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Intellectual accuracy

Hari and the higher journalism

So there has been some kind of kerfuffle over allegations that the journalist Johann Hari, when writing “interviews”, has made a habit of silently replacing what the interviewee actually said to him with quotations from the interviewee’s writing, or with quotations copied without attribution from other published interviews conducted by other interviewers? ((Previously in “Johann Hari”: Postmodernists, Free speech.))

Now, a tiresomely literal view of this matter might judge that writing that someone said something to you which they did not in fact say to you is not simply naive, or sloppy, or misguided, or the understandable result of a lack of proper “training”, or “normal practice”; it is just lying.

Far be it, though, from to be so hasty in joining in the no doubt politically motivated Hari-bashing by evil right-wingers! Let us not forget that there might always be a larger truth to which the writer owes his primary duty. In his marvellously unapologetic apology, Hari reveals what it is:

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.

Only sniffy pedants, surely, would insist on something so low-class as mere “reportorial accuracy” — ie, not lying. Like poetic truth, intellectual accuracy is so much nobler and more rarefied, isn’t it, readers?

  1. 1  Dave Weeden  June 30, 2011, 1:01 pm 

    Your links are all buggered. The source code has curly quotes. It should be plain ones. Hope this helps.

  2. 2  Steven  June 30, 2011, 1:04 pm 

    Fixed – thanks!

  3. 3  sw  June 30, 2011, 3:08 pm 

    I love the use of “silently replacing”:

    allegations that the journalist Johann Hari, when writing “interviews”, has made a habit of silently replacing what the interviewee actually said to him with quotations from the interviewee’s writing, or with quotations copied without attribution

    Because it is a sort of silent replacement, putting the written word in place of the spoken word.

    Whilst this is of no doubt no importance, I have been reminded throughout this “debate” of how much I hate the literalism and fidelity-to-the-written word of those journalists who transcribe “ums” as though they’re mantras and fail to piece together the fragments or consolidate the meanderings of broken spoken speech into the written word. A silent translation from the spoken word to the written quote is required, and it imports the lie of articulacy; the deception of linearity and crispness is written quietly into the text. That is a poetic truth about intellectual accuracy, is it not?

  4. 4  sw  June 30, 2011, 3:10 pm 

    Oh FFS, it should be “fidelity-to-the-spoken word”; fortunately, I have none to either, so I really don’t care. *slaps self in face and buries head in arms, sobbing*

  5. 5  Steven  June 30, 2011, 3:37 pm 

    Don’t be so hard on yourself, sw! I agree with you?

  6. 6  dsquared  June 30, 2011, 4:30 pm 


  7. 7  Steven  June 30, 2011, 4:33 pm 



  8. 8  belle le triste  June 30, 2011, 5:05 pm 

    “Reportorial” does seem to the US usage, possibly by backformation from “editorial”?

    I think Hari could have made more of the er/or distinction, though it would have messed up his “intellectual accuracy” line. Where a noun can seemingly end in “er” or or” (vender/vendor), the second tends to have the more legal gravitas and social authority, and doubtless the bigger paycheck. JH shd have said “I spurn yr pettifogging regulations, I AM A REPORTOR”

  9. 9  Dan A  June 30, 2011, 6:01 pm 

    Excuse me while I reporterise this interview.

  10. 10  fmackay  June 30, 2011, 8:11 pm 

    “Reportorial” seems like an unspeaky substitute for “journalistic”, usefully lacking the associations of principles, ethics etc one might make with journalism (as idealised, not practiced, obviously).

  11. 11  KB Player  June 30, 2011, 11:44 pm 

    He doesn’t do “interviews”, he does “intellectual portraits”. An “interview” is when some person of achievement is drawn out by questioning to reveal interesting things about himself and his work. An “intellectual portrait” is a much artier affair, requiring creative skill and imagination. We look at the subject – but how much we admire the brilliance of the portrait painter or photographer – the brush strokes, lighting etc.

  12. 12  dave  July 1, 2011, 12:02 am 

    It was not the other night that I asked Johann about this personally. With an impatient shake of the head – a gesture I well remembered from his student days – he interrupted me, and soon warmed to his subject: “Every word I have quoted”, he assured me, “has been said by my interviewee, and accurately represents their view.” The brio with which he wanted to defend himself to me was typical of Hari: I have never chatted to him without being impressed by his intellectual presence and passion.

  13. 13  Jeff Strabone  July 1, 2011, 12:51 am 

    I disagree with SW about transcribing ‘ums’. There are certain instances and speakers where an um-less report would lose something essential about the speech. Two words: Sarah, um, Palin.

    Aside from the special instance, transcribing ‘ums’ might have the salutary benefit of shaming the ummers into um-less speaking. True story: when I was a teenager, a rude relative of mine once accompanied me to an event and repeated, at emabarrassing volume, every ‘um’ uttered by the speaker at the podium. I was horrified to have sit next to him while he was doing this, but, on the plus side, I nearly never say ‘um’. The pauses of mid-speech thought need not be filled. Enjoy the silence.

  14. 14  Steven  July 1, 2011, 12:55 am 

    Is it OK to say “Er”?

  15. 15  Jeff Strabone  July 1, 2011, 1:11 am 

    Er, no.

  16. 16  sw  July 1, 2011, 5:28 am 

    Hmm, Jeff Strabone may be right, although having heard him speak on many occasions, I know that if he had merely transcribed the point he makes from how he would have said it, it would have come out “You know, like, whaddabout, um, whats-her-name, bing-bing, oh yearh, Sarah, um, Palin, you know? She like uses ‘um’- hey is that a dildo in that shop window? – um, she like uses ‘um’ all the time, and that reminds me – oh no, it’s not a dildo, it’s a mannikin’s arm, I thought it was a dildo – I learned not to go ‘um’ when, like, my, I don’t know, some relative was like hassling some dude on stage every time he went ‘um’, you know? Do you think I could design and sell a dildo shaped like a mannikin’s arm?”

    That’s what we’d have been reading, so I’m very glad that you didn’t transcribe it precisely.

    (Interestingly, the leader of this community, Steven Poole, speaks exactly like he writes except it comes out with a high-pitched squeaking sound in the background, and the sentences are punctuated by baffling blinks and intimidating jaw-thrusts: should these also be transcribed?)

  17. 17  sw  July 1, 2011, 5:36 am 

    I now sorely regret what I posted @16.

    The leader of this community talks with the poise of a film star on his second cup of coffee and third interview of the day, Jeff Strabone does not talk like an Alaskan surfer, and the dildo shaped like a mannikin’s arm is my idea.

    And dave @12, that’s quite funny. I was going to do something similar, but then wondered . . .

  18. 18  BenSix  July 1, 2011, 4:26 pm 

    This one is a tour de force. Malalai Joya’s replies must have consisted of nought but “errrr“‘s.

  19. 19  adam  July 3, 2011, 10:28 pm 

    From the Author’s Note to ‘The Tao of Muhammad Ali’ by Davis Miller.

    “Although the narrative is not always historically accurate, and although some chronology and numerous details have been changed for dramatic effect, it is, in essence, true.”

    I’ve always liked that very clear and straightforward justification.

    If what Hari is really dong is writing ‘New Journalism’ (© Tom Wolfe) then this ‘intellectual portrait’ business is fine. If what he is doing is opening the door for people to argue that what should be reported is what they meant rather then what they said, then we have a problem.

  20. 20  Dan A  July 10, 2011, 11:33 am 

    @SW 16, yeah Steven speaks exactly like he writes, it’s funny. A spoken-word version of each Unspeak post narrated by Steven would send me all funny in the trouser department :DDD

    Ste Curran for example though sounds like the complete opposite of his writing he used to do in Edge. So much so in fact, that I was kind of thrown for a loop when I found out he was Redeye. My mind could not process that information, it was like “error error does not compute”.

    But basically I think you have to take into account the foibles of each particular media you are using to convey your message, as a journalist. It wouldn’t do to turn up for a tv interview half sozzled from the night before, whereas that kind of state is perfectly acceptable on the twitters, and in fact is almost mandatory in some cases :p

    More generally, a book to a blog post to a tweet or blog comment, too have their own rules and stuff. I think I recall Steven talking about that a while ago actually.

  21. 21  john c. halasz  July 11, 2011, 6:30 am 

    And thus the Murdochians,-( or -ites?),- where just trying to get a more accurate representation of the “subjects” thoughts.

  22. 22  James R MacLean  July 26, 2011, 10:58 pm 

    @John C. Halasz

    It’s me, James R MacLean. If you see this, please drop me a line at jamesrmaclean[at-sign]hotmail[dot]com.


  23. 23  Dan A  July 27, 2011, 2:09 pm 

    Oh dear

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