Johann Hari: conceit, deceit and the judgement of God
But ignorance and offence have never been impediments to literary prowess. So to the #Harigate furore.
There is undoubtedly a slight niggle concerning the rather unorthodox Hari interviewing style. It transpires that it has long been his custom to appropriate comments which his interviewees have said or written elsewhere, sometimes many years previously, and then pass them off as contemporary responses which he has himself elicited during his own ‘in-depth’, ‘intimate’ and ‘tell-all’ interview. Thus, if an interviewee told Mr Hari en passant that he was sick to the eye teeth of the pissing rain, Mr Hari would assiduously seek out from his subject’s 1985 book The Life of the Meerkat a paragraph on the weather, and that section of the ‘exclusive’ Independent interview would read:
He dropped his gaze and his fingers twitched. I could see he was troubled, but he managed to share with me, in the assurance of my security, that the weather was ‘dreary, dank and depressing, often to the point of suicide; always to the point of psychological adversity’. He spoke quickly and fluently, as though the precipitation had flooded his mind.For those who are not familiar with Johann Hari’s writing, His Grace would like to make it clear that (as far as he is aware) Mr Hari has never actually written on anything as trivial as the weather: he writes on far more important issues like war, human rights, sexual ethics, religion, politics and the claims of Christianity. And he presents as his subject’s spontaneous outpourings words and phrases which have, in fact, been selectively ‘harvested’ from books, magazines, press releases and even from interviews carried out by others.
If that is not quite plagiarism, it is deception. It is certainly an unattributed appropriation of the work of others in order to convey the impression that one is a highly talented investigative journalist with a particular knack for trawling the depths of a person’s meaning and feeling.
The Hari approach has quite obvious implications for journalistic integrity, research authenticity and intellectual truth. For if Mr Hari were interviewing (say) the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2011 on the issue of homosexuality, he would not be averse to inserting into the finished article words which actually originate from the Archbishop’s 1986 writings whilst a lecturer at Oxford. The archbishop may talk openly now of ‘pastoral problems surrounding gay marriage’ and of the need for ‘reconciled diversity’. But this would not stop Hari from inserting: ‘Williams suggests that the principal objection to “gay marriage” is the emotional reaction to the term, which he equates with the feelings people initially had to the term “woman priest”.’ This sentence actually emanates from a book published 15 years ago, clearly quoting Dr Williams views prior to his appointment to the See of Canterbury. Opinions and views can change with the passing of time, and they may certainly legitimately do so with changes of office.
Or take a (highly unlikely) Hari encounter with Pope Benedict XVI. What would the world make of a 2011 interview in which His Holiness appeared to cast doubt on the resurrection of Christ? What if Hari, in questioning the Pope on the claims of Christianity, quoted him as saying: ‘The resurrection cannot be an historical event in the same sense as the crucifixion is... Christ is raised with His own body, but He did not return to an earthly life... (God) raises up an incorruptible body, a spiritual body.’
These are quotations from the Joseph Ratzinger’s 1968 book Introduction to Christianity. The full quotations may be deemed to constitute a denial of the historicity of the resurrection and conflict with the Roman Catholic Catechism. Are these apparently liberal views consistent with Catholic orthodoxy? They may certainly give credence to the non-literal ‘spiritual resurrection’ school of thought, which many believe to be a distinctly Anglican (lack of) faith issue. They are certainly not views which one might think would plague the mind of the Bishop of Rome, the universal guardian of Christian orthodoxy and moral truth.
Theologians can and do draw a distinction between their ‘official’ beliefs as bishops and their private beliefs as individuals. Of course, one may take the view that once a religious leader has to distinguish his private beliefs from his ‘official’ ones, his (or her) credibility is as shot as Johann Hari’s. But that is not the point: Hari’s approach to interviews makes no allowance at all for his subjects’ possible change of mind, and that makes his interviews nothing but a plagiarised rehash of an outdated truth.
Hari assures that he does not distort: the old words, he insists, reflect the subject’s view expressed during the interview. But, as anyone with research experience will tell you, that simply cannot be true. In academia, quantitative research must be replicable. Qualitative data, such as interviews, must be recorded in order that the transcription may be corroborated and the results replicated as far as possible by another. In Hari’s world, he reproduces only what he wants to hear. His justification for inventing a conversation is that his aim is to reveal ‘what the subject thinks in the most comprehensible possible words’ and to make sure that the reader ‘understood the point’. The redaction helps to express a ‘vital message’ in the ‘clearest possible words’. Brendan O’Neill rightly terms such an approach ‘the tyranny of the “good lie”’.
If one were to apply Hari’s method to crucial points in the development of Christian orthodoxy, the danger of his ‘tyrannical’ manipulation becomes evident. If he had been interviewing (say) the Bishop of Antioch at the Council of Nicea in 325, he may well have heard his subject refer to 'homoousios’ (ηομοουσιος), meaning ‘of the same substance’. However, to express a more ‘vital message’ in the ‘clearest possible words’, drawing from the Bishop’s writing just a year before, Hari may well have inserted ‘homoiousios’ (ηομοιουσιος) into his ‘in-depth’ interview, the term used by those who believed Christ to be ‘of a similar substance’ to the Father. Hari would patronisingly have judged that his readers wouldn’t grasp that one could be simultaneously both man and God, so ‘similar substance’ would make sure they ‘understood the point’.
These two words are separated literally by just one iota. As the nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity was thrashed out between the Arians, Monophysites, Nestorians, Ebionites Apollinarians and Docetists, Hari’s choice of a single word with a single extra letter could have changed the foundation of Christian doctrine and the entire course of theological history. There is no reason why he would have been aware of this: he is not a theologian.
But neither is he an expert on human rights, sexual ethics, politics or philosophy, in which disciplines and discourses the inclusion or exclusion of a single word can have profound consequences. Hari explains that his ‘interviews are intellectual portraits (which) explain how a person thinks’. But by putting into the contemporary mouth of his subject a word from the past, another country, he creates his own truth from a distorted reality which happens conveniently to coincide with his own personal mission. This is not an ‘intellectual portrait’ which explains how his subject thinks: it is fabrication and deceit emanating from arrogance and conceit, showing us nothing but what Hari himself thinks.
There is a temptation to allow the #Harigate debacle to descend into a left-right spat. Hari’s (former) editor at The Independent, Simon Kelner, says the attack on his star journalist is ‘politically motivated’ and ‘fabricated anger’. Certainly, those who have leapt to his defence include the leftist likes of Polly Toynbee, Caitlin Moran, Laurie Penny and Naomi Klein. But the condemnation has come not only from the right: Guy Walters at The New Statesman has been meticulously objective and utterly professional about the matter: to him, this is a question of journalistic integrity (see here and here).
Having dealt with Hari’s deceit and conceit, you may be wondering why His Grace included in his title ‘the judgement of God’.
Well, a few months back, His Grace wrote a brief post on Ann Widdecombe’s interview of Hari, during which Hari said:
1) 'The factual claims Christianity makes have been proven to be false.'To which His Grace responded:
2) 'The nasty dogmas that lead people to discriminate against gay people or treat women badly because God commanded it...will wither.'
1) If a fact has been proven to be false, it was not a fact in the first place. Which factual claims made by Christianity have been proven to be false?His Grace received no response from Mr Hari. Instead, Mr Hari simply blocked His Grace from following him on Twitter, which seemed an absurdly childish thing to do. There was nothing rude, offensive or ad hominem in His Grace’s post; simply a few polite if pointed questions. And Mr Hari has some 66,000 Twitter followers, so he is hardly discerning or particularly selective about those who may follow him. But His Grace is barred. Why? Because he dared to challenge the fabricated truth.
2) How is it possible to belong to a religion (any religion) without discriminating against those who do not belong? Is that not freedom of association? Are traditional Christian beliefs and the teachings of the Church now to be subject to an illiberal and intolerant creed of equality and rights? The nasty dogmata that lead people to discriminate against Christians are incompatible with liberalism, liberty and tolerance. And where, pray, do the commands of God or the teachings of the Church encourage people to treat women badly? As far as His Grace can see, men are instructed to love their wives as Christ loves the Church (Eph 5:25).
Hari said: "The factual claims Christianity makes have been proven to be false." He did not say he believes them to be false, but that they have been proven to be false.
Come on, Johann. His Grace is waiting. If you send him the proof and it is indeed proof and not simply your subjectively justified, true belief, His Grace will shut down his blog. He can’t say fairer than that.