Thursday, September 15, 2011

'Harigate', Journalism And The Gift Of Reincarnation

DG co-editor Steven Maclean on 'Harigate' and journalism's nepotistic handicap.

When 'Harigate' first broke I was gutted. For a few years Johann Hari had been an inspiration to me for several reasons. First of all, I share many of his political positions, so was almost always onboard with the campaigns he championed. As well as that, despite having never met him, I liked him as a person and felt we had several similarities and traits in common, many of which I discerned from an interview he gave after receiving his now returned Orwell Prize. But most of all, Hari gave me hope. As a young man trying to forge a path into the world of journalism I saw Hari as a break from the norm, and a reminder that if you have talent, you can make it even if you aren't rich or well-connected.

The journalism industry is currently experiencing something of a 'perfect storm'. On top of the impact of the global economic crisis, the decline of print has been helped along by the emergence of new online media and free papers. Rather than increase opportunities, these new formats have led to less jobs - or less paid jobs - to go around. Media publications can't charge as much for advertising in the infinity of cyberspace as they could for the highly sought exclusivity of their ink and paper, meaning less money available with which to pay journalists. The Internet has also allowed anybody and everybody to set up their own independent publications - like this one - and the explosion of the blogosphere means more people are trying their hands at writing for an audience than ever before, all providing more competition for established publications to compete with. 

While the journalism industry stagnates, the trend in blogging and increased access to other media tools like YouTube and Final Cut has led to a surge in students reading degrees in journalism and media compared to most other subjects. Less jobs + plus more demand for them = far greater competition.

Look through the classifieds for journalism jobs and the prerequisite of "at least two years experience" will soon become seared onto your retinas; such a high demand for writing jobs means publications can afford to be picky and demand experience for their money. The journalism industry was already riddled with nepotism, and as newspaper readerships have declined experienced hacks have found themselves out of work, but, perhaps rightly, ahead of fresh faced graduates in the queue for column inches.

So where does this leave the rest of us?

Another feature of journalism job websites is the abundance of unpaid internships on offer. Keen to take advantage of the youthful aspiration of would-be writers while preferring to give genuine opportunities to those already established, the media industry has made the initiation of working for two years free of charge a virtual convention. But who can afford to work for two years without pay? Not me. I was a mature student whose comfortable-but-not-rich parents' days of helping to finance me were over. (OK mum, dad. One day I promise to stop bleeding you dry, but that would have been too much even for your levels of generosity).

Many others don't have parents who can help them financially at all, mature or not, so for them the journey ends before it has even begun. What this means is, the internships - and with them the experience publications demand before they will pay for your words - end up going to kids with rich parents, rather than those with the most talent. As well as being unfair on those already less fortunate and a blow to equal opportunities, this promotion of wealth instead of ability perhaps helps explain the dire state in which we find our mainstream media today.

Not so with Hari though, who, as he likes to point out, came from relatively humble beginnings before going to the private John Lyon school (which has strong links with Harrow) before earning a place at Cambridge. As he says himself, despite his stella education he was lucky to get an opportunity with the New Statesman while still very young. Hari is still an all-too-rare rare case of an intelligent, talented, but not excessively privileged writer being given the opportunities his ability deserved. Or at least he was.

Perhaps if Hari had studied journalism at a lowly university like me, instead of political science at King's college, Cambridge, he would have known not to take quotes extracted by other, less well-paid writers, and pass them of as ones he obtained himself. There was nothing on my degree course specifically about the ethics of Wikipedia manipulation, though, so he may still have fallen foul there.

What leaves a bad taste in my mouth however, is that despite almost all the accusations levelled at him turning out to be true, Hari's self-imposed punishment is merely to hand back an award we now know he never really deserved, and to undertake studies in what top-level journalists ought already to have in their DNA, before waltzing back into his Independent column in 2012.

I still think Hari is a gifted writer; his copy is as clear and well constructed as any I have read, his understanding of issues comprehensive, and his moral compass - when not relating to issues involving himself at least - is precisely set. But I no longer respect him, and have also lost more faith in the media at large.  

In what other industry would a leading professional who has so badly failed to live up to basic ethics and conventions walk straight back into his job after gaining the basic knowledge he should have had in the first place, and returning an accolade he shouldn't have? Hari has been offered a chance of reincarnation when many others' careers would have been forever laid to rest.  There are so many writers starved of opportunity who would love a chance to take his place, but instead nepotism has thrown Hari a lifeline.

So, if Hari is to be given another chance on top of the one he had early in his career, can I have his column for the months he is away finding out what I and many other aspirant writers already know?
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