Johann Hari busted for the wrong thing

I won’t pretend otherwise: I found British columnist and PSF-extraordinaire Johann Hari’s fake-quote-fueled disgrace (complete with having to drop the “award-winning” from his CV) especially gratifying.

Busted for plagiarizing other journalists’ work, malicious use of Wikipedia sock-puppets, and generally playing fast-and-loose with the basic rules of journalism, Hari’s been forced to hand back his Orwell Prize, march off to Journalistic Ethics school and step down (appallingly, temporarily) from his perch at The Independent. (Just imagine if journalists in Venezuela faced these kinds of consequences for making shit up!)

To say Johann Hari had it coming is an understatement. Below, I’m reprinting my 2008 rebuttal to some of his embarrassingly bad Venezuela reporting: judge for yourself.

It strikes me that, while we can only be heartened to see hackistry on this scale meet its comeuppance, Hari’s name is being dragged through the mud for all the wrong reasons. Because while attacking your critics on Wikipedia under a pseudonym is certainly tawdry, the sins he’s being held responsible for are relatively minor compared to his wholesale endorsement of a tinpot autocrat’s propaganda fantasies.

In falling hook, line and sinker for the whole panoply of chavista propaganda myths, Hari showed a poverty of the soul that you can’t fix with a couple of semesters in J-School. And The Independent disgraced itself in failing to fact-check the many, evident and grave misstatements of fact in his Venezuela reporting.

My 2008 piece is after the jump:

Johann Hari and the Solidarity Journalist’s Pose

Johann Hari has something to tell you. Something you need to know.

If you are a bit of a lefty, a bit skeptical of mainstream media, the kind of person minded to buy The Independent, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll buy into it. Not so much because of what he’ll tell you, but because of how he’ll tell it to you.

“Psst, amigo,” he’ll whisper, “they’re lying to you. They’re big and powerful and everywhere and they control what you read and they control what you hear on the news and so they control what you think. You can’t trust them, you can’t trust any of what they say. I’m the one you can trust. I’ll give you the real story, the inside scoop that they’re desperate to hide from you.”

That’s the Solidarity Journalist’s Pose. There’s something seductive about it, no question. Mr. Hari promises to lift you out of the ignorance of the grubby masses, to induct you into a select circle of the unspinnable and the wise. And the stakes are high. “The ability of democracy and freedom to spread to poor countries”, he tells you, “may depend on whether we can unscramble these propaganda fictions.”

You don’t want to be a chump, do you?

You don’t want to slow the spread of democracy and freedom to poor countries, do you?

Of course you don’t.

So you’ll go along, not realizing that the conceit is a kind of intellectual snare. That once you accept his framing, you find it much harder to scrutinize his assertions critically. That he’s subtly priming you never to question him on the basis of information you gather elsewhere – lies! That he’s trying to get you to pimp out your opinions on Venezuela entirely to him.

It helps him enormously that you grew up far away – in London, say. Or Chicago. Or Sydney. It makes everything much easier that you don’t know much about Venezuelan history, or politics, or society – and, to be fair, why should you?

You have no reason to raise an eyebrow when he tells you that the United States installed a dictator in Venezuela in order to control our oil all the way back in 1908. If you were Venezuelan, a statement like that would immediately put you on your guard, make you wonder if the author had the slightest clue about what he was talking about. After all, it’s roughly like arguing that foreign agents installed Bill Clinton in power in 1993 in order to control Google.

But, of course, you’re not Venezuelan, so Mr. Hari is confident that you won’t realize just how bizarre a claim he’s making. He understands there’s no reason for you to know that oil wasn’t produced in Venezuela until 1914. He grasps that his readers have no idea who Cipriano Castro was, much less why he might have needed to get on a boat and go to Paris in 1908 thinking he could trust his second-in-command to run the country while he was away.

He figures he’s safe, because you don’t know about any of that stuff. So you’ll assent.

For the same reason, he’s confident that when he tells you that Chávez “increased the share of oil profits taken by the state from a pitiful one per cent to 33 per cent,” you won’t question him. Just the opposite: you’ll shake your head in outrage at the injustice and feel glad that it has now been righted. You won’t suspect that he’s referring to the royalty rates (i.e., taxes on the gross value of oil lifted, not on company profits) that applied to just a handful of projects in the Faja del Orinoco, but that the normal royalty on the bulk of the oil produced in Venezuela before 2001 was 17%.

And Mr. Hari figures you don’t know that even that special, 1% royalty rate for the Faja projects was temporary, designed to offset billions of dollars in capital costs it took to build the massive, high-tech upgraders needed to process the area’s extra-heavy, tar-like crude. He’s betting you don’t realize that while Chávez did raise the normal royalty rate from 17% to 30% in 2001, he simultaneously lowered the oil sector’s income tax from 67% to 50%, leaving the overall tax burden on foreign oil companies largely unchanged.

Anybody who follows the Venezuelan oil industry knows that. But Mr. Hari’s banking on you not knowing it. And, when you think about it, that’s a pretty safe bet.

Mr. Hari knows you want to believe he’s one of the good guys, and misleading you for partisan purposes is what bad guys do. So you won’t suspect Mr. Hari of using the very tactics he viciously attacks the traditional media for using. Paradoxically, the Solidarity Journalist’s Pose doubles back on itself, turning into carte blanche for him to exploit your ignorance to mislead you.

You won’t raise an eyebrow when he says Venezuela’s media is “uncensored and in total opposition” to Chávez. Because, well, you don’t know who Omar Camero is, or who Gustavo Cisneros is, or that Chávez long ago forced their stations to drop their critical coverage with the (in Venezuela, highly credible) threat of refusing to renew their broadcast licenses. He’s guessing you don’t know that Venezuela’s private TV media barons now chum it up with Chávez at Miraflores social events. His claim will strike you as plausible only because you’re unaware of the mad proliferation of propagandistic, unquestioningly sycophantic, state funded TV stations Chávez has created. After all, you don’t live in Venezuela, there’s no reason why acronyms like VTV, ANTV, Vive, Telesur and TVES should mean anything to you.

Mr. Hari will tell you there is no evidence that Chávez ever funded FARC, but he doesn’t mention that nobody (at least nobody sane) is alleging that, because what the files on Reyes’s computers detailed was an ongoing negotiation over a future loan for $300 million, not a fait accompli. He’ll leave you with a strong impression that all this stuff about jungle laptops is an evident farce. Certainly, you won’t learn of the Interpol forensic report on Raul Reyes’s computer files from Mr. Hari.

In fact, there’s a lot that’s interesting about Chávez’s relationship with FARC that you won’t learn from his piece.

You won’t learn of Rodríguez Chacín’s heartfelt exhortation to FARC to “maintain their strength” (who is this Rodríguez Chacín fellow anyway?) You won’t learn that Chávez ascribes to FARC “a bolivarian project that is respected here”. Or that Venezuelan National Guardsmen have recently been arrested in Colombia trying to deliver ammo to FARC. Or that FARC maintains what amounts to a diplomatic mission in Caracas, and that its one-time “ambassador” went as far as to get naturalized Venezuelan and even registered to vote in Venezuelan elections. Or that their highest-profile Colombian political supporter essentially lives in a five-star hotel in Caracas, at the Venezuelan government’s expense, and is Chávez’s point-woman for FARC relations. Or that Venezuelan state media resolutely refuses to refer to FARC’s hostages as “hostages”, preferring FARC’s own bizarre euphemism (“retenidos”, or “retained persons”) instead.

But since he didn’t tell you any of that, you’ll be minded to agree with Mr. Hari that this stuff about Chávez supporting FARC is just a crazy lie, a vile slander, another one of those “propaganda fictions” threatening the spread of democracy and freedom to poor countries.

You’ve been ensnared by the Solidarity Journalist Pose. You will assent. You will dismiss anyone who tries to rebut Mr. Hari’s arguments as obviously – transparently – carrying water for the corporate elite.

The next time you go to a party, you will buttonhole anyone who expresses skepticism about Chávez. You’ll try to “set them straight.” You will explain to them that the US has been trying to get at Venezuela’s oil since 1908, and ask them if they were even aware that, before Chávez, taxes on foreign oil companies were just 1%. You’ll note, in grave tones, how absurd it is that Chávez is accused of authoritarianism even though all the media are uncensored and deeply hostile to him. And you’ll denounce allegations that Chávez has a soft-spot for FARC as an outrageous slur.

You’ll launch into this little rant with a furrowed brow. Perhaps you’ll raise your voice. Certainly you’ll deliver it with the missionary intensity of one sure he’s fighting the good fight. If you are exceptionally unlucky, you’ll unleash your spiel at a party I’m at. Otherwise, it’s likely you’ll leave with that warm feeling inside, that certainty that you are on the right side of history and that, in time, the truth – Mr. Hari’s truth – is bound to impose itself.

And you’ll sleep well.