Back to the Johann Hari case, I’m afraid – though, in this instance, moving off on a copyright tangent (now I’ve used that dreaded word, I fully expect the hits for this post to mightily collapse – for some reason, they always do …). Anyhow, my first bite at the apple can be found here – for which I have already been accused of post-modernism!
Meanwhile, Carl, over at Though Cowards Flinch, has what I think is an excellent piece on the above-mentioned issue – well worth reading for its imaginative thesis in its entirety.
In it, he starts out thus:
Man writes amazing words. Man wins prize for writing amazing words. We later find out that man’s words are stolen from another man’s book. You may think I’m referring to Johann Hari, but in actual fact this is an account of George Orwell.
One commenter then makes the following point:
Defenses of Johann Hari tend to focus – like this one – on Hari’s habit of quoting from books written by his interviewees and passing those quotations off as actually said to him. This is the minor ‘crime’ to which we should give a free pass. But Hari didn’t stop there; he cut and pasted from interviews conducted by other interviewers: that is, he ripped off the work of other journalists.
To which I have just replied:
I know I’ve been guilty of defending *more* than I might in this case, probably because the vulture approach to criticism isn’t my style. But I do have to take issue with the idea that what a public figure says in an interview is somehow the intellectual property of the interviewer. If an MP, for example, is interviewed on any matter whatsoever, and this is then sold as an “exclusive” by the medium in question, I would find myself arguing against the right of the publisher to attach the label of “exclusive” on the utterings which only exist because we the people have decided to vote someone into power. What public figures such as MPs (or, indeed, authors and other artists to an extent) say, they only say and have importance because we have allowed them to become important. Without us, the common people, they would not be where they are. Equally, without us, the common people, these supposed “exclusives” would not exist.
I suppose, really, what I am arguing is that those publishers who make money out of what individuals who operate in the public domain say – individuals who operate only through our permission and support – should understand that what they report is also part of the public domain. To be remixed and reused as perhaps we should choose to do so. (And whether you agree with me or not will depend on how much real value has actually been added to the standard deadlined piece most churnalism produces.)
Personally, I would have attributed. But I would not have held back from using. (And I might also be inclined to argue that there are some on the more extreme edges of copyright law who would not even allow the concept of attributed use at all.)
So you can accuse me of post-modernism, if that is what you perceive. But let me ask you one question only, as I repeat the conclusion from my previous post on this matter:
Hari has not betrayed the honourable profession of journalism. Rather, he finds himself, perhaps without even realising it, an intriguing halfway between a curator-editor-writer like Dos Passos and a latterday business monolith like Mark Zuckerberg.
And then to my question?
Well. If Facebook, Twitter and their ilk have not made curator-editor-writers of us all, in the most post-modernist manner we could contemplate, please tell me exactly what we are – that is to say, what this world of amateur “journalism” is now becoming?
For a good author or artist, antennae attuned as they surely must be to the behaviours of a wider society, cannot always step outside the frame and comment on the form. On occasions, the form becomes so insidiously prevalent that the inevitable subjectivity of a practising communicator does not allow them to understand exactly how far the envelope of considered attitude is being stretched.
And this is why the rest of us, generally unpaid as we are, and with the indulgence of flexible self-imposed deadlines, may have far more freedom to assess the reality outside what we might term the hothouse of exercise.
But, perhaps, also, this is why conventional journalism should understand the importance of having acquired a companion such as blogging – once a fringe activity to the traditional publishing houses but now central to understanding the development of the medium.
Not because of the money it might make them.
Rather, because of the distance and objectivity its own haphazard practice brings us all.
Social media is now the dominant communication register. Modern writers will either have to learn the literary lessons of people like Dos Passos a century ago – lessons which, by the way, Hari has clearly imperfectly taken on board – or they will be condemned to write for audiences in ever-decreasing circles.
It’s your choice as a writer.
Just make sure you’re able to choose more wisely than less.
Update to this post: this article, from Matt Wardman at Anna Raccoon today, seems to be concluding that Hari has got where he’s got because he’s not a trained journalist. I would probably agree: if he’s not, then both his virtues and vices are likely to be sourced in such a circumstance. Journalism still has three questions to answer though:
- if Hari had been a trained journalist, is there any consistent way this would have prevented him and his publisher sponsor(s) from recycling “exclusives” as “exclusives” – keeping in mind the abuses that accepted journalistic practices such as churnalism tend to generate anyway within the hallowed profession?
- does the profession and its practitioners have any right, in any case, to “exclusivise” what is arguably public domain content obtained from public domain figures?
- and, finally, to put it more explicitly, and with perhaps a desire on my part to move on, at some time, to a better and more productive future, if Hari had been a curator-editor-writer of a Facebook or Twitter feed – that is to say, if his medium had been virtual rather than traditional paper and ink – would we really have cared very much about his technique? And if not, why not? What, in fact, are the implications of such a vision for the communication industries and user-producers more generally? (Oh, and yes – I’ve just recycled that thought from my own Twitter feed …)
Meanwhile, here’s something I just posted on Facebook on the broader subject of copyright:
I think there’s an important issue here though, which the rank supporters of copyright choose – deliberately – to ignore. And that is the fact that thought is more like DNA than a box of matchsticks. You take out a matchstick, it’s still a box of the damn things. You take out a thought – and it’s a train, almost an audit trail, you destroy. I only have ideas when I encounter other ideas. I really can’t say I own my ideas – I would never have had them in the first place if it hadn’t have been for another’s.