Friday, 1 July 2011

Johan Hari comes a cropper or the Sad, Sad Tale of a Hero of the Left who has broken the Eleventh Commandment. And Greece: is it a tragedy of a comedy?

A curious, low-key spat in the Press these past few days about one of the darlings of the left who just might have been caught, metaphorically, with his fingers in the till. It concerns a chap called Johan Hari who in his day was something of a child prodigy apparently, having his journalism published when he was 16 or something (though I have looked on Wikepedia and can’t find any references to this anywhere, so perhaps I am just making it up, although if I am doing so, it is entirely inadvertent). Hari is notable in that as a gay man, he is an activist. According to Wikipedia he ‘has been named by the Daily Telegraph as one of the most influential people on the left in Britain and by the Dutch magazine Wing as one of the 20 most influential gay people in the world.
At his point I must mention that I have an antipathy to ‘lists’, especially to lists of ‘influential’ people. What exactly does ‘influential’ mean in this context? Someone might well be regarded as influential if others copy their dress sense and style, but beyond that, very limited, sense, I think it is simply cobblers to describe anyone as ‘influential’, especially a paid
hack such as Hari (right). As far as I am concerned, it is just another instance of media luvvies talking themselves up and making themselves sound just a little more interesting than they themselves suspect they are. Then there is the description of Hari as an ‘influential gay’ person, which I regard as doubly daft: surely to goodness we have come sufficiently far down the road to treat someone’s sexual inclination as being about as important as their toothpaste of choice. Whether or not a man or woman is gay does not make them either a better or worse person. They just are, and, as some do, to celebrate the fact seems to me just as pernicious as to hold it against them.
One thing Hari, who writes mainly for The Independent but also for several other notable publications, has in his favour, as far as I am concerned, is his ability to make enemies. In my book that is a definite plus, and although when I have heard him on the radio or read any of his journalism, I was inclined to regard him as something of a silly little tick, I yield to no man in defence of his right to be a stupid prick if he wants to be. But what I didn’t, and don’t like, about him is his tendency to occupy the high moral ground. And just how dangerous doing so can be is highlighted by the spat in which he finds himself. And if he hadn’t done so in the past, passing judgment on those whose behaviour fell short of what he thought was acceptable, the media spat in which he finds himself might never have started.
Hari belongs to the serious end of journalism, and in that he has my best wishes. Again according to Wikipedia, he has reported from, among other places, the Congo, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Venezuela, Rwanda and Syria. Whether or not he found himself in personal danger on any of these assignments I don’t know, but what he did is several million miles away from checking the puzzle pages and ensuring the commas are in the right places on the letters pages as I do and I can honestly say I have never once feared for my life doing so. That then one point to Hari, no points to me. But given that background – he has also won something called the Orwell Prize for his political journalism – what he is now accused of is odd in that if he is guilty, he surely should most certainly have known better.
Hari, it seems, has been interviewing prominent people – political activists, that kind of thing – and then including quotations from their work in the pieces he subsequently wrote. Nothing wrong with that, you might think, except Hari would paraphrase the quotations and use them as though they were what his interviewee had actually said to him in person – that is pretend that they were said as part of the interview. There is no question that it is a somewhat controversial thing to do, and I regard it as a form of cheating (but see my  below, for more on that point).
Hari, though, says he doesn’t and has come up with a somewhat convoluted justification for the practice. He says (and I now quote from the Guardian of today (July 1) that he distinguishes between the ‘intellectual accuracy of describing [interviewees'] ideas in their most considered words, or [it should be ‘and’ but that’s the Guardian for you] the reportorial accuracy of describing their ideas in the words they used on that particular afternoon’. As far as I am concerned, there is a distinct and quite unmistakable whiff of bullshit about Hari’s justification. What makes it all rather more complicated is that given his left-of-centre views and his homosexuality, Hari and his supporters are arguing that those criticising him have ulterior motives (although they don’t explain quite why he should be regarded so highly and why taking him down would be seem as something of a coup). That the many people who don’t like him are enjoying the chance to take young Johan (who, at 32, might not be quite as young as all that) are lining up to give examples of his duplicity speaks volumes. But then as a general rule, no one is quite as bitchy as a hack and the men are worse than the women.
I am not about to condemn him in the slightest and to do so would be despicable. I have made up many, many quotes as a reporter and sometimes as a sub, mainly because Joe Public as opposed to the great and good Hari mucks around with are horribly inarticulate, and if I had quoted them with 100pc accuracy, they would have come across as mentally deficient. Then there was the time, many years ago – at least 31 years ago, so I don’t’ mind coming clean - when I invented a complete interview (purportedly with the mayor of a small Sardinian town which was the centre of the kidnapping for ransom by the mafia of two well-off Brit holidaymakers). I was paid handsomely for the piece (in fact, due to a misunderstanding between the newsdesk and accounts, I was paid twice - a flat fee and then on lineage) and even though I say so myself, it might have been complete fiction, but Christ it was a rattling good read. But I am not going to condemn Hari. All I shall do is point out that if you are going to pull a fast one, make sure you don’t break the Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Allow Theyself To Be Caught Out. Unfortunately, Hari did. And I can’t help feeling just a touch of Schadenfreude that after all his high moral posturing, young Johan has finally been caught with his trousers down.

. . .

The Greek parliament united, more or less, to vote in an even tougher raft of austerity measures a day or two ago to ensure it received another bung from the other members of the euro club. And I admit I was very disappointed. I wanted the MPs (who will most certainly not be on their uppers over the coming years as a result of these measures) raise two fingers to the Greek government and Brussels, but it was not to be. I happen to think the whole ‘EU project’ as it is now is a dishonest mess and that the introduction of the euro was riding for a fall from the off. But that isn’t why I wanted the new set of measures to be shown the door. I don’t mean to sound precious but the fact that the Greeks are now most likely to get the second tranche of their bailout money offends – wait for it – my aesthetic sense. Yes, I know it sounds daft, but it does. Whether I inherited the trait from my German ancestors or whether it was from the Powell’s of South Wales that my genes were thus programmed, but I do like a certain order. If it is a German trait, let me call it Ordnung. But the whole Greek bailout saga is just one complete and bloody mess.
For one thing, you don’t help a country (or an individual in debt by lending it (them) more money. It doesn’t work that way. However much Greece is lent, it will eventually have to be paid back. And anyway, you can bet your bottom dollar that the next wallage of moolah to be handed over won’t go, as officially intended, to ensure the Greek civil servants are paid but will be used to buy back the – worthless – bonds bought over these past few months and ensure those most open to catastrophe in the event of a Greek default get as much of their money back as is humanly possible.
The official theory is – and a rather threadbare theory it is at that – that ‘once the crisis is over’ and ‘Greece is back on its feet’, the Greek economy ‘can then expand’, the books will be balanced, and sooner or later the Greeks will be in a position to pay of their debts. And, so ‘the theory’ goes, the euro project (‘one for all and all for one, especially if that one is France) will be vindicated and it will be one in the eye for all those nasty cynics. Well, stuff that. All that has happened is that the day of doom has been postponed, people who should not be carrying the can in Greece will carry even more of the can, and a bad situation will get even worse. In the meantime, those in Greece partly responsible for this mess simply because they do not pay their taxes will get off scot-free and most probably get even more prosperous. And, as I say, that offends my aesthetic sense.
Furthermore, exactly why does everyone think that the meaures taken will not in time lead to trouble. Those Greeks at the bottom of the pile pay taxes. Those at the top don’t. Does anyone really think that increasing the tax burden on already impoverished people while ignoring the tax evasion of those with piles of money will bring about peace and harmony. The cliché is that democracy was born in Greece. But more to the point is that not so long ago, the army organised a coup and ruled for several years. Is it really impossible that an army sensitive to the plight of those at the bottom of the pile will not decide that enough is enough, stage a coup and return to the drachma? They would, at a stroke, have popular support, and it would be wrong to imagine that their natural allies are the prosperous folk whose refusal to pay taxes is partly to blame for the mess.

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