Johann Hari’s apology: Sincere or self-serving?

British journalist Johann Hari has written a front-page personal apology — more than two months after he was suspended from The Independent on accusations of plagiarism and fabrication, plus accusations of plagiarism and fabrication, plus personal attacks on other journalists. Surely, Hari meant it to be sincere. Many journalists, however, say it better fits the old cliché: too little, too late.

You can read the full apology online, but here is the key passage:

I did two wrong and stupid things. The first concerns some people I interviewed over the years. When I recorded and typed up any conversation, I found something odd: points that sounded perfectly clear when you heard them being spoken often don’t translate to the page. They can be quite confusing and unclear. When this happened, if the interviewee had made a similar point in their writing (or, much more rarely, when they were speaking to somebody else), I would use those words instead. At the time, I justified this to myself by saying I was giving the clearest possible representation of what the interviewee thought, in their most considered and clear words.

But I was wrong. An interview isn’t an X-ray of a person’s finest thoughts. It’s a report of an encounter. If you want to add material from elsewhere, there are conventions that let you do that. You write “she has said,” instead of “she says”. You write “as she told the New York Times” or “as she says in her book”, instead of just replacing the garbled chunk she said with the clear chunk she wrote or said elsewhere. If I had asked the many experienced colleagues I have here at The Independent – who have always been very generous with their time – they would have told me that, and they would have explained just how wrong I was. It was arrogant and stupid of me not to ask.

Forbes staff writer Jeff Bercovici doesn’t buy it. First, he's not sure why it took so long for Hari to apologize — or for The Independent to conclude its inquiry into his conduct.

Bercovici writes:

Apparently no one told Hari that apologies offered under compulsion, like confessions given under torture, are meaningless and best ignored. And this apology is more meaningless than most. Like his last one, it’s shot through with self-justification, self-regard and petty swipes at his critics. Most unforgivably, Hari still chooses to cast his sin as one of ignorance rather than calculation: because he “rose very fast in journalism straight from university,” he never had a chance to learn that making it look like someone said something to you that they actually said to someone else is wrong … You’re smarter than most. You knew this. Until you admit it, you’ll never have a chance of regaining your credibility."

A columnist for The Economist, who goes under the pseudonym Bagehot, was even less impressed.

Read it quickly, and it sounds terrifically contrite. Read it carefully, and Mr Hari is actually blaming his interviewees for their lack of verbal polish. It is a nifty defense: there he was, travelling the world to meet all these famous and brilliant people, conducting all these excellent interviews, only to find, on returning to his hotel room to transcribes his tapes, that time and again his subjects had garbled their lines.

I do not recognise the phenomenon Mr Hari is describing. Some interviews go well, others less well. But in the midst of each conversation, as I write my notes, I am aware (sometimes heart-sinkingly aware) whether my subjects are saying interesting things or not. I also know something else: if you go to interview someone who is famous or important or witty or wise (as opposed to a member of the public swept up in a news event) and they say only boring or incoherent things, it is mostly your fault.

Interviewing someone is not mere stenography, he adds, it's work. Bagehot also believes lack of j-school is no excuse. After all, Hari has been with The Independent for nearly a decade.

In addition to giving back his George Orwell Prize (it's been rumoured they were going to take it away anyway, and Hari admits this), Hari is also taking a four month, unpaid leave of absence to go back for journalism training — at his own expense: "I rose very fast in journalism straight from university."

When he returns to The Independent — yes he is returning — he will footnote his article online, and post audio of on-the-record interviews.

Has Hari done enough? Or is it as Bagehot writes: "I have met too many journalists like that, and their flaw was not one of training. At the risk of being pompous, it was one of character."