The resurrection of Johann Hari proves that 'cancellation' is bullsh*t

Lied? Just rebrand as a mental health expert and wang on about wellness.

Hi, it’s me, your boy, Mr Anger-And-Scorn, here to provide a history lesson on a man called Johann Hari and how he’s passed through the media learning only one thing: Doing a geographical can save you. He crashed in Britain, so he headed to America.

Johann Hari has been a star twice — once as the enfant really-fucking-terrible of The Independent and now as an international media star whose schtick is telling you what’s really going on with depression, anxiety and all that bad stuff. In both modes, Hari has harnessed a high opinion of himself coupled with a disingenuous attitude to criticism.

Now let’s jump back to the dim and distant days of… the year 2000. Jen married Brad, Napster made Lars Ulrich very, very angry, and *NSYNC released No Strings Attached and… Johann Hari was named joint winner of The Times Student News Journalist of the Year award for work published in one of Cambridge’s student newspapers Varsity.

What followed was a vertiginous rise — Hari went to The New Statesman before being signed up to write two weekly columns for The Independent. His first book God Save the Queen? was published in 2002. In 2003, at the Press Gazette Awards, he snagged the Young Journalist of the Year award. His work was published and syndicated across the world and Hari was unquestionably a star. He became a critic for BBC Two’s Review Show and book critic for Slate and was so ubiquitous that even the Daily Telegraph gave him plaudits as one of the most influential left-wing people in Britain.

In 2008, he won The Orwell Prize for political writing. The pieces that secured him the award included features on France’s ‘secret war’ in the Central African Republic, right-wing politicians in the US, and an exploration of the multiculturalism and women. Given free rein by his editors at The Independent, Hari did what many columnists do and found himself to be an expert in almost everything.

The crash when it came was pretty spectacular. In 2011, accusations of plagiarism exploded across blogs and social media. A group of bloggers called the Deterritorial Support Group along with then editor of Yahoo! Ireland, Brian Whelan (most recently content director at Joe) showed that many of Hari’s interviews were based on material from previously published interviews and books by interview subjects.

Hari defended himself at first, denying he’d done anything wrong and saying that the unattributed quotes were merely more polished versions of things interviewees had said to him and that he hadn’t passed off someone else’s work as his own. Eventually, though, he had to concede that what he’d done had been wrong. In a 2018 interview with The Guardian he said:

“Just to outline events, because some people won’t know, I did two things that were completely wrong.

One is that when I interviewed people I often presented things that had been said to other journalists or had been written in books as if they had been said to me, which was not truthful.

The second is that I edited Wikipedia entries regarding other people under a pseudonym and, sometimes, in very nasty ways.

Following the plagiarism revelations, Hari was suspended for two months from The Independent and resigned shortly afterwards. The council that administers the Orwell Prize conducted an investigation and ruled that Hari should return the prize. He offered to repay the £2000 prize but Political Quarterly which had paid the money requested he make donations to English PEN. This was to have been paid in instalments once he returned to The Independent. English PEN confirmed the arrangement in a press release. Hari never returned to The Independent.

In parallel with the plagiarism scandal, a second controversy spun up when it became clear that Hari had been systematically smearing ‘enemies’ on Wikipedia with edits made under then name David Rose. In July 2011, The Spectator writer Nick Cohen used that publication’s Diary to make it clear that Rose was Hari:

Because Wikipedia lets contributors write anonymously, it cannot tell its readers if ‘David r’ is Johann Hari, or a fan of Hari’s with detailed knowledge of his life, or someone with an interest in promoting his career. But just as the effect of Hari’s phoney interviews was to make it seem that he elicited quotes no other journalist could match, so the effect of Wikipedia is to make him seem one of the essential writers of our times. In truth he disgraced himself because he was an ambitious man who might have been a good journalist, but yearned to be a great one, and so tried to summon a talent he could never possess by bragging and scheming.

Two months later, in September 2011, Hari apologised publicly for the Wikipedia edits and the plagiarism in an Independent column. It is a classic of self-justification:

I did two wrong and stupid things. The first concerns some people I interviewed over the years. When I recorded and typed up any conversation, I found something odd: points that sounded perfectly clear when you heard them being spoken often don’t translate to the page. They can be quite confusing and unclear. When this happened, if the interviewee had made a similar point in their writing (or, much more rarely, when they were speaking to somebody else), I would use those words instead. At the time, I justified this to myself by saying I was giving the clearest possible representation of what the interviewee thought, in their most considered and clear words.

But I was wrong. An interview isn’t an X-ray of a person’s finest thoughts. It’s a report of an encounter. If you want to add material from elsewhere, there are conventions that let you do that. You write “she has said,” instead of “she says”. You write “as she told the New York Times” or “as she says in her book”, instead of just replacing the garbled chunk she said with the clear chunk she wrote or said elsewhere. If I had asked the many experienced colleagues I have here at The Independent – who have always been very generous with their time – they would have told me that, and they would have explained just how wrong I was. It was arrogant and stupid of me not to ask.

Hari should never have been writing for a national newspaper if he did not understand this basic principle of interviewing. Pretending he didn’t realise what he was doing was wrong pushed credulity to breaking point like a Stretched Armstrong pulled out of shape by a malevolent child until his gooey guts spill out.

His apology for the Wikipedia imbroglio was even worse:

The other thing I did wrong was that several years ago I started to notice some things I didn’t like in the Wikipedia entry about me, so I took them out. To do that, I created a user-name that wasn’t my own. Using that user-name, I continued to edit my own Wikipedia entry and some other people’s too. I took out nasty passages about people I admire – like Polly Toynbee, George Monbiot, Deborah Orr and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I factually corrected some other entries about other people. But in a few instances, I edited the entries of people I had clashed with in ways that were juvenile or malicious: I called one of them anti-Semitic and homophobic, and the other a drunk. I am mortified to have done this, because it breaches the most basic ethical rule: don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. I apologise to the latter group unreservedly and totally.

He was mortified. He wrote as if a separate individual also called Johan Hari had been the one skulking behind the David Rose name.

In January 2012, Hari announced he was writing a book on the war on drugs. It emerged as Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. His rebirth was happening and it was happening quickly.

By 2015, Hari had found his way into the TED industrial complex with a talk called ‘Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong”. It has been viewed over 7.7 million times, with a more recent talk racking up 4.2 million views. Spoiler though, everything Hari thinks he thinks you know about addiction being wrong is… largely wrong and that’s been comprehensively demonstrated by a lot of people.

Hari argues that addictions are a response to experiences and a lack of positive, supportive relationships, rather than a result of a biological need or neurological imbalances. That’s quite a dangerous concept if and when it encourages people who are on medication to help with their mental illnesses decide to drop the pills on the say-so of Mr Johann Hari, not M.D.

Hari’s sales pitch on depression is like Lyle Lanley’s grift on the people of Springfield, only when his monorail crashes, it’s people with serious mental health issues experiencing the impact while Johann glides along happily.

In 2018, the TED talk success spawned a book, Lost Connections, which Hari said was inspired by childhood issues, the ‘career crisis’, and his own experiences with antidepressants and psychotherapy.

The book was lauded and blurbed by celebrities including Elton John — a friend of Hari’s — Hilary Clinton, and then Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. Dean Burnett, the neuroscientist and Guardian writer quickly balanced out the good reviews with a stinging dissection of the first published extract. He suggested — correctly — that Hari was reporting common scientific knowledge as his own new and ‘striking’ discoveries.

My friend Tyron Wilson read the whole book and laid out its flaws in a comprehensive Twitter thread:

Dr Stewart Ritchie, a lecturer at the Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London, took Hari’s use of studies apart (again on Twitter):

Reader, the book remains as published and Hari’s second TED talk was based heavily on material from it.

In an excoriating piece for The Quietus, Joe Muggs outlined part of the behind-the-scenes story of Hari’s revival:

His former colleague Suzanne Moore recalls that she'd tried to help him when he hit rock bottom after the extent of his plagiarism and machinations: she invited him to stay with her family, and offered advice and counsel, including to give up journalism and take up teaching or something similar.

"But then," she says "all those rich people like Elton John came and rescued him... and now this [his new fame]!" With the likes of Elton John and Russell Brand on board to waft his words in front of millions of eyes on clouds of expensively perfumed hot air, his ability to bullshit to the masses was guaranteed.

[Hari] cultivated his anti-establishment credentials, too, of course: if "RustyRockets" wasn't rebellious enough, he inveigled his way into the affections of Noam Chomsky, someone he'd previously theatrically "feuded" with, getting on board… Lo and behold, gushing quotes from Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Glenn Greenwald, as well as Sir Elton, appeared on Chasing The Scream, his comeback book about addiction.

I know what the criticism of this newsletter edition will be — “It was a long time ago, Mic, and he’s apologised.” But he hasn’t changed. His ego remains as pulsatingly undimmed and the forensic deconstructions of his book make it abundantly clear that he did not go off and learn the basics of journalistic enterprise. He’s still twisting facts to fit his thesis, still misusing interview quotes and spinning sources.

Hari is a one-man representation of the ultimate failings of modern media. While many others have written better, smarter books rooted in actual facts, Hari with his celebrity endorsements and flashy way with fakery rides above them. He belongs in the constellation of contempt that also includes Nigel Farage, Alex Jones and David Icke. They are all part of a spectrum of people who only loosely intersect with reality, and yet they continue to receive copious media coverage. Facts aren’t as fun, you see.

Johann Hari could have found redemption, but he didn’t want to put the work in. So he mastered the art of the suck-up and slid into the TED world, where a polished ‘fact’ and a tasty ‘takeaway’ for the tech bros and hippies are more appealing than the messy tangles of reality. But I might be wrong. Perhaps David Rose can put me right.