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Mr Hari originally made his own articulate (and not entirely unpersuasive) case for his own defence on his blog.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.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Have you got the LeXFactor?


Summer can be a painful time for the legal profession.  It's the time of year when most lawyers' partners (the domestic kind) force them to stop working for two weeks and spend time with the family.  This can involve rewarding activities such as applying factor 50 sun cream to a small child covered in sand who then yells at said lawyer.  Or may require the lawyer to acquire multiple ice creams from a distant kiosque and navigate them across a beach in 30 degree heat before they have melted.  Cue more yelling at lawyer.  Or for those lawyers who prefer a UK staycation, they get to spend time lying to their kids that Stonehenge is near Cornwall and that the fifteen mile tailback they are sitting in will soon get moving and before you know it we'll all be eating overpriced fish and chips at Rick Stein's gaff in Padstow together with the rest of Islington and Clapham.

What keeps a lawyer going during this awful period are two things. Wifi and 3G coverage.  These holiday essentials allow the lawyer to ensure that during the two weeks quality time with their partner and/or family, they will be able to find some downtime away from their loved ones, involving themselves in non-consequential work matters that someone back at base could easily sort out without them interfering from afar.  Canny holiday companies wishing to woo the legal profession would do well to provide an industry recognised symbol in their brochures illustrating excellence of mobile coverage.  Perhaps a judge's wig - the larger the wig, the better the coverage.  This holiday criteria is, for lawyers, at least as important as whether one's holiday destination has amentities such as a pool or proximity to the local nightlife or even a working toilet.

The highlight of any lawyer's holiday is "the holiday conference call".  It allows us to feel superior to the other adults in our holiday destination who clearly are not important enough to don a bluetooth headset whilst sitting on the edge of a rockpool.  It also allows us, upon our return to work, to  elicit sympathy from colleagues who know we had to give up our holiday time for that call (any lawyer worth their salt will only jump on a holiday conference call with at least four other participants, anything less is just not worth it in optical importance terms.  Preferably one of those five will be partner level (outhousers) or board level (in-housers)).

So with this context in mind, I introduce the inaugural Lawyer Holiday Conference Call Charts (#lhccc).  Straight into the top five go my own personal top five holiday conference calls (one of them was not strictly holiday but it makes it on merit).   And I invite anyone related to the profession to enter via the comments section below and see if they can top the charts.  Have your calls got the LeXFactor?!

*Plays Top of the Pops theme tune in background to accompany rest of post and adopts the voice of Bruno Brookes (or *oooh* Gary Davies if you prefer)*

5.
Location: British Airways Lounge, Terminal 5, London Heathrow
Callers: 4
LeXFactor: three of us on the call are sitting next to each other in the T5 lounge on Blackberry headsets looking like, well, the proverbial you know whats.  We're on our way to New York to negotiate outstanding issues on an acquisition. The fourth caller is our unfortunate US outhouse lawyer who we made get up at 0600 his time to dial into the call.  We couldn't have waited to speak to him in person 6 hours later, oh no, we are very important dealmakers you know.

4.
Location: Center Parcs, Sherwood Forest (to be precise, in that small hallway bit of the "lodge" between the outside door and the toilet)
Callers: 4
LeXFactor: staying in lodge with another family whose adult members are not lawyers.  So when they go on holiday they, erm, stay on holiday.  They don't even have Blackberries for goodness sake.  I am supposed to be going out for a drink with the bloke adult at 8pm.  For some reason, having listened to me on the phone through a thin wooden door for 90 minutes he no longer feels like a drink with me at 930pm and goes to bed in a bit of a huff.  Mhmm, who is the unreasonable one here?

3.
Location: Dunwich Heath, Suffolk (National Trust thingy)
Callers: 3 (rubbish, note to self, never ever again agree to less than 4)
LeXFactor: we have taken our kids to the heath to participate in a half term Halloween craft workshop run by the National Trust.  Other parents are helping their children make witches hats and taking nice holiday snaps.  I am not.  I am running around the Heath trying to find a mobile signal and shouting to drown out the howling winds (successfully - yay).

2.
Location: a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the small Maltese island of Gozo
Callers: Irrelevant.  But managed three calls in ten minutes.  Macho law in action
LeXFactor: taken family to the Maltese version of Stonehenge.  Guided tours a plenty.  The sun is shining.  History is here.  We're going to the beach soon.  And Daddy is walking 200 yards behind the family wearing his headphones talking frantically into his iPhone.  Other tourists look on pitifully.  Bah, their not lawyers, what do they know.

1.
Location: a church porch somewhere near Lake Windermere
Callers: zillions.  And VIP ones too
LeXFactor: Me and Mrs Legalbrat have spent the day cycling in the rain.  Much further than we intended.  With a toddler in tow.  We are wet, cold and fairly frazzled.  I *have* to be on this call.  We set off to drive back to our holiday cottage.  Oh no.  Before we get there, we have to cross a lake on a small ferry.  It is full of cars and we can't get on.  Decision time.  Stay in car with family and do call with toddler in back?  Or leave car, jump on ferry as foot passenger, leave family behind to make their own way back?  As a lawyer it is no decision.  Get onto ferry alone.  Reach other side of lake.  Church is only nearby building.  Sit shivering in church porch for 90 minute call.  Walk 20 mins back to the house.  A perfect end to the day.

So, lawyers, remember your holiday essentials this summer.  Family.  Check.  Passport.  Check.  Currency.  Check.  Suncream.  Check.  Phone.  Check.  Spare phone.  Check.  Mobile chargers.  Check.  Laptop.  Check.  3G dongle.  Check.  Map of destination Wifi hotspots.  Check.  Work life balance.  No room in luggage.  Happy holidays.