I LEARNED that Johann Hari was a journalist who was better at attention-seeking than truth-telling when a small American journal asked me to reply to his review of What’s Left, a book of mine on the dark forces in liberal-left politics. I looked at it and was astonished. It was not that he disliked my ideas — he was entitled to disagree — but that he had attacked a book I had not written. He pretended that I believed the West had been right to support Saddam Hussein while he was gassing the Kurds when I had said the opposite. He made up stories about my parents, good people he had never met, to show me in a bad light. Every second paragraph contained a howler. Well, I thought, get a book wrong and the text will confound you. I typed out the passages that proved that he was at best an incompetent reviewer and filed my reply. ‘Get out of that,’ I muttered as I hit the send button.
I THOUGHT no more about it until I looked at my entry on Wikipedia. As well as learning that I was a probable alcoholic, a hypocrite and a supporter of Sarah Palin, I noticed that all reviews of my work were missing except Hari’s effort. Far from saying that he had made wild allegations and I had responded by quoting from the book, a writer working under the pseudonym ‘David r from Meth Productions’ suggested that I had made wild allegations while Hari ‘had offered quotes from Cohen which he argued backed up his claims’. The fearsome honour code by which hacks abide insists that no journalist can sue for libel — if you give it, you must take it. I bowed to its stern injunctions while wishing that my colleagues would grant me a release just this once so that I might relieve Jimmy Wales of a part of his fortune.
I PUT Hari to the back of my mind again until Cristina Odone told me a strange story. She was deputy editor of the New Statesman during Hari’s time there and had the sense to doubt the reliability of his journalism. After she crossed him, vile accusations appeared on her Wikipedia page. She was a ‘homophobe’ and an ‘anti-Semite’, the site alleged, and such a disastrous journalist that the Catholic Herald had fired her. Her husband, Edward Lucas, went online to defend her reputation, but ‘David r from Meth Productions’ tried to stop him. Mr ‘r’ gave the same treatment to Francis Wheen, Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson after they had spats with Hari. It didn’t stop there. Lucas noticed that anonymous editors had inserted Hari’s views on a wide range of people and issues into the relevant Wikipedia pages, while Hari himself had a glowing Wikipedia profile — until the scandal broke, that is — much of it written by “David r’ Because Wikipedia lets contributors write anonymously, it cannot tell its readers if ‘David r’ is Johann Hari, or a fan of Hari’s with detailed knowledge of his life, or someone with an interest in promoting his career. But just as the effect of Hari’s phoney interviews was to make it seem that he elicited quotes no other journalist could match, so the effect of Wikipedia is to make him seem one of the essential writers of our times. In truth he disgraced himself because he was an ambitious man who might have been a good journalist, but yearned to be a great one, and so tried to summon a talent he could never possess by bragging and scheming.
IN HER NEW MEMOIR The House in France Gully Wells describes the young Martin Amis as the most competitive man she had met. As she was his girlfriend in the 1970s, she should have known, but Amis is not remotely competitive now. When I interviewed him, he said he always refused to comment on other writers. Secure in his talent, he felt no need to do down his rivals. If Amis is self-effacing, Ian McEwan is modest to the point of shyness. He came to my last book launch and was so unobtrusive it took the throng half an hour to realise that one of England’s great writers was in the room. Hilary Mantel remains my favourite literary stoic, however. Despite her producing A Place of Greater Safety and other magnificent novels, prize juries overlooked her. After she finally won the Booker in 2009, she had every right to be triumphalist. Instead, she wrote in the Economist of how ‘once, when I was trudging home from my second failure to win the £20,000 Sunday Express award, a small boy I knew bobbed out on to the balcony of his flat. “Did you win?” I shook my head. “Never mind,” he said, just like everyone else. And then, quite unlike everyone else: “If you like, you can come up and play with my guinea pig.”’ I suspect that Mantel knew for years that she was the real thing, and just needed to wait for the rest of us to catch up.