The Johann Hari plagiarism row highlights a number of weaknesses both of the current system of press self regulation and of the culture of British journalism.
By making things up and stealing other people’s work Hari committed one of the worst breaches of journalistic ethics there is. But when this row surfaced back in June it was not something which the Press Complaints Commission was able to tackle.
The PCC is basically a dispute-resolution surface – but here, no-one was making a complaint to the PCC. Bloggers like Brian Whelan had merely done some digging and found out that a lot of Hari’s work was not what it purported to be.
So new Independent editor Chris Blackhurst had to make up a response on the fly, commission an internal inquiry and then decide on his own resolution – to suspend Hari on unpaid leave and make him do some journalism training.
The biggest lesson for me from this is that any new body to replace the PCC, or a reformed PCC, should have its own powers to investigate and discipline journalists like Hari. This is a point which Blackhurst himself has made to Press Gazette.
Hari makes clear in his apology today that part of the problem is that he has never had even the most basic journalism training – after entering the profession straight from university.
That an editor would have a staff writer on a national newspaper who doesn’t know the basics of media law and journalism ethics is pretty baffling to me. I’d argue that all card-carrying journalists on bona-fide publications should have a minimum of NCTJ, or equivalent, training (that’s certainly the case in the regional press anyway). I’m amazed that the libel insurance firms don’t insist upon it.
Finally, the Hari row shows that some parts of the industry still havn’t learned one of the major lessons of the phone-hacking scandal – that the press has to be a lot more open, transparent and accountable if it is to regain public trust. I don’t think The Independent has learned that lesson if it really is planning to keep its own report on the Hari affair under lock and key. What has it got to hide?
Days after Chris Blackhurst was appointed editor of The Independent he hosted an Independent Voices discussion evening at the Royal Institution. It was at the height of the accusations against Hari, on 5 July, but before he had been suspended. Despite a bill of speakers which included Max Mosley, Evgeny Lebedev and Ruby Wax, Hari was clearly the star of the show. The hundreds of Independent readers there seemed pretty unconcerned over the allegations against Hari as they gave him a rapturous reception.
So I can see why Hari has hung on to his job – because he is a talented writer and the readers clearly love him. But I think The Independent needs to be completely transparent about the process which has led to him being reinstated if his rehabilitation, and that of the Independent’s reputation, is to be completed.