The Independent was plunged into “profound” shock after journalist Johann Hari was exposed for plagiarism, its editor said today, though the shamed journalist is set to return in four to five weeks.
Chris Blackhurst told how a “whole storm” broke when the scandal was brought to light, bringing with it revelations that Mr Hari had adopted a pseudonym to attack his critics online.
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But he defended the disgraced reporter, telling the Leveson Inquiry that Hari would return to The Independent in four to five weeks following four months’ unpaid leave.
And he dismissed suggestions the paper “protected” its own when Hari’s case was compared to that of journalist Neville Thurlbeck who “did not face the sack from News of the World despite having been heavily criticised for his actions”.
Recalling the effect of Hari’s actions on his colleagues, Blackhurst told the inquiry: “I think what I would want to stress was the shock this caused.
“Enormous shock to myself, as somebody who prior to then had mainly been an observer and an admirer of Johann’s journalism, and a much deeper shock, I think, to his colleagues at The Independent.
“It was really profound and totally unexpected.”
Responding to claims the paper may have known about Mr Hari’s actions prior to this point, he told the hearing: “I’m surprised you say that there was a cover-up in the sense that we’d had inklings before because that is genuinely news to me.
“We had no inklings of the plagiarism at all. Indeed, one of the problems with the Johann affair was nobody had ever complained, no journalist that he had plagiarised, no person he had interviewed, no reader, no colleague … had alerted us to the fact that he had drawn his information from somewhere else.
“If they had, it might have been nipped in the bud at a much earlier stage. The fact was, it continued.”
Blackhurst, who took the helm at The Independent shortly after Hari’s plagiarism was exposed, told the hearing staff had “absolutely no knowledge” the reporter had doctored Wikipedia entries.
“Again we had absolutely no knowledge,” he said. “I certainly didn’t. I don’t believe any of my colleagues did. They had absolutely no knowledge that Johann Hari was messing about on the internet under a false name amending people’s Wikipedia entries.”
But standing by the disgraced journalist, he said Hari “genuinely believed he was doing nothing wrong” when he incorporated comments given by interviewees to other reporters in his own articles.
Meanwhile, he said the reporter, who left Cambridge in 2001 and became a staff columnist on The Independent in 2002, had no formal training. And he said medical notes offered an explanation for his actions on Wikipedia.
Hari’s salary was stopped in the aftermath of revelations, the inquiry heard.
He will complete an ethics course in New York at his own expense, before returning to the paper as a columnist.
But he will no longer be permitted to conduct interviews and everything he writes will be subject to heavy scrutiny, Blackhurst said, adding: “There’s a whole Twitter community who probably can’t wait for him to start writing again. But that’s what’s going to happen.”