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Daily View: Johann Hari's defence of plagiarism accusations

Clare Spencer | 12:05 UK time, Wednesday, 29 June 2011

A plagiarism row has erupted over Independent columnist Johann Hari's confession that he had taken quotes from other written work and inserted it into his exclusive interviews.

It all started when political blog DSG found an interview Hari wrote in 2004 which lifted words from a 2003 book about Italian communist Toni Negri.

Following this, editor of Yahoo! Ireland and blogger Brian Whelan decided to test Hari's work by taking another recent interview at random and search through the quotes. This time he found an Independent interview with journalist Gideon Levy had line for line the quotes from an article in Israel's Haaretz newspaper. Whelan explains his annoyance:

"I know many hacks lift quotes and thats not a crime but Hari appears to be passing off copy-pasted text from Levy's writings in Haaretz and interviews with other hacks as an exclusive interview."

In his blog, Johann Hari admitted he had indeed taken quotes from previously written work and put them in his interviews. He explained sometimes people are clearer in writing than they are face-to-face. But "bemused" by accusations of plagiarism, he defended himself by saying that he kept the sentiment of his interviewees:

"I stress: I have only ever done this where the interviewee was making the same or very similar point to me in the interview that they had already made more clearly in print. This is one reason why, after doing what must be over fifty interviews, none of my interviewees have ever said they had been misquoted, even when they feel I've been very harsh on them in other ways."

Not everybody is convinced by Hari's defence. In the Telegraph Toby Young calls it feeble:

"If his overwhelming concern is clarity and accuracy, shouldn't he be clear about the fact that the interviewee hasn't given that quotation to him?"

The blog Fleet Street Blues calls the apology "stunningly brazen about playing fast and loose with the truth":

"The main art of being an interviewer is to be skilled at eliciting the right quotes from your subject. If Johann Hari wants to write 'intellectual portraits', he should go and write fiction. Do his editors really know that the copy they're printing ('we stare at each other for a while. Then he says in a quieter voice...') is essentially made up? "

Anonymous blogger Fleet Street Fox is angered that Johann Hari's admission may do further harm to the reputation of the newspaper industry:

"It also provokes many non-journalists to say 'ah yes, but you all lie, don't you?' It's the most common accusation hurled at the people in my trade, it is the easiest thing for a red-handed and red-faced public figure to splutter on a doorstep, and personally I find it the most frustrating and offensive."

These revelations also sparked mockery on Twitter. Using the hashtag #interviewbyhari Twitter users came up with their own ideas for quotes for Hari to insert into his interviews. Typical of these is tweeter Sam Wilson's:

"I walked into the room and there he was. Lionel. 'Hello,' he said, shaking my hand 'Is it me you're looking for?'

Having his reputation subject to "to trial by Twitter" Hari wrote an apology published in the Independent. While he still stood by his claims that what he was doing was not plagiarism, he did concede he had made an error:

"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."

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