Hari’s Game

by Hackwatch
Private Eye
23 March - 3 April 2003
Number 1076; page 5

Johann Hari, The Independent’s new columnist, has been bemoaning the “corrosive acid of distrust” in public life. “We in the press are least trusted of all British institutions,” observes the 24-year-old pundit, who was shortlisted as young journalist of the year in this week’s British Press Awards. “The number of my friends who assume that we just make up stories – even at reputable paper such as The Independent is startling.”

Not that startling, surely, especially if they are regular readers of Johann Hari. He began his career as the voice of yoof in July 2001, just after finishing his university finals, by boasting about his drug habit to the readers of the New Statesman. “Another Cambridge May Week has rolled around,” he wrote, “and I, like half of Cambridge, celebrated with a few tabs of Ecstasy and the odd line of coke.”

Fleet Street editors were thrilled: the Sindie reprinted his piece, and a few months later the London Evening Standard invited him to do an encore. Hari obliged by defending “the Ecstasy I know and love” against the tut-tutting of the Home Secretary. “Clearly, David Blunket needs to be informed of the basic facts about one of Britain’s most popular drugs,” he raved. “If he fancies tying one, I’ll be happy to take him to a decent club. But in the meantime, I’ll try to explain why so many of use the drug weekly.” He duly went on to describe the sensation of being “loved up” and “at one.”

In fact, however, the young rascal had never taken Ecstasy: before writing his lyrical account he had to phone a friend and ask what it felt like! And now, less than two years later, he has already forgotten his brief incarnation as an e-fiend. “Ecstasy defined the generation of my older siblings, not mine,” he wrote in the Indie two weeks ago. “Ecstasy is out.”

No matter: it served its purpose, and Hari was on a roll. A couple of weeks after his original ecstasy article he went to Genoa for the G8 summit and sent a vivid dispatch to the New Statesman about the death of anti-globalisation protester Carlo Giuliani. “On Friday, before the real business of the summit began, the police shot him twice in the head and then ran him over,” he reported. “They killed him, even though he carried no weapon other than a fire extinguisher. When I saw the scene, I couldn’t believe so much blood had poured from just one body.” Yet, as several witnesses can attest, Hari wasn’t there, having hailed a taxi to escape the scene some time before Giuliani was killed.

Now that he’s a full-fledged pundit, Hari has been pontificating in the Indie and on Newsnight about his support for a war against Saddam Hussein. The Iraqis want to be bombed, he says, even if more than 100,000 of them die: he knows, because he’s been there and talked to them. “Last October, I spent a month as a journalist seeing the reality of life under Saddam Hussein,” he wrote on 10 January. “Most of the Iraqi people I encountered…. Would hug me and offer coded support.”

Actually, Hari spent two weeks in Iraq as a holidaymaker, on a package tour visiting ancient archaeological sites. He wrote about the trip in the Guardian on 3 December last year. In that article, however, he complained that it was “very difficult to get Iraqis to express their feelings… I blundered about asking fairly direct political questions, which caused people to recoil in horror… Many people asked quite genuinely ‘why your government hates the Arab world’.” He also met many “dignified, stoical Iraqis” and “doe-eyed children” who complained about western sanctions.

The only person who eventually offered “coded support” was an old man in a souk who had visited London in the 1970s. “After much oblique prodding, he said warmly, ‘I admire British democracy and freedom.’ He held my gaze. ’I very much admire them.’ He added, ’We do not know what is coming. The news we receive here is… unclear.’”

And, er, that’s it. Yet in an Indie column on 15 February, Hari claimed that people in Iraq asked him: “When will you come to free us? When will we be able to live again?” Since these pleas from Iraqis yearning for the bombers to arrive must surely have struck him as newsworthy, why didn’t he mention them in his original Guardian feature?

Answer comes there none. The only question troubling this journalistic wunderkind at the moment is why on earth British newspaper readers suspect that hacks “just make up stories.”