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Donkin's World: It Doesn't Matter Hari

"Journalism used to be about reporting news. Now it is about filling newspapers, or, and this is more troubling, the vast boundaryless expanses of the internet,'' declares Richard Donkin.

Fleet Street died a long time ago and with it the kind of writing and reporting that brought me in to journalism. There are still fine writers and fine reporters out there – I don’t want this to sound like the protestations of an old fart – it is just that some of the most talented people are either wasting their skills on drivel or have simply lost their moral compass.

Take Johann Hari, a political journalist who writes mainly for The Independent. It would be journalese to prefix his name with “award-winning”, a kind of shorthand that means “this guy’s good” for those who cannot be bothered to read his work or are incapable of making their own judgement.

Hari has been caught out, presenting quotes from the published works of people featured in his articles as if they were part of his interview. It’s probably one of the more egregious examples of what some in my trade have come to describe as “churnalism”. This word was contrived to expose the practice of some journalists of recycling press releases.

It is lazy journalism but understandable in a media that has become as bloated and consumerist as the society it serves. Journalism used to be about reporting news. Now it is about filling newspapers, or, and this is more troubling, the vast boundaryless expanses of the internet.

But the internet has its uses. The collective wit and wisdom of the crowd is beating journalists at their own game. Once we would have had to wait a fortnight for the best efforts of Private Eye to satirise Hari’s brand of plagiarism.

Today we have Twitter that soon began churning out Hari interview spoofs, the best of which were collated by the newspapers for our breakfast table entertainment. There has to be some irony here. http://twitter.com/#!/search/%23interviewsbyhari

My favourite was this one: “So, Sooty,” I demanded, “is it true you sold guns to Saddam in the 1980s?” His silence was deafening. The Eye, no doubt, will quickly latch on to this trend but it is no longer making the running.

I would like to believe that Hari’s is an unforgivable sin but his editor Simon Kelner has already come to his side, apparently supporting Hari’s defence that he was expressing interviewees’ written words to articulate their ideas. Without using proper attribution? Come on Hari, that won’t wash.

What kind of message does it send if Hari’s plagiarism is to be condoned? Possibly one that Kelner has conveyed already in appointing Jemima Khan as an associate editor - celebrity is everything. Hari’s work now is sure to be a hot topic of conversation around the weekend debating tables of London’s chattering classes. In such circles anything can be condoned of a bus-driver's son with a double-first from Cambridge who happens to be gay. No wonder he has attracted the warm endorsement of media royalty, Christopher Hitchens and Julie Burchill, whose careers have been fueled on controversy.

Hari has earned infamy but in the big cities where media power resides, infamy and its direct opposite translate to one and the same – fame - and fame sells.

Sadly we live in a world where what sells is the only thing that matters and what matters no longer sells very well.

It is a world besotted by trivia. I groaned when I noticed a snippet of tennis “news” in today’s Daily Telegraph that mentioned Andy Murray’s mum Judy’s crush on his next opponent, 29-year-old Feliciano Lopez who she had likened to a “Roman god”. Cue a flurry of 1,000-word columns from the bitcherati (they love to make up words) whose admirable writing skills are wasted daily on ephemeral compendiums of junk, this time about the fixation of older women on toy boys. First the trawl for “examples” on the internet then the creative but splenetic commentary sewing the stuff together with a couturier’s craft. But all we’re left with is empty clothing.

This is journalism today. It’s why I no longer call myself a journalist and why for the first time in my life I’m thinking of cancelling my daily newspaper. I won’t, of course. I’m still fool enough to think that a newspaper is important to our society. I was going to say as important as milk on the doorstep but we don’t have that any more.

The most worrying aspect of Hari’s plagiarism is that it took so long to be uncovered. It demonstrates how little we read today. We’ve become a soundbite society, all wrapped up in 140 characters a chunk and celebrated on YouTube. No, this won't lead to his downfall.

Indeed it might lead to a new kind of journalism. If it's OK to shovel in to a feature extracts from an interviewee's published works and quoted comments, perhaps Hari could be commissioned to engineer interviews with historical figures such as John F Kennedy, Albert Einstein and William Shakespeare. He could go even further and create things that he believes they would have liked to have said. But didn't Oscar Wilde get there first when he complemented the artist James Whistler on a particularly witty remark. "I wish I'd said that," said Wilde and Whistler replied: "You will Oscar, you will."

Postscript: It looks as if Newsweek got there first with Tina Brown's feature on Princess Diana at 50. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=10735191

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