There may be some amongst you who recall a piece of execrable weekend journalism by Johann Hari entitled ‘The Dark Side of Dubai’. It was published in the Independent in 2009 and caused something of a furore in the UAE blogosphere. Most Dubai-based writers accepted that there were (and are) undeniably a lot of problems with Dubai that deserved to be reported on, and that Hari is a very effective writer, if polemic or propaganda are your cup of tea. However, Hari’s article was deeply flawed as a piece of journalism: lacking balance or perspective and filled with jarring stylistic flourishes, sensationalist hyperbole and rhetorical tropes.*
As well as these flaws, a number of Dubai-based bloggers and writers also observed that Hari’s piece contained a number of implausible anecdotes, conveniently apt quotations and exaggerations. Few people were willing to suggest outright fabrication given Hari’s status in the world of journalism, but nagging doubts have stayed with me since then. I am therefore very glad to see that Hari has been caught out recently over his use of quotations and is now facing some very awkward questions over his journalistic conduct.**
I am fully supportive of free speech and the media’s right to investigate; there is certainly plenty about Dubai that can and should be written about. However, if a journalist can actually be bothered, there is more than enough interesting subject matter out there without having to resort to lazy caricature, sensationalism and outright fabrication. It is a pretty damning indictment of the journalistic profession that there have been some journalists lining up to defend Hari’s transgressions and that his rhetorical style has been rewarded with the Orwell Prize for Journalism, particularly given Orwell’s own attitude to language (my emphases):
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.
Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin, where it belongs.
Hari has sought to defend his practice but the fact remains that he has been caught out presenting a false picture to his readers to achieve a rhetorical aim. By presenting these quotes with his own dramatised context and tone, he has shown a disregard for accuracy and truth that calls into question the convenient anecdotes and quotes he has previously presented as fact. The only reason that he has been caught out in this instance is because the quotations have been from famous or prominent individuals: he can be even more cavalier with quotes and events that are below the radar and impossible to properly verify.
I am reminded of something Albert Einstein once said to me, as we had lunch together at a charming Bistro in Penge. He put down his glass of Merlot, fixed me with his gaze and said: “Anyone who doesn’t take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones either”.