite” left—so called after the 2005 Euston Manifesto (of which I am a signatory), whose supporters decried blanket anti-Western, objectively pro-Islamist, anti-Semitic, and pro-terrorist attitudes prevalent in the antiwar movement, and who proclaimed support for America, enlightenment values, and those fighting for democracy everywhere.
2 In the same interview, Hari claimed that the Palestinian town Rafah looked “like Hiroshima . . . a city of 100,000 has just been destroyed and people [are] living in absolute terror.”