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Scrutiny of Johann Hari’s Journalism Revives Ken Joseph Controversy

At the end of June, Damian Thompson reproduced an an extract from a SourceWatch entry about Johann Hari. It caught my eye as it includes details about an old controversy, from 2003:

…In 2003, Hari favored the US invasion of Iraq and went so far as to wag his finger at the “left” for not backing the “Iraqi opposition” or not respecting “opinion polls” finding that the majority of the Iraqis welcomed the US war against Iraq…

Shortly afterwards, Hari took at face value a story originating from UPI on Kenneth Joseph, who was purportedly an American anti-war “pastor of the Assyrian Church of the East” who went to Iraq as a ‘human shield’ but recanted.

Writing in Counterpunch in April 2003, Carol Lipton exposed the flaws in the neatly packaged Kenneth Joseph story. The original source of a story was UPI and the Washington Times, both of which are owned by the Unification Church. The fact that the original UPI story was written by Arnaud de Borchgrave should also have raised some questions. In particular, she writes:

He wrote that “Joseph was explaining that his trip had shocked him back to reality”. Yet Hari never states to whom Joseph did the “explaining”, or where…

In response to emails querying him about this story, Hari wrote (May 6, 2003):

If it’s a malicious hoax, I’ll add a rider to the original article on the Indie website explaining exactly that.

I’m still not able to get in touch with him to ask him about it…

On September 25, 2003, after being informed of the querying of Joseph’s veracity, Hari appended a correction to his original column on his own website. “It transpires that Kenneth Joseph was probably a bullshitter, and that his claims were false. I should have checked his story out more rigorously before I used it. The full details of the Joseph affair can be found at the excellent Counterpunch website,” he wrote.

A recent Private Eye (1293 p. 10) alludes to the same incident, claiming that “as long ago as 2003, Eye 1076 showed how he… made up stories about Iraqis telling him that they wanted the West to invade”.

This all looks like an unnecessary mess: the fact that Hari took a quote from an UPI story “at face value” is hardly a great journalistic sin, but it seems that because he failed to give proper attribution he found it difficult to extricate himself when scepticism arose about Joseph and de Borchgrave’s report. This was despite the fact that Hari’s article (published in the Independent and the Seattle Post Intelligencer) was an opinion piece, and so one would expect quotes to be derivative.

However, it should be noted that the Counterpunch article is ludicrously overheated. De Borchgrave, Lipton explains, is “linked to the CIA and far-right think-tanks and institutions”, and she feels the need to include gratuitous references to the Unification Church’s “fanatical followers, called ‘moonies'”, who “are subjected to mind-control techniques”. The article weaves a conspiracy theory in which Joseph had an “inside track on plans for a post-war Iraqi government” and was “involved in long-term policy planning for the future of Iraq, with an eye upon being a key player in post-war reconstruction.” Research errors also help to whip up a bogus sense of intrigue:

…he claims to have written a book along with his father on Assyrian Christians in the Middle East. Yet, nowhere does Amazon.com list any references to books written by Kenneth Joseph, Jr., nor was he mentioned on a website email directory of Assyrian authors.

In fact, as the article notes, Joseph was raised and lives in Japan (his parents went over as missionaries from the USA), and his books – in Japanese – can be found on Amazon.co.jp.

Further, the original UPI source article does not focus on Joseph, and he appears in only one paragraph:

A group of American anti-war demonstrators who came to Iraq with Japanese human shield volunteers made it across the border [into Jordan] today with 14 hours of uncensored video, all shot without Iraqi government minders present. Kenneth Joseph, a young American pastor with the Assyrian Church of the East, told UPI the trip “had shocked me back to reality.” Some of the Iraqis he interviewed on camera “told me they would commit suicide if American bombing didn’t start. They were willing to see their homes demolished to gain their freedom from Saddam’s bloody tyranny. They convinced me that Saddam was a monster the likes of which the world had not seen since Stalin and Hitler. He and his sons are sick sadists. Their tales of slow torture and killing made me ill, such as people put in a huge shredder for plastic products, feet first so they could hear their screams as bodies got chewed up from foot to head.”

De Borchgrave’s description of Joseph as a “pastor of the Assyrian Church of the East” is misleading – he’s actually a Protestant of Assyrian heritage (Lipton calls the Church of the East “obscure”, apparently because she hadn’t heard of it), with US and Iraqi citizenship. The fact that de Borchgrave made this error suggests that he had had only casual contact with Joseph, rather than that he and Joseph were conniving in a plot at the behest of Rev. Moon and the CIA.

However, one would like to know what happened to Joseph’s video material, and the “shredder” story remains unconfirmed (although that doesn’t mean it’s untrue or that Joseph wasn’t told about it). Joseph wrote an article about his change of heart, entitled “I Was Wrong!“, but a promised book-length account has failed to appear. Of course, it’s possible that his pacifism was a pose adopted in bad faith which he could then repudiate for maximum publicity, but it’s a big jump from that suggestion to asserting it to have been the case, and from that to concocting conspiracies.

Joseph claims to have on-going links with political leaders in Iraq, but he remains based in Japan and bills himself as an “international columnist and speaker”. In 2008, he was at Obama’s inauguration with some Official Street Preachers; last year, he for no apparent reason decided to troll the Facebook page of the naturalised Japanese activist Debito Ando. Ando gives his bemused account here.

One Response

  1. Your accusations that I have spun a “conspiracy theory” ignore the fact that Hard as a journalist has been discredited and proven to have committed plagiarism.

    As far as the references, Adam Sacks and I continued receiving emails for the next year from sources we had contacted that were listed on Kenneth Joseph’s resume. Not one of them had ever heard of Kenneth Joseph.

    You conveniently omit the fact that Kenneth Joseph is described by Johann Hari as being an American anti-war demonstrator and human shield, and there’s not a single reference that substantiated this fact.

    What you call “conspiracy theorizing” is careful research and fact-checking. De Borchgrave had an obligation to fact-check Kenneth Joseph’s background, as well as the existed of the alleged 14 hours of tapes, which no one has ever viewed nor reported on.

    In checking the organizational affiliations of Rev. Joseph, including various Japanese publications, and the Assyrian Church associations, I came up with 2 separate resumes, one, of a man in his late 20s, and one of a man in his late 30s or early 40s.

    I see you have not come up with an explanation as to why an “American antiwar activist” and human shield would even be on the invite list for a conference planning the future of Iraq. This must be an ordinary occurrence to you – that demonstrators of no particular reputation, academic or diplomatic credentials, would be a key participant at an international strategy and planning conference.

    And if that isn’t suspicious to you, well, there’s a bring in my borough that’s still looking for a buyer.

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