Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Biggest Aspidistra in the World

Truth will out. At least it will if you're a habitual liar; lies built upon lies are almost impossible to keep balanced forever. Like many habitual liars, Johann Hari spent months crafting new inventions in an attempt to escape the consequences of those he'd made before. Now he says he's truly sorry. But should we believe him?

In a situation like this, many people consider it churlish to withhold forgiveness in response to a proffered apology. There is a suggestion that those who refuse to engage must be revelling in some kind of malicious glee. It is of course possible that this is true of some, but I would counter that there can be an equal degree of self-interest in rushing to say that the apology is accepted, that everything is alright now. It makes us feel magnanimous, but it isn't necessarily an honest or a wise response.

The real problem with forgiveness is that it is only a response; it cannot solve the underlying problem on its own. To mean anything, it has to be a response to genuine contrition, and contrition is not possible without a full understanding of what has been done wrong. Hari now says that he regrets altering Wikipedia pages to slander people he disliked because he would have been sad if they had done that to him. Not because, you know, it's wrong, never mind that it's professionally unacceptable. This is certainly an improvement on denying that he ever made those alterations, but it falls considerably short of the level of moral understanding required of a journalist who frequently focuses on the moral responsibilities of others. If Hari cannot improve on this, it doesn't matter whether or not his fans still believe in him – he simply will not have the authority to speak as he wishes to.

So what are Hari's options? Journalism school is a good start. There's no doubt he's already a good writer, but one hopes that he might learn something about ethics – or at least how to craft a more believable story next time he falls prey to temptation. The usual approach to moral gaffes like this is to disappear for a few years and then return as a reformed character, Portillo-like, complete with a book full of painful confessions emphasising one's noble sense of guilt. The journalist becomes the story, his abuses the sensation – and, of course, he still profits, though if he's smart and wants long term success he'll make a hefty donation to charity. Hari is a good candidate for this, because he's young and because he can produce elegant prose. But that opens up another question – why does he want to return to journalism at all?

I cannot be the only person to have observed that Hari's real success has been as a writer of fiction. The problem was that he was passing it off as fact. If he ceased to pepper it with pieces of other people's work (something editors will be very wary of in future) and if he constrained his cruel characters to speaking within the confines of a novel, he might give us something truly compelling. Hari's tragedy (such as it is) centres no on his fall from grace but on his failure, from the outset, to speak with his own voice. By hiding behind pilfered material he has belittled his own talent. His challenge, now, must be to show us what he is capable of.

The return of an Orwell prize already destined to be taken from him is a poor gesture on Hari's part. Journalism is about more than good writing – it is about social awareness, honesty, and a certain fastidiousness, at none of which Hari excels. His pursuit of it at this stage suggests a childish desire to be a somebody rather than the intelligent realisation of his talents. If he really wants to be taken seriously again, he needs to take a different path.

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