Yesterday on Twitter I was accused of plagiarism. This accusation is totally false – but I have reflected seriously on this and do have something to apologise for.
When you interview a writer – especially but not only when English isn't their first language – they will sometimes make a point that sounds clear when you hear it, but turns out to be incomprehensible or confusing on the page. In those instances, I have sometimes substituted a passage they have written or said more clearly elsewhere on the same subject for what they said to me, so the reader understands their point as clearly as possible. The quotes are always accurate representations of their words, inserted into the interview at the point where they made substantively the same argument using similar but less clear language. I did not and never have taken words from another context and twisted them to mean something different – I only ever substituted clearer expressions of the same sentiment, so the reader knew what the subject thinks in the most comprehensible possible words.
I stress: I have only ever done this where the interviewee was making the same or similar point to me in the interview that they had already made more clearly in print. Where I described their body language, for example, I was describing their body language as they made the same point that I was quoting – I was simply using the clearer words from their writing so the reader understood the point best. This is one reason why none of my interviewees have, to my knowledge, ever said they were misquoted in my nearly 10 years with The Independent, even when they feel I've been very critical of them in other ways. My critics have focused on my interview with Gideon Levy as supposedly distorted. So what does Gideon Levy say? These are his words: "I stand behind everything that was published in the interview. It was a totally accurate representation of my thoughts and words."
This does not fit any definition of plagiarism. Plagiarism is presenting somebody else's intellectual work as your own – whereas I have always accurately attributed the ideas of (say) Gideon Levy to Gideon Levy. Nor can it be regarded as churnalism. Churnalism is a journalist taking a press release and mindlessly recycling it. It is not a journalist carefully reading over all a writer's books and quoting it to best reflect how they think.
Over the years I have interviewed some people who have messages we desperately need to hear – from Gideon Levy about Israel, to Malalai Joya about Afghanistan, to Gerry Adams about how to end a sectarian war. Just this week, I interviewed one of the bravest people I have ever met – Shirin Ebadi. I would hate people to not hear these vital messages because they incorrectly think the subjects have been falsely quoted. Every word I have quoted has been said by my interviewee, and accurately represents their view. I hope people continue to hear their words.
When I've been wrong in the past – as I shamefully was over the Iraq War – I have admitted it publicly, tried to think through how I got it wrong, and corrected myself. So I've thought carefully about whether I have been wrong here. It's clearly not plagiarism or churnalism – but was it an error in another way? Yes. I now see it was wrong, and I wouldn't do it again.
Why? Because an interview is not just an essayistic representation of what a person thinks; it is a report on an encounter between the interviewer and the interviewee. If (for example) a person doesn't speak very good English, or is simply unclear, it may be better to quote their slightly broken or garbled English than to quote their more precise written work, and let that speak for itself. It depends on whether you prefer the intellectual accuracy of describing their ideas in their most considered words, or the reportorial accuracy of describing their ideas in the words they used on that particular afternoon. Since my interviews are long intellectual profiles, not ones where I'm trying to ferret out a scoop or exclusive, I have, in the past, prioritised the former. That was, on reflection, a mistake, because it wasn't clear to the reader.
I'm sorry, and I'm grateful to the people who pointed out this error of judgement. I will make sure I learn from it.
The Twitter Reaction
caitlinmoran: Johann Hari generally writes good, thoughtful, brave journalism, and makes Fleet Street a better place (Caitlin Moran)
MarkBillingham: You need reminding how great Johann Hari is, go online and watch footage of him disembowelling the loathsome Littlejohn. #storminateacup (Mark Billingham)
JosieLong: I think Johann Hari is a brilliant and inspiring journalist. Toby Young, however... (Josie Long)
georgeeaton: The fact that Johann Hari is a principled leftie and a brilliant columnist means that we should be more, not less, critical. (George Eaton)
fleetstreetfox: Not attributing existing quotes correctly is as bad as making them up because it misleads the reader. (anonymous tabloid journalist)
robertshrimsley: This falls way outside any acceptable definition of journalism at any outfit worth respecting. It's lying to the reader (Robert Shrimsley)