“Uh huh, I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking does this article contain six lies or only five?”
Drowned out by Hackgate this summer was another spectacular story of media self-immolation. Johann Hari, columnist at the Independent, winner of the prestigious Orwell Prize, regular on Newsnight Review, and darling of the left was caught stuffing his columns with lies.
It began in June when a blogger noticed that some of the quotes given by Hari’s interviewees were identical to quotes which had previously appeared in those interviewees published works. Hari defended the charge, saying that “When you interview a writer – especially but not only when English isn’t their first language – they will sometimes make a point that sounds clear when you hear it, but turns out to be incomprehensible or confusing on the page. In those instances, I have sometimes substituted a passage they have written or said more clearly elsewhere on the same subject for what they said to me so the reader understands their point as clearly as possible” He called any allegation of plagiarism “totally false”
But, ironically for a man who praised the power of social media, Hari was about to be hoist on his own digital petard. Twitter exploded with tweeters jumping on a bandwagon bearing the hashtag ‘#interviewswithhari’ which presented the hack as some sort of journalistic Zelig.
“‘Stop!’ he cried, pointing to the brass-framed clock above his desk, ‘Hammertime’” read one tweet. “After discussing my evidence with him. he stroked his thick beard, looked up, and then loudly exclaimed ‘GORDON’S ALIVE’?” read another. “He sensed my malaise” read a third “‘Young man’, he murmured, fingering his leather jacket ruminatively, ‘there’s no need to feel down’”.
A left wing journalist can survive many things. You can survive being caught lying in the service of a greater truth,as Hari tried to make out he was. But one thing you cannot survive when your entire shtick is seriousness is having the piss ripped out of you. As soon as he became a joke Hari was finished.
The story rumbled on from there getting worse at every turn. It took a weird turn when it emerged Hari had been posting lies about his opponents on their Wikipedia pages under an alias. It took an unsavoury turn when it emerged that the same alias had been used for other purposes. The outcome was that, on September 15th, Hari published a second apology covering lots of things he’d denied in his first one, handed his Orwell Prize back before it could be embarrassingly stripped from him, and went on four months leave from the Indy to get some training in journalism, a job he’s been doing for ten years.
Hari’s behaviour has been outrageous even by the standards of the newspaper trade. But it can’t have come as a surprise. Particularly not if, like me, you are a fan of Clint Eastwood and had read Hari’s 2009 article for the Independent titled ‘Clint Eastwood shows how America is changing’
Reviewing his 2009 classic ‘Gran Torino’ Hari looked back over Eastwood’s career. According to Hari Eastwood “caught the tail-end of the uncomplicated Us vs Them cowboy flicks where the Indians were evil, scalping savages who had to be destroyed by the white heroes. The films were gorgeous, romantic accounts of a genocide, told adoringly from the perspective of the genocidaires”
I’d love to know which film Hari is talking about here, he doesn’t tell us. Eastwood’s first big screen westerns were the ‘Dollars’ trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns made in Italy by Sergio Leone. In these films Eastwood played the famous Man With No Name who was only out for himself and whose occasional acts of kindness were few and often executed grudgingly or with an ulterior motive. ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964), ‘For a Few Dollars More’ (1965) and the epic ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ (1966) were all about grubby scrambles for cash by grubby men in grubby settings. They were utterly amoral films and Native Americans didn’t feature in the trilogy once.
Hari somehow conflates these carnivals of moral ambivalence with the films of John Wayne, writing “The attitude of the genre was typified by John Wayne’s jeer…” Absolutely nothing about Eastwood’s westerns can be typified by anything from John Wayne whose westerns were totally different. For example, Wayne turned down the role Gary Cooper played in ‘High Noon’ (1952) because he disliked that the townspeople abandoned the Sheriff and that he threw his badge away in disgust at the end. When the movie became a hit Wayne responded by making ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959) where the townspeople come to the Sheriff’s aid.
Compare this to Eastwood’s movies. The inhabitants of Lago in ‘High Plains Drifter’ (1973) are such a craven bunch that they stood by and watched the town’s old Sheriff brutally whipped to death. When Eastwood’s mysterious stranger arrives in the town and wreaks havoc it is presented as a richly deserved comeuppance. And at the end of Eastwood’s most famous movie, ‘Dirty Harry’ (1971), the disgruntled policeman ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan throws his badge away in disgust. John Wayne turned down that role too.
Sure, all art including film is subjective and some will hate what another loves. But this is not a difference of interpretation but an error of content. It is quite simply impossible to characterise the westerns of Clint Eastwood in the way that Hari does. So Hari either has seen them and is misrepresenting them, or he hasn’t seen them in which case why is he pontificating about them?
This brings us to the crux of Hari’s argument; he hates ‘Dirty Harry’. “Dirty Harry is an old-style cop, fond of beating and torturing confessions out of suspects” Hari says before, entirely predictably, quoting Pauline Kael’s old charge that the film is “fascist”, something she said about all Eastwood’s movies and ‘Straw Dogs’ the same year.
Hari summarises the film thus; “He sets out to catch the killer – but at every turn he is emasculated by insane liberal regulations. The new laws prevent him from breaking into homes without a warrant, committing torture, or harassing suspects. Appalled, Harry spits: ‘That man has rights? The law is crazy!’”
Except he doesn’t say that anywhere in the movie. But he does say something similar.
The set-up is that a 14 year old girl, Ann Mary Deacon, has been kidnapped, raped, and buried alive with a few hours oxygen. The Police receive the ransom note accompanied by a tooth pulled out with a pair of pliers. Callahan agrees to take the ransom to the kidnapper, a serial killer named Scorpio who has already shot three people.
When Callahan reaches the ransom drop he learns that Scorpio is going to kill him, take the money, and leave the girl to die. Luckily Callahan’s partner shows up. In the ensuing shootout Scorpio escapes but not before Callahan has plunged a knife into his leg.
The chase is now on as Callahan tries to find the girl before her oxygen runs out. Callahan tracks Scorpio to his flat and finds the rifle used in the previous murders. He finds the fleeing Scorpio and stops him with a bullet in the leg. Scorpio refuses to tell Callahan where the girl is buried, demanding his lawyer instead. With time running out Callahan grinds his boot into the gunshot wound and gets the information. When the girl is found she is already dead.
That’s the context, now the quote. The following day Callahan is summoned by the DA.
District Attorney: I’ve just been looking over your arrest report. A very unusual piece of Police work. Really amazing
Callahan: Yeah, well I had some luck
DA: You’re lucky I’m not indicting you for assault with intent to commit murder
DA: Where the hell does it say you’ve got a right to kick down doors? Torture suspects? Deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must’ve heard of the Fourth Amendment? What I’m saying is that man had rights.
Callahan: Well I’m all broken up about that man’s rights
DA: You should be. I’ve got news for you Callahan; as soon as he’s well enough to leave the hospital he walks
Callahan: What are you talking about?
DA: He’s free
Callahan: You mean you’re letting him go?
DA: We have to, we can’t try him
Callahan: And why’s that?
DA: Because I’m not wasting a half a million dollars of the taxpayers money on a trial we can’t possibly win. The problem is we don’t have any evidence
Callahan: (Indicating the recovered rifle) Evidence? What the hell do you call that?
DA: I call it nothing, zero.
Callahan: Are trying to tell me that ballistics can’t match the bullet up to this rifle?
DA: It does not matter what ballistics can do. This rifle might make a nice souvenir, but it’s inadmissible as evidence
Callahan: Who says that?
DA: It’s the law
Callahan: Well then the law’s crazy
Again, in a subjective art form you can make the argument that ‘Dirty Harry’ is fascist. But there is nothing subjective about making up quotes to bolster the argument. You come back to Hari’s apology. To Hari it is self-evident that the movie is fascist but Callahan doesn’t quite say anything fascist enough in the movie to make the case as clearly as Hari would want. So he “substituted a passage”, or quote, he had made up himself. This was Hari’s downfall. He got caught out doing it with Gideon Levy and Hugo Chavez and he did it with Dirty Harry.
I have no better idea whether Hari saw the first ‘Dirty Harry’ sequel ‘Magnum Force’ than I do whether he saw any of the Leone westerns. If he did he might have taken a little advice from Dirty Harry Callahan; “A man’s got to know his limitations”
This article first appeared at Middlebrow Magazine