Wednesday 29 June 2011

JOHANN HARI: I'm sorry you didn't understand

Yesterday on Twitter I was accused of plagiarism. I deliberately mention Twitter here to highlight the fact that these accusations were confined to a single medium. It's not like real people found out about my plagiarism, just those damn Twitterers. The same thing happened to Jan Moir, Melanie Philips and my good pal Tanya Gold - twitter mobs. Baying hoardes of - ugh! - real people daring to criticise the good work of journalists.

This accusation is totally false – but I have reflected seriously on this and do have something to apologise for. This may seem contradictory and the fact that need to apologise would appear to undermine the first five words of that sentence. But no, it is not contradictory. As the Roman satirist Juvenal once told me over breakfast in Tuscany, "Peace visits not the guilty mind" - write and be damned, I say.

When you interview a writer – especially but not only when English isn't their first language – they will sometimes make a point that sounds clear when you hear it, but turns out to be incomprehensible or confusing on the page. In those instances, I have sometimes substituted a passage they have written or said more clearly elsewhere on the same subject for what they said to me, so the reader understands their point as clearly as possible. This is because readers are idiots and can't handle the truth, as Jack Nicholson once pointed out to me. Readers cannot be trusted to understand the words of the very famous or the highly intelligent because readers are neither famous or intelligent. Would you put Noam Chomsky in a room with Colin from Asda? Of course you wouldn't.

The quotes are always accurate representations of their words, inserted into the interview at the point where they made substantively the same argument using similar but less clear language. I did not and never have taken words from another context and twisted them to mean something different – I only ever substituted clearer expressions of the same sentiment, so the reader knew what the subject thinks in the most comprehensible possible words. Really this is the same point as above. I may have won the Orwell Prize but, by gods, I'm not Orwell. I remember him lecturing me once on never using words where they were not needed or unnecessary figures of speech. "George", I said to him, casually swilling my '68 Chianti, "I won your prize. You don't tell me how to write"

I stress: I have only ever done this where the interviewee was making the same or similar point to me in the interview that they had already made more clearly in print. Where I described their body language, for example, I was describing their body language as they made the same point that I was quoting – I was simply using the clearer words from their writing so the reader understood the point best. Good lord, plebs, why is this hard to understand? Yes, yes, I know you're not complaining about a lack of interminable description of body language and the inclusion of 'ums' and 'ahs' but I think it helps to reduce the argument ad absurdio. Remember - readers=idiots. They don't know what they want. "Give us the truth!", they shriek, but when I give them a higher, more beautiful truth they're not happy. There's no pleasing some people.

This is one reason - restated several times - why none of my interviewees have, to my knowledge, ever said they were misquoted in my nearly 10 years with The Independent, even when they feel I've been very critical of them in other ways. My critics have focused on my interview with Gideon Levy as supposedly distorted. So what does Gideon Levy say? These are his words: "I stand behind everything that was published in the interview. It was a totally accurate representation of my thoughts and words." I'd like to stress here the relative importance of my subjects of my 'intellectual portraits' with the profane voices of the masses. They are more important than some morose legion of unseen readers. Have readers complained? Yes, of course. Does it matter? No. Thankfully, I'd only get in real trouble if the interviewees complained. It's easy to dismiss the chaotic shrilling of a murder of twitterers.

None of this fits any definition of plagiarism. Plagiarism is presenting somebody else's intellectual work as your own – whereas I have always accurately attributed the ideas of (say) Gideon Levy to Gideon Levy. Nor can it be regarded as churnalism. Churnalism is a journalist taking a press release and mindlessly recycling it. It is not a journalist carefully reading over all a writer's books and quoting it to best reflect how they think. Anyway, look, bloggers; terms like 'plagiarism' and 'churnalism' are the words of journalists, of real writers. They are not yours to bandy around like some free WordPress template. I decide what's plagiarism here, thank you very much, and this is not it. Get back to complaining about the Daily Mail.

Over the years I have interviewed some people who have messages we desperately need to hear – from Gideon Levy about Israel, to Malalai Joya about Afghanistan, to Gerry Adams about how to end a sectarian war. Just this week, I interviewed one of the bravest people I have ever met – Shirin Ebadi. I would hate people to not hear these vital messages because they incorrectly think the subjects have been falsely quoted. Every word I have quoted has been said by my interviewee, and accurately represents their view. I hope people continue to hear their words. Imagine if I weren't here to provide this divine passage between mere mortals and the denizens of intellectual celebrity? What cost an interview that the subject was not completely happy with? Let us be clear; the squarking criticism of ten thousand bloggers will never outweigh the importance of me keeping Gideon Levy happy.

You may remember in the distant past, somewhere near the beginning of this rambling exercise in self-justification and education of the common man, that I said I had something to apologise for. My editor tells me I need to say sorry for something, whatever it is, so: I'm sorry. OK? Really you should be apologising to me for causing this inconvenience in the first place, but needs must.

I can only hope this has been an edifying experience for the unclean, intellectually barren wastelands of Twitter, and I am sorry for not providing it sooner.

Friday 3 June 2011

Times Higher Education special

In a new series of posts, I will be publishing round-ups from the web on the subject of something completely unrelated to higher education. They'll probably be about cats or robots or something.

Because I won't be posting anything related to higher education, I assume that publications such as The Times Higher Education supplement will have no problem with me titling my new series 'THE Times Higher Education'.

You may think, 'that's absurd - all these posts about robots and cats have nothing to do with higher education! Moreover, there's already a publication called Times Higher Education; this is arrogant and confusing'.

Well, you're wrong.

We write about different things (they write about schools and stuff while I write about robotic cats) so nobody will be confused. And it's easy enough to randomly add together perfectly common words like 'times' and 'education' - lots of people have probably done it. You can't claim ownership of words in everyday use, for heaven's sake!

Plus, I have a higher readership than them so it's pointless to disagree with me. And I'm only publishing these THE posts on p. 52 of the printed version of The Quail anyway, so who cares.

Next week in THE Times Higher Education: Cyborg newts

See also: The Times Higher Education Correspondence at THE real Bloggerheads