New Media and Johann Hari

Social media has thrown open the ability to fact-check. Something Johann Hari didn't reckon with.

Twitter messed with the Johann - and won.
Michael St. George
On 3 July 2011 10:44

Tuesday’s explosion of indignation and derision in equal measure across the twittersphere about the plagiarism allegedly perpetrated by the Independent’s Johann Hari was instructive at several levels.

But perhaps most of all for the way in which the astute use of new social media, not just by professionals but by citizen amateurs as well, highlighted Hari’s shortcomings so widely and so quickly to the extent of forcing a response with a speed which, just a few short years ago, would probably have been unthinkable.

Journalistic plagiarism has been around, in one form or another and to greater or lesser degree, for as long as writers have written and other writers have read. It’s surely reasonable, though to assume that in times past, the very public criticism visited on Hari would in all likelihood have been restricted to a protracted and increasingly recondite exchange of correspondence on the Letters page by readers with access to the paper’s archive. Followed eventually, perhaps, by a not especially prominent editor’s “clarification” tucked away at the foot of page eleven.

The internet, the blogosphere, and Twitter have changed all that. After the initial suspicions and fact-checking by the political DSG blog and its journalistic counterpart Fleet Street Blues, little more than a day elapsed between Hari’s insouciant admission that yes, he does indeed include prior written comments as contemporaneous oral quotes and the storm of protest breaking about his head. 

What’s more, and what’s peculiar to modern social media journalism, is that the amateur and semi- professional bloggerati and twitterati, benefiting from equal access to Hari’s previous material, joined in, making the welter of condemnation all the more widespread.

It’s instructive therefore, that one of Hari’s principal defenders was former editor of both the Independent on Sunday (IoS) and the New Statesman Peter Wilby. Not so much because as editor of the IoS when Hari won the Orwell prize (and devoted a goodly proportion of his acceptance speech to a paean of praise to Wilby) he would have been the young Hari’s mentor, and couldn’t really bring himself to criticise Hari’s actions to any great degree: but because Wilby has some previous form on decrying the inroads which the internet and journalism via social media are making on to the traditional territory of their mainstream equivalents.

It was the same Peter Wilby who was one of the leaders of the chorus of old media criticism directed at Daniel Hannan MEP’s demolition of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the European Parliament which became such a hit on YouTube. Wilby went on record then as saying “The online success of Daniel Hannan’s speech... proves what we knew: the internet lacks quality control”.

Prompting Hannan’s memorable reply:

“Yup. That’s the thing about the internet: it turns the quality filters off. Until very recently, few of us could get political news direct from source. It had to be interpreted for us by a BBC man with a microphone or a newspaper’s political correspondent. Now, though, people can make their own minds up. The message has been disintermediated. What Mr Wilby seems to mean when he complains that the internet “lacks quality control” is not that my speech was ungrammatical or shoddily constructed, but that its content was disagreeable. The quality filters he evidently has in mind would screen out points of view that he considers unacceptable”

In the Hari case, the message was most definitely disintermediated. The widespread currency the story gained as a consequence, with the mainstream media, not just in Britain but even in the US, virtually forced because of that wide currency to cover it, appears to have made it necessary for the Indy to disclose openly that conversations are to take place between Hari and the editorial management.

This impact of social media journalism, I suspect, is the most enduring facet of the Hari imbroglio, and one which will persist long after the details of any “did he or didn’t he?” debate about Hari’s plagiarism or non-plagiarism have faded from memory.

Michael St George is a freelance writer and occasional blogger. He blogs and tweets at: @A_Liberty_Rebel

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