Sunday, 3 July 2011

A Hari-raising situation

I was featured in Episode 91 of the Pod Delusion this week. For those of you less audibly-inclined, here's the written version of my pointless rant

A Hari-raising situation

This week, it has emerged that Johann Hari, writer of an award winning and provocative series of interviews, may not have been 100% accurate when reporting actually occurred when he met and spoke with high-profile figures. Apparently Hari would meet with a big-name but controversial individual, let's call him Successpants McKnobjockey, which is a name that's both big and controversial. Hari would publish a detailed report of the interview, with many philosophical musings and elaborate statements and claims made by McKnobjockey, and Hari's reputation as a cutting edge, brutally honest interviewer who asks the difficult questions and get's revealing answers is preserved for another day.

Except now it turns out he wasn't doing that per se. He admits he was taking useful quotes and claims that KcKnobjockey had made at other times, and inserting them into the parts of the interviews where McKnobjockey had just said 'erm', or taken a pull on his oxygen mask, or stopped to inject a syringe of pure heroin right into his eyeball, or whatever it is rich people do when not saying words out loud.

With regards to my views on Hari's behaviour, I am somewhat on the fence, which has become an ironically rebellious position to take in the modern world of polarising arguments. On the one hand, I do agree an interview should report what went on in the interview, and only that, otherwise what's the point of doing the interview? Just swot up on what the subject has said previously and draw your own conclusions. Roger Federer doesn't automatically get put through to the Wimbledon on the grounds that he's been there many times before, what people say and do in the context is what's important. On the other hand, every interviewer should be aware of the previous work of their subject, otherwise they wouldn't be interviewed in the first place, so can any interviewer be said to be completely innocent of relying on what they've said or done previously? Hari just seems to have been a bit more 'direct' than most

I'm not going to defend Hari's actions, but I can sort of see why he did it. When you need to produce interesting and popular interviews to feed the voracious demands of modern media and all Successpants McKnobjockey is doing is dribbling in the corner smacked off his tits then I imagine the temptation to beef up his contribution must be overwhelming. And I don't think what he did was plagiarism as some people are declaring, as he was saying certain people said things that they did actually say, just at different times, but neglected to mention the last part. I think of it as 'self-aggrandising stealth-quoting'. Not so succinct, but more fun to say. Go on, give it a try,.

However, as I'm recording this, it seems like there's evidence emerging that Hari actually did just steal quotes from interviews other people without crediting them. Passing off the work of other people as your own and claiming credit, that is plagiarism, yes. Johan Hari seems to be the radical left-wing columnist version of Peter Kay. And if you like Peter Kay and don't like what I'm saying, I don't care. Your liking of Peter Kay has disqualified you from having opinions that I care about even slightly.

So I have mixed feelings towards Hari... Not like that, cheeky! He does seem to be a largely self-aggrandising dick. Weird to use that description of a London media type I know, but we're living in strange times folks. But with all that, I'm still glad he's around. It's nice that there's at least one person who's using the tools of overreaction and emotional manipulation against the right wing for once. Johan Hari is essentially the UK's answer to Michael Moore; a dick, but a useful one.

But here's the thing; whatever you think of Hari, it's hard to deny that he's a high-profile, successful writer who has achieved many good things. He helped start up the Uncut movement in America, and more importantly, he smacked down Richard Littlejohn and BNP MP live on air. Anyone who does that get's some leeway in my book. I'm not saying I'd let him steal my car if I caught him in the act, but I'd give him a stern talking to rather than just twatting him with a tire iron.

It's the reaction to his behaviour which concerns me. As Hari seems to be the darling of the left-wing, self-described intellectual communities, the response they've exhibited has been deeply worrying. David Allen Green, another skeptic hero, wrote a piece in the New Statesmen criticising those who instantly jumped to his defence, ignoring the fact that he was guilty of failing to meet required standards. This is a very valid point. But what of the others sort? The people who have taken a sinister level of Glee in tearing into Hari. Where once they would reflexively send out links to his articles regardless of what they were about, now they're demanding his head on a pole.

My concern is that the internet, and twitter in particular, is causing people to build up a false sense of superiority and entitlement. This seems to be particularly an issue with the self-described liberal, intellectual communities. This may be because these are the only ones I have any exposure to though, so I can't really draw much of a comparison. But it seems to be more obvious to me because the intellectual posse are the ones who are the first to condemn such behaviour in others. And I don't like hypocrisy. This was driven home most recently during last November's Stephen Fry debacle, when Stephen Fry made some unwise comments about women's attitudes to sex (this was shortly after Johan Hari interviewed Fry via Twitter, if you're looking for some sort of valid connection here). Upon hearing Fry's remarks, the self-described liberal, tolerant twitter types went berserk. Overall, I saw hundreds of supposedly intelligent people directly criticising Stephen Fry, telling him, a homosexual former celibate gentleman in his 50's, that he didn't know anything about women's attitudes to sex. Ya RECKON? But whatever the argument, many people felt genuinely aggrieved with Stephen Fry, and felt they were entitled to make their feelings known to him personally via the great twitter leveller.

If I had the character capacity and gumption, I would have made the following points to Stephen Fry's detractors.

1) This man, Mr. Stephen Fry, is a professional writer and entertainer who has millions of fans via his works, but he is not a sexual behaviour expert. Almost the opposite, by his own admission.

2) This man, Mr. Stephen Fry, has been creating content and entertaining things, generally at the expense of his own mental wellbeing, that you have been enjoying for many years (presumably, if you are a twitter follower of his, or British in some capacity). Given how you've responded to his unpopular comments, I assume you have thanked him personally for each and every piece of work of his that you have enjoyed?

3) This man, Mr. Stephen Fry, does not know you. Any remarks he made which you disagree with were in no way personal attacks, unless he emailed them to you directly or scribbled them on an old Twinings crate which he then hurled through your window

4) This man is Mr. Stephen Fry. Who the fuck, exactly, are you? And how precisely are you entitled to condemn him so vocally for what is, at worst an unfair and illogical opinion, at best a poorly thought out mistake.

Some, but not all, of these points can be made about the Johann Hari debacle as well. What disappoints me most of all is that the liberal, intellectual posse are supposed to be better than that. We condemn the hysterical overreactions of the tabloid press but when one of our own drops a bollock we're on them like sharks after an obese haemophiliac with a nosebleed. Much of the mainstream media is right-wing orientated and with this sort of thing it's easy to see why. Journalists are people too. Mostly. And it makes sense that they'd cater to a group of people who are more easily pleased and less likely to turn on them like rabid dogs if, in spite of all that they have done previously, they make fail to live up to the high standards their readership demands.

It's all very well to say we should treat people we agree with the same standards as those we don't, but it does seem rather imbalanced to me, in that the intellectual sorts are for more ruthless and demanding with people they agree with while a lot of the crimes of the right are ignored (admittedly, they're probably getting overlooked in the bullshit blizzard)

This is probably just a personal view of mine, but I've got no time for people who demonstrate both superiority and hypocrisy, and thanks to twitter I see this a lot more than I used to. Hari's a knob, what he did was idiotic and I'm glad he was rumbled, but let's keep it in perspective. But it's the people who are reacting to this and any other similar incident I'm addressing. If you like to pursue intellectual matters because you're genuinely interested and want to find things out, and you feel let down by Hari's behaviour because he was some you trusted and respected, then go about your business.

But if you're a self-described intellectual because it makes you feel superior, then I'm talking to you. If you complain about people going on about the sport on the grounds that 'not everybody cares' then spend an hour tweeting solidly about the Apprentice, then I'm talking to you. If you see someone trying to achieve something or trying be helpful, and your first response is to criticise them for doing it wrong in some way, then I'm talking to you. If you enjoy it when high-profile names crew up because it justifies you slagging them off, then I'm talking to you. If you believe it's OK to blow Hari's crimes out of all proportion and mock him from your moral high ground because that's what he does, but are unaware of the crushing hypocrisy of this, then I'm talking to you.

Just be honest with yourself. Buy yourself a Heat magazine, sit yourself down in front of whatever tragic reality TV contest is currently showing, and laugh at those inferior to your mighty self until you feel better.

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