Yesterday, the Independent’s columnist Johann Hari apologised publicly for wrongdoing. It turns out for the last weeks Hari was being accused in the blogosphere and on Twitter of plagiarism and factual embellishment. After repeatedly denying those allegations, Hari has admitted to plagiarism and the online harrassment of rival journalists by editing their Wikipedia entries using an alias. However, the apology is soft and it even seems Hari is taking the blame off himself and putting it onto his interviewees.
There have been many takes on this apology, many commentators praising Hari and as many (or more) criticising him again. The best comment I’ve seen is on Bagehot’s notebook in the Economist. The text perfectly summarises how and where the responsibility lies when interviewing people and goes on to discuss the related temptations when reporting from faraway countries. It’s a must read. I subscribe every word and, of course, couldn’t say it better myself. So here’s a big chunk of Bagehot’s article:
It is a nifty defence: there he was, travelling the world to meet all these famous and brilliant people, conducting all these excellent interviews, only to find, on returning to his hotel room to transcribes his tapes, that time and again his subjects had garbled their lines.
I do not recognise the phenomenon Mr Hari is describing. Some interviews go well, others less well. But in the midst of each conversation, as I write my notes, I am aware (sometimes heart-sinkingly aware) whether my subjects are saying interesting things or not. I also know something else: if you go to interview someone who is famous or important or witty or wise (as opposed to a member of the public swept up in a news event) and they say only boring or incoherent things, it is mostly your fault.
This is what baffles me about those colleagues leaping to Mr Hari’s defence. It is as if they imagine conducting an interview is mostly an act of stenography: you find someone interesting, ask them things, and then write down what they say. It is not stenography. Perhaps 80% of the knack of interviewing involves the ability to get people to open up and say striking things. When a subject is bored, or tired, or hostile your job is to charm or provoke them. It can be hard work. Surprisingly often, it can feel like (non-sexual) flirtation.
If you come away with gems, you know it, and may call your editor to say: “It went really well, he gave me some really great quotes.” If you come away with a notebook full of mush, you are not allowed to go to another interview conducted by someone else who was given better quotes and take them without attribution. If you do, that is stealing.
One of the things you find out fast as a foreign correspondent, especially reporting from the developing world, is that there is very little to stop you making things up, except your own conscience. Out in a Chinese field, interviewing a peasant who has had his land stolen, or out in an Afghan refugee camp speaking to victims of Taliban brutality, it soon becomes obvious that if you embellish and improve quotes, nobody is going to find out. Chinese peasants and Afghan refugees are not going to read your work, and are not going to shop you to your editors.
As it happens, and you are going to have to take this on trust I fear, I am a fantastic prig and Puritan on this subject, and fanatical about getting quotes straight and reporting only what I have seen, or if I am quoting what a local or a photographer or a wire agency saw, saying so. That is not because I am a saint. It is more about managing the existential angst of being a reporter a long way away from home: once you start making things up a bit, you might as well start making it all up and file without even getting on a plane. And then you quickly feel the ground vanishing beneath your feet: if you are inventing things, why be a journalist at all?
I know some foreign correspondents who have gone down that route, and have had priggish arguments with some of them. Plagiarists, liars, make-it-up merchants, they all exist. The war correspondent solemnly announcing to television viewers that he is on the front line, when he is 20 miles from the fighting and his colleagues are mocking him just out of shot. The foreign correspondent who wrote a vivid portrayal of an Asian dog meat restaurant, complete with descriptions of brutal dog-killing, callous chefs and hungry punters, without actually visiting the country in question, and who—when I challenged him–told me “oh that, it was a bit of imagineering”. The gentler souls who use foreign languages to cut corners. (I once knew a correspondent with the amazing gift of diving into a Chinese crowd and coming out, 30 seconds later, with the perfect quote, despite pretty limited Mandarin. I never had the heart to say: great quote, now tell me how you say that in Chinese.)