L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

31 July 2007 Blog Home : July 2007 : Permalink

Legal Threats + Bloggers = Journalist - Reputation

And as the well known saying goes "when you are in a hole stop digging". Johann Hari however doesn't seem to think that threatening bloggers with m'learned friends is a sign of weakness but rather prefers to justify it by saying that he only sues sites that he has once written for. Either that, or he doesn't like being called a tabloid journalist. In his rebuttal of other people's criticism of his shoddy review he writes:

Oliver also refers to the fact that I had to get the Indie lawyers to contact the blog Harry's Place to take down an allegation against me. I have never threatened legal action against anyone before - indeed, as regular readers know, I link all the time to people who criticise me, often very severely - but the site made a really outrageous accusation against me, on a par with suggesting I indulge in credit card fraud, or mug grannies, and just as preposterous, so I felt I had no choice really. I've always defended the libel laws if they are used properly - to prevent people saying outrageously, howlingly untrue things about you. Normally I let weird things that are said about me go - life's too short, the truth will out etc - but it's a website I've written for in the past, so I thought I ought to make a rare legal interjection to put the record straight. I'm glad the site accepts that what they said has abolutely no evidence for it at all, and had to be withdrawn immediately.

Even if we ignoring the initial post (archived here for prosterity) and what it may have said and simply concentrate on the replacement text this seems to be a rather odd interpretation of the words written. The replacement post says (in full):

Sadly Johann Hari is threatening me with defamation proceedings. He takes the view that this piece, and the comments which follow it, contain defamatory material.

Practically speaking, I am neither able, nor prepared, to hand edit articles and comments in order to meet threats of legal action. Therefore I have chosen to take the article down and have removed all comments.

I have occasionally closed quotes or removed articles when asked to correct an inaccurate statement about a person on this blog. I think that is the proper and responsible thing for a person who has a blog to do.

I am particularly sad that the first threat of legal action should have come from a journalist, and from a person who I regard as a friend.

I am not proposing to discuss this issue further.

It is odd to see how this response is equated in Hari's mind to "I'm glad the site accepts that what they said has abolutely no evidence for it at all, and had to be withdrawn immediately." To any neutral obsever (e.g. me) there is no line anywhere that says that the original auther accepts he wrote something with no evidence and it is clear that the post was only withdrawn because the author figures he has better things to spend hsi time and money on than deal with trying to defend against a defamation suit.

However, David T does have a problem (as explains in a follow up post at HP) because having removed the words he then has a problem:

Let us say that I wanted to argue that I did not, in fact make "a really outrageous accusation against me, on a par with suggesting I indulge in credit card fraud, or mug grannies".

In order to do this, I would have to repeat the two lines to which Johann (in my view, unreasonably) objects, and therefore risk the waste of time and money associated with litigation.

So, as you can see, I am handicapped.

Well I'm happy to assist here, and Johann can sic his legal eagles on me if he wishes. I'll note that what will happen here is a lot more adverse publicity that he most likely wouldn't have got if he'd decided to eschew the legal approach.

In the initial article, now withdrawn but, as noted above, preserved for posterity thanks to Mr Google, there is an extensive quote from Nick Cohen's criticism of the review. This quote does not appear to be something that Hari wishes to get the lawyers involved with (becasue if he did he would either have mentioned it himself or Nick Cohen would have) so I'm fairly sure that this is OK to copy:

...When presented with an uncomfortable argument, serious editors usually invite a critic to present a clear account of what is said, correct mistakes, and argue with interpretations and extrapolations. The trouble with looking for a critic in the British media is that normal intellectual standards are collapsing over here. At this writing, even the once-respected BBC has admitted to fixing competitions and deceiving its viewers as a matter of routine. The behavior of much of the press is worse, and if you trawl what used to be called Fleet Street for a reviewer you run the risk of picking up Johann Hari, who from almost the first paragraph of his piece in your last issue, misleads your readers.

I was, I am told, brought up by left-wing parents who raised me “to see Orwell in Catalonia as his moral archetype.” Their indoctrination, apparently, makes me confront all great issues with the question, “what would Orwell do?”

As if.

I make clear in the introduction that my parents were ex-communists who remained conventional members of the late-twentieth-century left. They didn’t “raise me” to see Orwell as “a moral archetype.” Indeed, I’m not sure that they ever read Orwell themselves. If they had, they would have hated his argument about totalitarianism because, as I say again in the introduction, they did not see a moral equivalence between communism and Nazism. For my part, it’s true that I did start Homage to Catalonia a few years ago, but to my shame I never finished it. I would no more ask “What would Orwell do?” than I would “What would Jesus do?”

Hari makes up these stories about my mother and father solely so he can declare that I am an “ostentatious claimant of George Orwell’s mantle.” This would indeed be a preposterously self-aggrandizing claim to make if I had ever made it. But I haven’t, in print or in private.

Having misrepresented my parents, he goes on to misrepresent my book.

So let me do a little summarising here.

  1. Hari writes "[Cohen] was raised to see Orwell in Catalonia as his moral archetype - the socialist bearing a pack and going abroad to fight fascists. If the pro-war left had any central spine to its thought, it was the unexpected question - what would Orwell do?" and that he is the "ostentatious claimer of George Orwell's mantle"
  2. Cohen quite baldly states that this is neither what he wrote in the book nor what he has ever said either in public or private.
  3. This statement may or may not be true but David T's comments are based on this analysis. 
  4. David T states that there is one conclusion that can be drawn from the fact that Hari claims Cohen wrote or said things that he didn't. This conclusion is that Hari has been economical with the truth in a manner commensurate with those bastions of journalistic integrity, the hacks employed by the tabloids.
  5. He then logically extends this by remarking that if you aren't a tabloid hack then clearly a reputation for behaving like one is a bad thing.
I know that tabloid hacks are the lowest of the low, down there with kiddie fiddlers and second hand car salesmen, but the conclusion doesn't sound worse than something that might be one of the "weird things that are said about me[Hari]" i.e. the sorts of things he normally "let['s] go - life's too short, the truth will out etc"

All in all it seems that Johann Hari is making a mountain out of a molehill and thereby ensuring that his reputation amongst bloggers and their readers is rather worse than it would be if he were treat being called a tabloid journalist as the sort of criticism that he is willing to link to. For example I should note that Drink Soaked Trots has found other evidence that he "does indeed make things up and is a shoddy hack". Had Hari not sicced the lawyers on to Harry's place, that post would not have been written and I would not have know about these alleged blots on the Hari escutchon...