Having read two pieces by Roy Greenslade and Mark Lawson today, I am lured back to the subject of Johann Hari's plagiarism. Greenslade and Lawson both follow Hari's own defence that it wasn't really plagiarism, Greenslade saying that he's not certain it was 'full-scale plagiarism', and Lawson falling for the line that 'Plagiarism is passing someone else's words off as your own; Hari was passing off the words of another person as their own'. The two of them also write in the spirit that, wrong as Hari's methods may have been, what he did wasn't a capital offence; and Greenslade adds for good measure that as a journalist Hari has generally been a good bloke.
I shall come back to the particular issue - plagiarism - by way of the general one. It doesn't have to be a form of apologetics to point out that someone who has gone wrong in some way isn't guilty of a major crime and/or that, until they did go wrong, their record was a creditable one. Most of us are subject to the human frailties and to tendencies to make mistakes or bad judgements, and it does no harm to be reminded of this precisely in contexts of the present kind. Judging someone on the basis of one thing they've done isn't always to the point and judging them over-harshly hardly ever is. However, these charitable principles are more compellingly applied where the mistake or the wrong is squarely acknowledged for what it is, and not diminished or excused, whether relative to greater possible misdemeanours or to previous moral character or professional achievement.
Short of wiping out the human race and suchlike, there is always something worse that a person might have done than the bad thing they in fact did do, so putative exonerations are always available of the type: not a capital offence, not a crime against humanity, not the Holocaust, not the end of the world. What Hari did is what it is, and if he and his defenders would simply say, yes this is what it indeed was, wrong and sorry, that might be the end of it. But the implicit appeal to worse practices obeys a minimizing impulse not conducive to making the clear-eyed acknowledgement and apology that are due. The same goes for Hari's being a good bloke - as reflected in his previous journalistic achievements. As we know, good blokes also sometimes cheat or err, as bad ones do more generally. That anyone is good is far from being irrelevant, but it shouldn't be used as a way of trying to mask what they have done that was wrong. Indeed, it might be said, a better sign of their upstanding qualities would be frank recognition of their own failure, whatever it was, without the minimizing bullshit.
Hari's approach to writing up interviews involved plagiarism, as I have already argued, but like Hari himself Greenslade and Lawson try to put some varnish over this by restricting the meaning of the word: he wasn't trying to pass off the words or ideas of his interviewees as his own. OK, here's an example. In the first instance of serious plagiarism I encountered as a junior lecturer back in 1967 or 1968, a student handed in an essay on Hobbes which he copied verbatim out of a secondary work. Now, focus on those passages of the essay that were meant merely to be expository, setting out the general lines of Hobbes's thought before venturing on to contested interpretative terrain. Is one to say that because my student wasn't attempting to present Hobbes's ideas or words as his (the student's) own, he wasn't plagiarizing? But he was using someone else's work - that of the author from whom he was 'borrowing' - without acknowledgement, so giving the impression that his understanding of Hobbes was of a level that it might not have been and almost certainly wasn't. And this is misleading and dishonest.
Here's another example, this one invented rather than real. A student writing a dissertation pretends to have done face-to-face interviews and puts into the dissertation statistics purporting to be based on these but actually drawn from a book not cited in her footnotes or bibliography. This would be plagiarism, even though the writer of the dissertation hadn't stolen anyone's words or ideas, in the usual meanings of these terms.
This is elementary stuff and, however one assesses the magnitude of his solecism, Hari and his defenders just look ridiculous in not straightforwardly acknowledging it.