Thursday, September 15, 2011

Johann Hari and interviewing

I'm not going to strain any ligaments defending Johann Hari - he just reminds me of what people say about his newspaper, The Independent: "The Daily Mail for people who recycle."

Hari just strikes me as a corduroy-jacketed version of John Gaunt. Massively overconfident in expressing poorly thought-out opinions.

Still, he's hardly unusual within his own profession in that respect, and his journalistic colleagues seem to be prepared to cut him a bit of slack for doctoring his interviews. In a lot of cases, I can't see that a pedantic sticking to verbatim quotes is all that important.

I reckon a spot of community service is more appropriate than ten years hard labour for what he's done here - but there are plenty of other people arguing about that elsewhere.

Anyhoo.... I quite like the idea of 'underarm interviews' - where the interviewer and interviewee collaborate - each editing their questions and answers intending to help each other refine the questions and answers: Stripping out the problems caused by inarticulacy or imprecision.

I did one some years ago with Chris Dillow here - I learned a good deal more about what his position was than I'd ever have got from reading his general writing, or any live interview that we could have done. We did it just updating a Google Doc - often revising an earlier point to help clarify the current one.

I think it worked well - both sides of the table have nowhere to hide. I wish there were more of them. Almost 'set piece' interviews.


1 comment:

Roger said...

Johann's big problem was not the plagiarism but that he has pissed other journalists off with his moral grandstanding and general censoriousness.

His best pieces (those on Dubai, Little Britain, Gore Vidal and that holocaust-denying traditionalist catholic bishop frex) work precisely because they give vent to a real moral outrage that you rarely see in newspapers (as opposed to the automatic and almost word-for-word predictable outrage mechanically churned out by the likes of Melanie Phillips or Seamus Milne).

Had he not been so quick to play the moral blame game himself (and so adept at using wikipedia sock puppets to burnish his own and blacken rival's reputations) I have little doubt that his profession's herd mentality would have kicked in and he'd have been forgiven.

As regards his interviewing technique (which seems to have largely amounted to not paying much attention to the interview itself and instead summarising what the subject or experts on the subject had published elsewhere) this at least meant that he researched his subjects far more thoroughly than some of his rivals.

For instance although he may have misrepresented his encounter with Negri he does actually appear to have read the brilliant but impenetrable Empire and IIRC gave a much better summary of its core ideas than I'd expect a more ethical journalist who had only an interview and a few old press cuttings to work with.

And his final service to journalism (not being a Piers Morgan I can't see him ever bounding back from this professional catastrophe however long he spends on journalistic ethics rehab courses) may well be that he'll give journalism students a lot to work with when they do the ethics segments of their courses.

And in a world where Derek Draper can become a relationships counsellor and Toby Young is deemed a fit person to sponsor school it would not at all surprise me if Hari ends up writing a textbook on journalistic ethics.