Are Johann Hari’s “Intellectual Portraits” Plagiarism or Lip-Synch Journalism?

Johann Hari

Johann Hari’s accused of plagiarism, which has British bloggers poring over his interviews with a fine-tooth comb.

The results so far ain’t good. Brian Whelan, for example,  randomly chose an interview with Gideon Levy. And Whelan found a pattern of thoughts attributed to Levy (but not in quote marks) matching word for word with thoughts Levy expressed in articles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

I wouldn’t call it plagiarism, but Hari’s impression that he got the quotes directly from the interviewees is misleading. The accusations are serious enough that the Media Standards Trust, which gave Hari its prestigious 2008 George Orwell Award for political writing, is demanding an inquiry.

(Some of these articles are several years old; most are Levy’s columns, but not all, so Hari may be afoul of copyright issues as well. David Banks elaborates more on that point.)

The practice is as mystifying as it is undeniable. The nature of an interview is to ask questions and let the interviewee do all the talking. Why go to the trouble of digging up old quotes?

Hari’s explains:

So occasionally, at the point in the interview where the subject has expressed an idea, I’ve quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech. It’s a way of making sure the reader understands the point that (say) Gideon Levy wants to make as clearly as possible, while retaining the directness of the interview. Since my interviews are intellectual portraits that I hope explain how a person thinks, it seemed the most thorough way of doing it . . .

I’m a bit bemused to find one blogger considers this “plagiarism”. Who’s being plagiarized? Plagiarism is passing off somebody else’s intellectual work as your own – whereas I’m always making it clear that (say) Gideon Levy’s thought is Gideon Levy’s thought.

Perhaps it’s more akin to lip-synching, as Will Sturgeon argues. I think there’s something deeper going on.

You see, when Levy isn’t being Levy enough for Hari, Hari takes it upon himself to fix that up. The same applies to the other fawning portraits of this journalist’s leftist clique. And that’s the trouble with Hari.

Mr. Hari, if you ever have a reason to interview me, just do a sophisticated mashup of my best insights and witticisms and send me the portrait by email.