Monday, July 4, 2011

Just how amateurish is modern journalism?

There's an utterly bizarre piece by Carl Packman running on Liberal Conspiracy at the moment entitled 'The Orwell Prize, Johann Hari and nicking words' which basically argues that Hari should not have the Orwell Prize withdrawn from him because George Orwell himself was guilty of much the same crime when he "copied" the plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four from We by the Russian author Zamyatin.  Packman specifically calls the two plots "identical".  Well, from memory, I've read Nineteen Eighty-Four three or four times and We twice, and indeed I read the two more or less back-to-back when I was studying English Literature many moons ago, so I think I might just have spotted it if they had been identical.  There are certainly many broad-brush similarities - both novels feature a protagonist who rebels against an ultra-totalitarian state by falling in love with a woman, whom he ultimately betrays after psychological conditioning by not caring about what happens to her.  But that kind of borrowing of ideas, which I gather Orwell openly acknowledged, falls light-years short of what Hari has done.  Packman's own title gives the game away - Hari quite literally "nicked words" by directly lifting responses from interviews conducted by other people, and by using passages from the published work of his interviewees.  In what sense did Orwell nick the words used in Nineteen Eighty-Four? He didn't.  Argument falls.

This is of course just another example of a sustained attempt by some to defend Hari on the grounds that everyone is "at it" to some degree.  But even if that were true, it's not so much a vindication of Hari as it is an argument for a root-and-branch reform of modern journalistic practices.  My own minor brush with this kind of thing came as a result of the fact that I used to be an active contributor to Wikipedia.  There were a number of occasions when something written in the mainstream media seemed uncannily close to my own Wikipedia edits, most notably parts of a Sunday Times profile of Alex Salmond that appeared in the run-up to the 2007 election.  That wouldn't constitute plagiarism, of course, because it's perfectly permissible to copy Wikipedia articles without attribution, but all the same it was startling to realise that some professional journalists operate - seemingly routinely - in such an amateurish way.

No comments:

Post a Comment