x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Hari scandal tests the limits of what we want to know

The latest British scandal over plagiarism – well, something a little like plagiarism – raises some intriguing new questions about the nature of journalism in our times.

Every now and then the image of journalism is rocked - if that doesn't overestimate the extent to which the general public really cares about journalism - by some allegation of unethical behaviour. High-profile cases include Stephen Glass of The New Republic and Jayson Blair of The New York Times, both of whom admitted to fabricating quotes and contacts in the quest for a better story.

The most recent case is that of Johann Hari, who works for The Independent in London. Hari is accused … well, of something rather unusual, an offence somewhere between fabrication and plagiarism, but not quite one or the other. He has admitted that, while writing up interviews, he searched previously published material for instances in which his subjects had made the same points in a more articulate manner, and then inserted those passages.

Hari himself has attracted sustained criticism, especially in the digital bear pit that is Twitter, so I won't add to his misery. It's clear - and he admits - that he's done wrong, although the scale and precise nature of his misdemeanours are still being debated.

But beyond the self-obsessed cloisters of London journalism, the whole saga should provoke serious thought, not least among intelligent consumers of journalism. (This, dearest reader, means you.) Most people would argue that journalism should be founded in factual accuracy, and this is certainly the case in straightforward reporting. Either Osama bin Laden was shot, or he wasn't; Kvitova beat Sharapova at Wimbledon, or she didn't.

Like it or not, though, much of what we define as journalism isn't about battle-hardened foreign correspondents telling us what's going on. We also demand analysis, opinion, satire and plenty of pictures of pandas. And we also like interviews, because we want to know what people are like.

Allow me to puncture a few preconceptions here. Most press interviews - not all - are the result of an unwritten, unspoken contract between two parties. The interviewer wants a story that people will read; the interviewee usually wants publicity for his or her new book or film or political campaign or whatever. Between them they will negotiate an accord, a compromise that ensures the finished article is neither a blandly glowing press release, nor a brutal hatchet job. Political or legal considerations may also skew what is or isn't said.

If you were to listen to an accurate transcription of such an interview, much of it would consist of discussions about the article itself - which hasn't at that point been written. Often the interviewer will use leading phrases such as "What our readers would like to know is …" or "The idea I'm trying to get across here …" which never make it to the final cut.

There might be a question along the lines of "Would it be fair to say that you are a Marxist?" If answered in the affirmative, a simple "yes" can morph into a reported statement: "I am indeed a card-carrying Marxist". It may represent the truth, but was never actually said.

It should also be remembered - and this is Hari's defence - that clever, successful, interesting people are not necessarily the most fluent, articulate talkers, especially when operating in a second language. Readers who demand rigid adherence to accuracy might well change their minds when they are asked to plough through accurate transcriptions of what people say.

Most journalists will impose some order on what was said, correcting errors of grammar or vocabulary, eliminating "erm"s and "sort of"s to make things flow better. If the meaning is the same, does it really matter?

Hari erred by not being candid about the sources of some of his quotations. Some of them came from interviews conducted by other journalists. But if those journalists are to be seen as victims of plagiarism, they have to make clear what their own creative input was.

If they are simply writing down the answers they're given, Truman Capote's sardonic put-down of Jack Kerouac comes to mind: "That's not writing, it's typing." The true authors are the people who were being interviewed. And if journalists have indeed buffed up what was said to them, should they be trusted as objective, truth-telling journalists?

Or should we just accept that we, as readers, prefer our truths with the edges smoothed out to make them a little more palatable; that, as TS Eliot suggested, "humankind cannot bear very much reality".

Tim Footman is the author of The Noughties 2000-2009: A Decade That Changed the World