Johann Hari, incest erotica, Wikipedia and the social construction of truth
This doesn't have very much to do with comedy except that the title 'How my little brother learned to be a whore' is very funny to me
Nowadays, Johann Hari is known as a pop psychology expert. He does TED talks and writes books with simplistic messages like:
your smartphone is ruining your attention span! (Stolen Focus)
you should cure your depression by throwing away your medication and joining a book club! (Lost Connections)
the war on drugs is bad! (Chasing the Scream)
His books get positive blurbs from distinguished thinkers, such as the comedian and twink admirer Stephen Fry, the listicle entrepreneur Arianna Huffington, the feminist and sex offender’s wife Hillary Clinton, the comedian and fake revolutionary Russell Brand, and the TV doctor Doctor Rangan Chatterjee.
But when you look at how actual experts assess his work, it’s not so positive. The neuroscientist Dean Burnett responded to an extract of Lost Connections in his Guardian column, under the title Is everything Johann Hari knows about depression wrong? Burnett points out that:
despite Hari’s prose suggesting he’s uncovered numerous revelations, pretty much everything he “reveals” is well known already
Hari, in pursuit of an anti-anti-depressant narrative, makes the claim that you can be diagnosed with depression and put on medication immediately after a traumatic event like losing a child, which Burnett (who teaches psychiatry) describes as:
at best a staggering exaggeration, at worst an active fabrication to support a narrative.
But this article isn’t about what Johann Hari has been doing recently. It’s about what Hari was up to before he reinvented himself as some kind of expert, back when he was a journalist who ended up being disgraced.
It’s about how Hari has somehow rounded allegations of serious fabrication down to a record of minor plagiarism. It’s about how in trying to attack his critics, he seems to have inadvertently revealed his penchant for little brother incest fantasies with a troubling racial dimension. It’s about how I tried to fix the record on Wikipedia, and ran into trouble as Wikipedia’s policies collided with the sorry state of British journalism.
Back in 2010, Johann Hari was a star newspaper columnist (if you’re a millennial that means he wrote hot takes that got lots of clicks; if you’re Gen Z, think of him as a viral TikTok star but with words on paper).
In 2011 he was disgraced and kicked out of the profession.
plagiarism - specifically, taking quotes from text someone had written in a book or article, and pretending that the person had said it directly to him
abuse of Wikipedia - in particular, using a fake identity to edit the pages of professional rivals with false allegations
I followed the whole Hari affair pretty closely at the time (I didn’t like him because he had been a cheerleader for the Iraq War, so I enjoyed watching his career go down in flames).
When his latest book came out a month ago, I looked at his Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia saves the history of all the different versions of each page, so here is a link to what I saw when I did that.
And here’s part of the summary and the table of contents:
The whole article struck me as weird because it didn’t mention two things I clearly remembered:
Hari got in trouble, not just for minor plagiarism, but for allegedly making things up completely.
Even more memorably, the fake identity he used to edit Wikipedia, “David Rose”, was also used to author an incest kink porn story with a hilarious title.
You can see why Hari (and whatever reputation management consultants he has working for him) would want to focus on the ‘plagiarism’ angle. It’s not good to pass off a quote you got from someone’s book as something they told you directly, but it’s not as serious as completely inventing something. I suppose technically it’s plagiarism because you’re pretending you elicited the quote in an interview and you’re not citing the original book; but it’s a lot better than the typical case of plagiarism that involves passing off someone else’s work as your own. Hari’s defence is that he was ‘cutting corners’ because he was under so much pressure due to his meteoric success at young age, etc. etc.
But some of the allegations against Hari were way more serious. And although a lot of the relevant newspaper articles and blog posts from 10 years ago aren’t online any more, with a bit of sifting through archived web pages, it was easy to find the allegations I remembered, and add a nice new Fabrication section to his Wikipedia article.
The details, backed up by ‘reputable sources’ are in the current article (for now), but in summary:
it seems like he invented eye witness accounts of a terrible atrocity in the Central African Republic
he claimed he witnessed the death of a demonstrator at the 2001 G8 summit, but he had actually already left in a taxi when it happened
he pretended that a package tour of Iraq he went on was a ‘fact-finding visit’ and invented Iraqi civilians saying stuff like “When will you come to free us?” to drum up support for the Iraq War, contradicting his own earlier account of the same trip
The last one in particular is a horrific thing for a journalist to do and arguably makes him complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
But this is a comedy newsletter, so let’s focus on the other missing piece of the puzzle, the incest.
A lot of Hari’s Wikipedia edits and emails and posts defending himself were carried out using the false identity of David Rose from ‘Methuselah Productions’. And in a 2011 New Statesman article (archived version), David Allen Green explains how he established that the email address email@example.com was linked to that false identity, and that Rose was Hari, while avoiding the risk of libel.
On the other hand, the evidence was stark that it was either Hari or someone close to him, and it raised serious issues. It thereby seemed sensible just to see where the evidence would go. However, this in turn would be risky, as Hari was known to use libel threats against those who questioned his integrity. For example, in 2007 he used libel law to have a post taken down (the original is here).
Then I had an idea. Instead of questioning the integrity of Hari, I would do it the other way round. I was confident that “David Rose” (at least anyone with that actual name with the remarkable range of accomplishments, including a doctorate in environmental science) did not exist. He was patently a construct, and one cannot defame a construct. As long as I was careful not to ever publish an allegation that Hari was “David Rose” then I would be fairly safe from any meaningful libel threat. Like the dead, “David Rose” could not sue me.
So I wrote the post “Who is David Rose?”.
Now if you look at that post, part of the description of how Green linked Hari to the email address has been censored, even in the oldest cached version I can find:
David Rose is also something to do with Methuselah Productions. It is used as his hotmail address and (in abbreviated form) his Wikipedia address. Unfortunately whatever productions Methuselah Productions produced were not successful, as it has no easily identifiable trace on internet.
Intrigued, I asked another friend of mine - Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads what he could find. He is very good on internet searches and this sort of thing.
Well he found this [EDIT 11/7/2011 - deleted exactly what type of content it is as irrelevant] [EDIT 12/7/2011 - removed link given use being put to it by right wing bloggers, but it can be provided on request] attributed to the firstname.lastname@example.org emaill address.
[EDIT 12/7/11 - text deleted re content at link.]
[EDIT 11/7/2011: Have deleted quotation. It has been suggested that there is no need to quote from the source. On reflection I agree. The link is enough to establish that Methuselah Productions email address was put to other uses. You will also see that David Rose refers to allegations regarding the type of content openly.]
What is this mysterious, irrelevant content that Green was afraid right-wing bloggers would use against a guy who was in the process of being outed for plagiarism, fabrication and smearing anyone who tried to call him to account?
It’s little brother incest porn.
I can’t find any article that still links to it directly, even if I search for the email address, but unfortunately for Hari, the title stuck with me and I found it by Googling that:
Date: Mon, 22 May 2006 23:50:54 +0000
From: David Rose <email@example.com>
Subject: How my little brother learned to be a whore
"How much do we charge for this?" my little brother asked -- with a low moan -- as he felt my cock slide into him, my balls slapping against his ass for the first (but certainly not the last) time. "Nobody does this to you except me," I said, ramming my cock even harder up inside him, and relishing his scream. The long journey to this moment -- when I finally broke him in tonight, on his sixteenth birthday -- had begun a year and three weeks ago, when Nick found the diary I had, listing all my boys' appointments with their clients.
You can read the whole work at the nifty.org erotic story archive.
Now I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing erotic fantasy incest stories, even if it’s describing incest with your little brother, even if the brother described is apparently barely legal and would be underage in most states of the US, even if your narrator is a black pimp called “Leroy Jenkins” who says things like “He’s a really fresh piece of ass. Tight. I tried him out myself this morning. He'll cost you.”
But there is another dimension to the discovery of this story. As well as the fabrications I’ve mentioned so far, early in his career Hari wrote an article called “Forbidden Love” where he claimed that his friend “Rob” had stumbled on his fiancee Karen having sex with her dad:
Now, you have to understand that Rob and Karen were the most balanced, wholesome couple I knew. They had recently moved out of their flat while it was being redecorated, each returning to their respective family homes for a couple of weeks. That Friday, she had left her keys at his place by accident. He was passing by her parents' place later that night, so he stopped off and rang the doorbell.
No answer. So he let himself in to leave the keys, with a note, on the kitchen table for her mum and dad to return to her. Only, the house wasn't empty - he heard some movement in the front room. In an instant, he blundered in on Karen - the woman he was due to marry - having sex. With her dad.
Not her stepfather. Not her adopted father. Her actual, biological dad. She was 22 years old. There was clearly no coercion taking place.
hot troubling story, but in the light of the David Rose persona’s apparent enthusiasm for incest, it’s hard not to wonder if this is Hari using his talent for short-form erotic fiction to get an amazing scoop. He also published a very dubious but supposedly factual piece about seducing homophobic neo-Nazis and Islamists:
In the week that I spent hanging around that mosque, I met a lot of cute blokes… I really, really liked Mohammed, a rather cute 19-year-old lad who had got caught up in this crowd.
Mo (as his friends call him) had a very dry sense of humour, like most of that group, and a really attractive sense of purpose and loyalty (all, unfortunately, poured into killing people like me). Again, like the Nazis, it was one of those intense all-male groups which seemed very straight - so intensely straight that it crossed a line into homoeroticism.
Now, I doubt that many of these blokes were shagging each other, not least because, for religious reasons, none of them drink, so it was hard to lower their inhibitions. But after a long smoke and a lot of flattery, Mo was fairly easily coaxed. Of course, he seemed a bit hung-up about it afterwards. Since I was nearing the end of my undercover gig, I tried to persuade him that perhaps gay people weren't evil, especially in light of the fact that he had just been having wild gay sex.
Again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with coaxing a reluctant teen into wild sex. I just don’t think any of this actually happened. The Guardian seems to think it’s OK to leave these articles up without even a disclaimer that they’re written by a disgraced fabulist, though. (EDIT: it also seems that Hari put pressure on the Guardian to put a link to his ‘rebuttal’ of Dean Burnett’s piece on the piece itself).
Unfortunately, you’ll notice that there isn’t an Interest in incest section in the current Wikipedia article about Hari. This edit shows my proposed text for it. The Wikipedia moderators weren’t impressed, and on the Johann Hari Talk page Wikipedia editor TSP explained why:
I've once more deleted the 'Interest in incest' section. (… if content on a living person doesn't meet the WP:BLP standards [Wikipedia’s rules for biographies of living people], it must not be on Wikipedia.)
The second part of this section is a clear violation of WP:SYN: "Do not combine material from multiple sources to reach or imply a conclusion not explicitly stated by any source." Additionally, many of the sources you've given are blogs or similar, which don't come close to fulfilling Wikipedia's definition of a reliable source.
It feels like you are trying to do investigative journalism here. Sorry, but that's not what Wikipedia is for. If you can find a reliable source that has specifically observed that Hari has an interest in incest, and connected him to that nifty.org story, then we can include it. If no reliable source has ever made that specific observation, then I'm afraid we can't either.
Now the problem with Wikipedia’s standards about reliable sources is that they are designed for normal countries, where if something is published in a newspaper, it’s probably not completely made up. But that’s not a useful policy given the terrible state of the British press, where many right-wing papers will run government propaganda lines on their front pages and the threat of a libel suit from someone rich is the only effective regulator. I’d trust a blog post or a tweet from someone who knows what they’re talking about over whatever is published on that topic in the Sun or Daily Mail.
But since nobody has stated explicitly in a ‘reliable source’ that Hari wrote a racially dubious incest fic, it can’t go in his Wikipedia entry.
Do you know a journalist from a publication with an adventurous attitude to bogus libel claims who would like to license this article? Get in touch.
I ran a contest to work out where in the USA the incest fic takes place. The contest is now closed but here is the post discussing the result and analysing exactly where in America that little brother became a whore.