Friday, 16 September 2011

You don't learn basic honesty at journalism school.


For months now the Johann Hari affair has gripped the political blogosphere.  The Independent columnist caused consternation when he was caught out embellishing some of his interviews with quotes taken from other sources. 

Now I don’t intend to make any contribution to the highly personalised debate which has taken place for and against Hari.  I didn’t particularly enjoy his columns, but neither did they send me into apoplectic rage.  The most I can say about his writing is that it was highly ideological and as such it had that precocious-but-angry adolescent feel to it.

His interviews, I must admit, I rarely bothered to read.  The Independent may take a great deal of pride in its ‘journalistic integrity’, but it’s by some distance the least read national quality newspaper and it is (let’s be honest) seriously dull. 

Its coverage of the UK regions is frankly shameful and the best that can be said about the re-modelled paper is that it’s dropped those intensely irritating ‘issue’ front pages, which had a minimum of text and a big picture illustrating the ‘outrage’ of the day.

I did buy the Independent yesterday though and I  read Hari’s ‘personal apology’.  It was highly unconvincing.

The columnist is promising to take a four month course in journalism, after which he intends to continue working at the Independent.  He assures his readers that any future articles will be published online with accompanying foot-notes and, where interviews have taken place, video evidence of their content.

Now, I know that Hari must attract readers to the Independent, but for goodness sake, give it up!  

Who on earth wants to read a journalist who is so discredited that he has to jump through hoops before anyone can believe a word that he’s written?  "Interesting interview, but I’d better boot up the old computer and double-check that it actually took place"!

Imagine if a cowboy handy-man caused litres of brown sludge to swamp your bathroom; would you employ him six months later if he pledged to undertake a plumbing night-class?

The preposterous conceit here is that Hari didn't quite fully realise that he was doing something wrong, because he’d been fast-tracked through the world of journalism and hadn’t received the necessary basic training.  As someone who isn’t a trained journalist, but who has tried, for a spell, to make a living writing in newspapers and magazines, I resent that analysis.

Hari is accused of plagiarism. 

He went to Cambridge for goodness sake.  Is anyone seriously suggesting that no-one ever walked him through a few basic lessons in not copying huge chunks of other people’s work and claiming it as his own?  That’s one of the first things that any university drills into its students nowadays.  It’s even a major theme in schools.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that anyone can walk into a newspaper and do the job of a seasoned reporter.  But honesty - basic intellectual honesty - in writing, that’s not something that can be picked up at journalism school. 

Since time immemorial writers have taken different paths into journalism.  But if you’re currently thinking of making money by penning articles professionally and you haven’t come up through the traditional route, working for a local paper, whether your background is academia, politics or even blogging, your prospects have just got that bit bleaker.

And you have Johann Hari to thank.  

3 comments:

ItwasSammyMcNally said...

When, some years back, the case of the Iraqi hotel worker who died in British custody (recently back in the news) came to light the Ministry of Defence also offered the "it's a training issue" line - arguing that it hadnt been explained to the soldiers the rules for the treatment of those held in their custody and assuring everyone that the matter was being addressed through training.

Just like with journalists and honesty, you rather assume that there are certain values that are taken as read.

yourcousin said...

Chekov,
On a different note. In regards to our wager quite awhile ago, being able "I told you so" never really gets old.

Chekov said...

I wondered how long it would be before you turned up. ;) If you get in touch via email I can look into making good our bet.