Johann Hari: Martha Gellhorn Prize refuses to investigate serious complaint about their prizewinner

Johann Hari looks like he will keep his prize
Johann Hari looks like he will keep his prize

The following story appeared in Monday’s print edition of the Daily Telegraph:

A man interviewed by Johann Hari says the celebrated Left-wing writer “twisted,” “misquoted” and “misrepresented” his words in an article which won him a major journalism award.

Usman Raja, a counter-extremism expert for the Government’s “Prevent” initiative, was interviewed by Hari in 2009 for an article on those who have renounced extremism. He was described as a man who had “begged to become a suicide bomber” and quoted as calling himself a “papier-mâché Muslim.”

Mr Raja told The Daily Telegraph: “I did it very trustingly. But he twisted the facts around to [make] a point that I wanted to be a terrorist. Parts of a conversation were taken and things were changed in there. There was a lot of misquoting and misrepresenting in that article.

“I didn’t come across badly, so to speak, but it was a very low shot at that point to be wedged into a piece attacking the Prevent strategy. It was very disappointing.”

The article, in The Independent, was one of three which won Hari the Martha Gellhorn Prize, set up to “celebrate journalism that challenges secrecy and mendacity”.

The Martha Gellhorn Prize does not, alas, seem quite so concerned with alleged mendacity by its own award-winner. Having failed to get a response to my original request for comment from them (or Hari), I contacted the prize organisers again, asking if they proposed to investigate Usman Raja’s allegations. No, was the answer. “I understand that Mr Hari’s work is being investigated by the Independent,” said one of the award committee, Sandy Matthews. “We await the results with interest.”

It is notable that the organisers of Hari’s other major journalism award, the Orwell Prize, are investigating his entries for that – even though no specific complaints have been made, at least publicly, about those pieces. They will consider his case at a meeting tomorrow.

In a statement, the Orwell organisers said they had “received information from a variety of sources over the last few weeks” and were still seeking “further clarification” from Hari “in relation to other allegations which have since come to light.”

(UPDATE: The new edition of Private Eye magazine does make a number of serious allegations of fabrication against Hari’s winning Orwell Prize entry, quoting a charity worker he used as a translator for one of his winning pieces. For more, see here.)

Mr Raja’s allegations – effectively of fabricating quotes – are, with the new Private Eye disclosures, the most serious yet to be levelled against Hari. They are much more serious than his admitted passing off real quotes copied from books, or given to other journalists, as having been spoken to him.

If they’re not investigated, it won’t do much for the credibility of the Gellhorn Prize.

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