I have been surprised by some of the reaction to the news that the Independent’s star columnist and interviewer Johann Hari had played fast and loose with the conventions of journalism.
It’s very difficult to defend what he did.
I always think it’s a little unseemly for journalists to pass judgement on their fellow hacks. But this really is an extraordinary case.
As the Telegraph reports, The Orwell Prize is now investigating Hari and whether
to withdraw his award from 2008. It is worth reading the statement in full:
“The Orwell Prize became aware of allegations concerning Johann Hari, the winner of the Orwell Prize for Journalism 2008, on Monday 27th June. (Johann Hari has also been shortlisted for
the Prize in the past, and entered this year’s Prize.) Given the seriousness of the allegations that have been made, we feel we have no choice other than to investigate further.
The Council of the Orwell Prize takes the integrity and reputation of the Orwell Prize, and the rigour, fairness and transparency of the entry and judging process, very seriously. As stated
on Tuesday 28th June, there is a process to follow in such situations, which we have been following since Monday and continue to pursue.
Our judges in 2008 – Annalena McAfee, Albert Scardino and Sir John Tusa – are highly distinguished and chose the winners independently and in good faith after a thorough judging
process. We do not interfere with the choices of our judges and we ask them only to judge the submitted pieces. No allegations have been made against Johann Hari’s 2008 Orwell Prize-winning
Prior to presenting the award, as part of our due diligence, one of the judges contacted Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent, who expressed his full confidence in the Hari articles. The
Prize cannot investigate the provenance of every piece of work entered, and so relies on the integrity of the entrants and the editorial processes which help produce the work.
Since 2008 the entry process has been made more robust still. The governance of the Prize has been reformed, and all entrants are required to sign a disclaimer, declaring that the submitted
work ‘is wholly or substantially that of the named author or authors, and does not contain any plagiarised or unacknowledged material’.
We are currently in touch with the judges from 2008 and the governing Council of the Orwell Prize, and have written to Johann Hari and his editor, Simon Kelner. We will allow our inquiry to
run its course before issuing a further statement.”
Simply put, Johann Hari has let the side down. Several sides in fact. He has let down his fellow journalists, he has let down fellow liberals and he has let down the Orwell Prize, whose small and
dedicated team of organisers have worked hard to build its reputation as Britain’s premier political journalism award. It has been an honour to be shortlisted and longlisted for the prize in
the past and this year I was delighted to act as a judge and hand the prize to a winner of unquestionable integrity, Jenni Russell.
The Orwell Prize statement shows shows that the Prize’s organisers contacted Independent editor Simon Kelner in 2008, who expressed his confidence in Hari’s work. They then tightened up
the entry criteria after Hari’s win to demand that writers vouch for the veracity of their work and sourcing.
People have always given Johann Hari an enormous amount of leeway because of his prodigious talent as a writer. I feel a genuine sympathy for him on a personal level. There is something
psychologically peculiar about attributing quotes in the way he did. And now through his arrogance he has drawn his editor and the Orwell Prize into this appalling mess.
Johann Hari has disgraced himself. The Orwell Prize must come to its own decision about his prize. I hope his career survives this because he would be a loss to journalism. But if anyone is to
believe what he writes in future he has to stop making excuses and simply explain his mystifying behaviour, honestly and openly. That is a piece I would read.