The tweeters were all of a flutter this week as it emerged that Independent journalist Johann Hari had used more than the usual amount of editorial license in some of his interviews.
Nothing he wrote was actually untrue – he accurately communicated the thoughts and ideas of the subjects in question – it was just that those thoughts and ideas hadn’t always been presented to him in the way they appeared in his articles. People started to notice that sections of his articles bore a striking resemblance to other interviews the subjects had been part of, or even to their books.
No interview, of course, is a verbatim record of the encounter in question. People speak in fragmentary sentences interrupting, repeating and correcting themselves, and scattering a good number of umms, errs and y’knows along the way. The job of the interviewer when writing the encounter up is to take this jumble of conversational threads and knit them into something coherent and functional.
It is a tricky task, as the resultant piece must be readable and lucid while remaining an accurate record of the occasion. Hari seems to have prioritised the former at the expense of the latter.
So what’s the big deal? If the people concerned actually said the things attributed to them, does it really matter that they didn’t say them on the date and to the person in question? In the Washington Post (yes, the story reached that far), Elizabeth Flock put it like this:
“Let’s say you once interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. for a story, but he wasn’t all that articulate about his hopes for racial reconciliation. So you decided to just quote his ‘I have a dream’ line in the story and pretend he told it to you. That’s fine, right?”
The twitter-sphere responded with the hashtag #interviewsbyhari gleefully suggesting dozens of other examples:
“Let there be what?” I asked my interviewee. “Light,” He repeated. @seamusmccauley
I struggled to comprehend Mr Bruno. Frank clearly sensed this as he queried: “You know what I mean, Hari?” @isaby
While for many this episode provided a long-awaited chance to crow over the misfortunes of a man who has made his share of enemies, we should beware of casting the first stone. Which of us hasn’t embellished an anecdote to make it funnier, played up our own role in resolving a crisis, or put words into someone else’s mouth in an attempt to convey what they meant to say, not what they actually did?
We editorialise our own lives all the time, revealing some aspects, concealing others, and enhancing yet more. Whether it be on a job application, over a meal with friends or in a prayer meeting, we constantly make choices about which bits of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to mention.
Intentionally or not, we have all made similar errors of judgement, and are not always quick to correct any minor misunderstandings or false impressions. Before celebrating the downfall of another, we would do well to remember the short shrift Jesus gave to those who “look at the speck of sawdust in [their] brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in [their] own”.
As one of my colleagues said to me this morning, “Jesus did say some very inconvenient things.” And yes, that’s a direct quote.
This article was written for the Evangelical Alliance’s Friday Night Theology column.