Ranjona Banerji: Neil Harman’s tale of ‘unattributed’ content

30 Jul,2014

By Ranjona Banerji

 

The story of Neil Harman, much respected tennis writer for The London Times, is a cautionary tale for all journalists. Harman has been a journalist for over 40 years and since 2002, was the chief tennis correspondent for that newspaper. Earlier, he was chief football writer for the Daily Mail. To many, he was known as “Mr Tennis”.

 

Since 2004, Harman was contracted to write the official annual for Wimbledon, tennis’s most revered tournament. But in 2013, the magazine Private Eye revealed that the annual was full of whole-scale copying from the works of other writers. The matter was taken to a head by journalist Ben Rothenberg writing for Slate magazine who went through several annuals to find over 50 instances of direct lifts from other writers. The publications most targeted were Sports Illustrated, particularly articles by Jon Wertheim, the Guardian and The New York Times. These are by any stretch very well-known and much-read publications. Rothenberg lays bare the extent of the copying: “Of these 52 examples, 28 of the passages were lifted from the Guardian. Six were from the New York Times, five from either the Times of London or the Sunday Times, four from Sports Illustrated, four from the Telegraph, four from the Independent, and one from the New York Daily News.”

 

Wimbledon only removed the 2013 annual from its shelves after Wertheim complained. Many writers said they did not know about copying because they had not read the annual. Harman admitted to the plagiarism in an email to the International Tennis Writers’ Association which he had co-founded. The wording however is distinctly odd: “It has been brought to my attention that I have severely compromised my position as a member, having used unattributed material to form part of my writing of the Wimbledon Yearbook. There can be no excuse for such shoddy work, which I deeply regret. I did it without malice aforethought, but that I did it at all is simply inexcusable.”

 

The words “it has been brought to my attention” are a curious way of admitting fault… Many of Harman’s supporters feel that Harman himself was not to blame but an intern may have done the copying.

 

This is a ready copout answer made by most senior journalists and writers who have been found guilty of plagiarism. Incompetent interns however are not a new phenomenon and nor is this a problem which cannot be foreseen. It is also a very convenient horse to flog. To Harman’s credit, he has not used this excuse – although we can here go back to the line “it has been brought to my attention… It is also not inconceivable that Harman himself did not do the actual lifting of so many paragraphs. But the final responsibility is his and since it is he who took the glory, he also has to take the muck.

 

The Times has suspended Harman pending enquiries – but this was only after Rothenberg’s articles caused a storm in the tennis world and on twitter. The Guardian has since alleged that The Times is not taking the charges seriously as Harman’s writing is still being carried in the paper.

 

Many American journalists have said that if they had been caught with their hands in someone else’s words, they would have got the sack immediately. Harman seems to have survived as far as his employer is concerned – so far at least – but he has done his reputation incalculable damage. With all such cases, it seems incredible that Harman did not just credit those whose words he was using. It would have taken nothing away from the annuals, would have enhanced his reputation and made him more friends.

 

Instead, he has laid himself open to this: http://deadspin.com/respected-tennis-writer-cops-to-plagiarism-theres-like-1609661132/1609820603/+Tom_Ley

 

And who can say that he does not deserve it?

 

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