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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Expat takes UK journalist Johann Hari to task over portrayal of Dubai

How a British expatriate took the award-winning journalist Johann Hari to task over his "implausible" portrayal of Dubai.
Johann Hari wrote in 2009: "There are maxed-out expats sleeping secretly in [Dubai] airport." Randi Sokoloff / The National
Johann Hari wrote in 2009: "There are maxed-out expats sleeping secretly in [Dubai] airport." Randi Sokoloff / The National
It would be wrong to suggest that Chris Saul has been gloating, but he does admit to having enjoyed a certain frisson of told-you-so vindication over the past couple of weeks.

Just over two years ago, Saul, a Briton who has worked in the IT industry in Dubai since 2002, raised concerns on his blog about a long article in a UK national newspaper that had painted a deeply unflattering portrait of Dubai as "a city built from nothing ... on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery".

"The dark side of Dubai", an 8,860-word essay by Johann Hari, an award-winning star writer with The Independent in the UK, was published in the newspaper's magazine on April 7, 2009. It went on to serve its author well, last year winning him the national newspaper section in the Amnesty Media Awards and forming part of a portfolio of three articles that bagged him the Martha Gellhorn Prize "for journalism at the cutting edge ... that challenges secrecy and mendacity in public affairs".

Now, however, amid revelations of widespread plagiarism in Hari's work, a prominent UK journalist is calling for the 32-year-old to be stripped of his Gellhorn, while on June 30 the council of the Orwell Prize for Journalism announced that "given the seriousness of the allegations that have been made" it was investigating its awarding of the Orwell to Hari in 2008. So far, no word from Amnesty.

In April 2009, far from the gaze of the Amnesty and Gellhorn prize judges, Saul, stung to indignation by what he had read, conducted a forensic analysis of Hari's Dubai article. He identified a number of minor but troubling inconsistencies, inaccuracies and distortions, but was more concerned about two essentially anonymous and, crucially, unidentifiable characters whom Hari had quoted at length.

The first was "Karen Andrews", an expat who supposedly had fallen on hard times and was living in her Range Rover in the car park of "one of Dubai's finest international hotels". This, commented Saul, sounded "completely made up", along with the rest of her story, told at length in direct quotes.

And Hari's article went further. "All over the city," he claimed, "there are maxed-out expats sleeping secretly in the sand-dunes or the airport or in their cars."

The "utter implausibility of this section of the article", wrote Saul, "makes it hard to take anything seriously" - including the interview that closed the article, supposedly conducted with an anonymous and curiously loquacious Filipina serving behind the counter at a Pizza Hut restaurant.

"Everything in Dubai is fake," she was said to have told Hari, in an elegantly phrased and apparently verbatim quote. "The trees are fake, the workers' contracts are fake, the islands are fake, the smiles are fake - even the water is fake ... Dubai is like an oasis. It is an illusion, not real. You think you have seen water in the distance, but you get close and you only get a mouthful of sand."

It was the conveniently perfect summary of Hari's critique of Dubai. Again, noted Saul, "Hari's quote seems rather implausible. Is he putting his words in someone else's mouth again?"

Over the past few weeks, it has been revealed that for years Hari has been doing just that. It started quietly. On June 27, Hari remarked on his blog that he had been "asked to clarify something about a few of the interviews I've done in the past". Someone had spotted that in one article quotes he had attributed to an interviewee had in fact been lifted from elsewhere.

True, admitted Hari. When he interviewed writers, for example, it was "quite common that they will express an idea or sentiment to me that they have expressed before in their writing - and, almost always, they've said it more clearly in writing than in speech". Therefore, he had "quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech".

Hari, who did not train as a journalist, springing instead straight from a double-first at Cambridge to a staff job on the New Statesman magazine in 2001, did not seem to grasp the ethical offence. The denizens of the blogosphere, however, reached for their knives and his back-catalogue was subjected to intensive scrutiny by legions of self-appointed and Google-powered investigators.

Examples of what quickly became categorised as plagiarism came thick and fast. Quotes in a 2004 interview seemed to have been lifted from a book published the previous year, another from 2010 included quotes that had appeared in a column written by the subject of the interview, while yet more had even appeared previously in an interview by another journalist in a rival newspaper. And yet all had been used as though spoken directly to Hari.

Blogging in his own defence, Hari said he had opted for "intellectual accuracy" over "reportorial accuracy", but conceded "that was, on reflection, a mistake, because it wasn't clear to the reader".

Or to The Independent, apparently, which on July 12 announced it was suspending Hari for two months while it investigated his journalism. The revelations about Hari's journalistic practices have been somewhat drowned out in the UK by the tabloid phone-hacking scandal.

"In its way, Hari's journalism is as bad as that practised during the dark days of the News of the World," says Guy Walters, a British author and columnist with the New Statesman magazine in the UK who has been harrying Hari on his blog.

Hari, he told The National, has "committed three journalistic crimes. First, he has pretended that words spoken to other journalists were in fact said to him. That is plagiarism, pure and simple. Secondly, he makes things up. There is no doubt in my mind that many of the people he supposedly encounters - such as the girl in hot pants in Dubai - are figments of his imagination. Thirdly, he distorts the words of the real people he does manage to interview."

One such real person is Ahmed Al-Attar, a UAE blogger whom Hari interviewed while in Dubai. Al-Attar's blog, An Emirati's Thoughts, shows him to be a progressive, liberal thinker, keenly aware of the region's pressing social and political issues. But in Hari's article he emerges as a cartoonish, spoilt Emirati, with a "Panglossian" outlook, who is smugly content with the status quo in his "Santa Claus state".

On July 12, Walters reported that he had spoken to Al-Attar, who claimed Hari's account of their meeting was "a gross distortion, and consists of statements that Ahmed says he never made". Neither does Ahmed speak, as Hari wrote, "American English", and nor had they met, as Hari had claimed, in "an identikit Starbucks", but in a hotel beach cafe.

And then there are the seven named and quoted characters in Hari's article who cannot be traced, including "Sahinal Monir, a slim 24-year-old from the deltas of Bangladesh", to whom Hari somehow managed to gain access for an interview in a labour camp.

Saul says he was prompted to respond at the time because he found Hari's article "disappointing because, maybe out of a false sense of patriotism, I expect publications like The Independent to be honest. I was also disappointed in another way, that any valid points he made - such as maybe there is an element of money-chasing here, maybe some expats aren't the nicest people, maybe some labourers should be treated better - are rendered worthless by the fact they are nestled amongst a pile of ..." After some stronger words, he settles for "exaggerations".

"I dislike Johann Hari," he freely concedes. "It's not because he's left wing and I'm right wing or anything like that - my views vary on a number of topics. But he's just so sanctimonious." When the revelations began to surface, he says, "I have to admit that a wry smile did cross my lips ... there is definitely an element ofschadenfreude."

At first, Hari tried to put a brave face on it. On July 5 he kept a commitment to give a talk about free speech at the Royal Institution in London, and earned a big round of applause for his honesty.

"I've had a valuable lesson in the past week about the value of free speech," he said. "I did something wrong, I did something idiotic, and some people used their freedom of speech to point that out."

The real test of freedom of speech, he said, was "not do you support it when people are saying you're great; it's do you support it when people are saying something painful and humiliating about you? And I absolutely do."

Now, however, he has gone to ground; his telephone goes unanswered and his automated e-mail reply states that he is "catching up on work after a tumultuous week, and then I'll be out of the country on an assignment ... I'll read and reply to messages when I return."