Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Johann Hari, quote shifting & the PCC


All members of the press have a duty to maintain the highest professional standards.  The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. 

These are not my words, they are set out in the PCC Editor’s Code of Practice, which is the foundation stone of the self-regulatory framework for the UK press administered by the Press Complaints Commission.  

A mini-Twitter frenzy has broken out regarding the editorial practices of a journalist who works for The Independent, Johann Hari.  Mr Hari has admitted to attributing quotes to interview subjects that they did not actually say in the interview in question.  Let us be clear though, Mr Hari has not completely made the quotes up.  According to a comment piece in The Independent and his personal blog, he has occasionally used words previously written by the interview subject to express an idea or sentiment, as a substitute for what they actually said in an interview to express that same sentiment.  Mr Hari's justification for this practice is that his subjects often convey their thoughts clearer in their written word than they do in an oral interview.  No doubt this is true, most of us convey our thoughts more clearly when we have time to consider them, and we have more time for such consideration when we write, rather than when we speak.

This episode raises two questions.  Are Mr Hari's practices genuine cause for concern?  Or is this a classic case of media enjoying making mischief about other media and making an issue out of a non-issue?

The wonderful thing about Twitter is the instant reaction to incidents such as this from opinon formers.  Hari's own Editor, Simon Kelner, appears to be standing by his man, but also wrote yesterday "What a fiasco!" in a leader piece he penned (on which, see the postscript below).  FT.com's editor, Robert Shrimsley, finds Kelner's reaction surprising.   Times columnist David Aaronovitch takes a more compromising view that Hari has been "naive not wicked".  And John Prescott uses the incident to have a pop at News International about phone hacking.

On the seriousness scale, phone hacking this is not.  And nor, using a more relevant analogy, is this anything remotely akin to the Jayson Blair plagarism scandal which befell the New York Times a few years ago.  Any accustions of plagiarism in this context are unfair and wrong.

Mr Hari originally made his own articulate (and not entirely unpersuasive) case for his own defence on his blog.  But his defence fails to deal with the PCC issues I refer to above.  Has Mr Hari maintained high professional standards?  And has he published misleading or inaccurate information?  Well, if we accept the crux of Mr Hari's own defence, he has not misled anyone.  In fact, the basis of his argument is that his practice gave the reader a more accurate representation of his interview subject's views than a reported account of the interview transcript would have done.

But that argument ignores the obvious counter-argument.  That readers of a newspaper interview might reasonably expect quotes in an interview to have been taken from words said in the interview.  The clue is in the word - interview - which means an exchange of views, of comments.  An interview is not supposed to be a signpost to earlier stated views, whether or not those previously stated views were of a similar sentiment to the views expressed in the interview itself.  On that basis, I do not believe that Mr Hari's actions are consistent with the Editorial Code.

Whatever the intent behind Mr Hari's practices, this kind of practice is a slippery slope for serious news journalism.  I am not suggesting for one second that Mr Hari is on a slippery slope himself, his many defenders on Twitter are at pains to argue the case for the excellence of his journalism.  And The Independent is a serious, credible newspaper.  But I do believe that if serious, credible newspapers make editorial decisions to time shift quotes, that a foot is placed on that slippery slope. Such a practice is a form of reverse censorship.  The UK press believes in a free press.  Let it not determine its own definition of what a free press means to suit its own purposes.  To me, free means free to say what it wants (within the law) and to be honest and transparent whilst doing it.  The time shifting of quotes is not altogether transparent, in my view.  Where might that end if taken to the nth degree?

In fairness to Mr Hari, he has expanded on his original blog post in today's Independent comment piece and apologised for what he calls an error of judgment that he will not repeat.  His honesty and willingness to address the issue are commendable.  Cynics might say the piece was commissioned by Mr Kelner or the Indie's PR folk.  Who knows and so what if it was?  The Indie have done well to nip a potentially damaging issue in the bud and allowed their man to exit the storm gracefully with minimal collateral damage.  Text book handling of a potential crisis.

A quick postscript on Simon Kelner's "What a fiasco!" quote above.  Well, to be honest he didn't actually write that.  Or more accurately, he didn't write it in reaction to the Hari episode.  But he did write those words yesterday, about something else, as you can read here.  So, he must also have meant it in the Hari context, mustn't he?  Mhmm.  Perhaps not.  I hope you see my point about slippery slopes, even though I do not believe that Hari was even close to falling down one.

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