Disgraced UK columnist Johann Hari has returned his “Orwell Prize”, the highest award for journalism in the country, and published a long personal letter in The Independent, apologising for a string of offences, including fabricating interviews (though not quotes), and serial sock-puppetry.

As contrition, he says he will take unpaid leave from the Indy, where he has written a column for the past decade, and undertake journalism training. The announcement marks another stage in the extraordinary fall of Hari, until now one of the country’s most prominent and influential columnists — and there may be more to come.

Hari, 32, went on leave from his column at The Independent several months ago, having written opinion and features continuously since the age of 23, when he was kicked on to the op-ed page as part of the Indy’s drive to be, you know, youf, weird, different.

Strongly Left, openly gay, he quickly gained a fan base — and lost much of it when he got caught up in post 9/11 war fever, and enthusiastically supported the Iraq War, and appeared happy to roll on to Iran. He later recanted thoroughly — but not so much as to stop writing columns and have a bit of a think. His influence rose with a series of one-on-one interviews of the great and good who appeared willing to impart the meatiest thoughts to young Johann.

“Appeared” is the word. In June, a blog called, argggh, Deterrirorial Support Group noted that Hari’s one-on-one with Italian communist superstar Antonio Negri had chunks lifted from Negri’s works — even though Hari suggested they had been imparted to him over the lunch table. The revelation set off a frenzy of analysis from all quarters — by the end of it, it was clear that significant bits of Hari’s articles had been carved out of his subjects’ books. You’re allowed to do that — but not if you claim they said it all to you in Langham’s/The Coach/Haringey Lido sauna, and was produced in part by the empathetic brilliance of your interviewing techniques.

Hari went on leave, and the Indy began an internal inquiry. Perhaps aware that the paper was now owned by an ex-KGB agent, Hari coughed up another folly. For a long time, various of the London commentariat had been concerned over persistent re-editing of their Wikipedia pages by one “David Rose, of meth productions” (yes, absolutely anyone can edit Wikipedia pages). Given the subject matter, various pundits were convinced it was Hari, with whom they’d fallen out — the less than brilliant subterfuge spotted after the edits’ IP address was traced back to … The Independent.

Hari goes through all that in his mea culpa but denies the most serious charge — that in 2006, reporting from central Africa, he faked up a whole massacre. Stories conflict, but should that prove true, he’ll have to retrain in a field other than journalism. The Indy management has dithered, knowing Hari’s popularity.

New editor Chris Blackhurst was on Newsnight to throw in the fact that Hari had had a problem with prescription painkillers (very Hollywood), and had never had “proper training”. The Indy had let him down, Blackhurst said — though how much training you need to not make sh-t up remains to be seen.

For hacks everywhere, it’s a hell of a story, with a fair dose of catharsis. Start off with one shortcut, and pretty soon you’ve got Obama leaning over the table to you saying “Johann a phrase has just come to me — ‘yes we can’. You think that’ll fly?”

Hari seems to think that returning the Orwell Prize will help his rehabilitation — although Toryboy site Guido Fawkes suggested Hari had already been deprived of it, but that Indy editors had begged the board to hold off on an announcement until their internal review.

Nor can one see him regaining anything like the reputation he once had. Having been thrown early into the realm of “nevertheless”, he had no real time to grow intellectual roots — a position from which to speak. Hence, he wandered all over the shop. You could barrack for him when he scored points, but there was never much authority there. Who knows? Maybe the Brits will go with the personal journey. But it will have to be finely judged. Guido Fawkes is suggesting tonight that the return of the Orwell Prize was done via post, without a note. All most sad, creating a feeling for which there is, as yet, no word — schadenfreude come too late.

Nevertheles …

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey