Nick Cohen reviews a recent series of scandals in the literary world, and contrasts the different results in the UK and the USA.
The editor of the New York Times fired Jayson Blair in 2003 for inventing stories and stealing the work of others. No other publisher would touch him and he is now something called a "life coach" in Virginia. The New Republic fired Stephen Glass in 1998 for making up stories for its venerable pages. He left journalism to study the law. Alas, the New York State Bar deemed him "morally unfit" to practise even as a lawyer – a barb that must have stung – and he ended up performing with a Los Angeles comedy troupe.
Few British frauds worry that exposure will damage them because punishment rarely follows the crime. So brazen have they become that Stephen Leather, who churns outs ebook and paperback thrillers, boasted at last month's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival: "As soon as my book is out I'm on Facebook and Twitter several times a day talking about it. I'll go on to several forums, the well-known forums, and post there under my name and under various other names and various other characters. You build up this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself."
Cohen goes on to recount further examples of the UK's apparent willingness to overlook misdeeds by its leading literary figures - Birkbeck University's failure to deal with rogue academic Orlando Figes and the refusal of Independent editor Andreas Whittam-Smith to deal with Johann Hari until reader pressure forced his hand.
The refusal of British organisations to deal with wrongdoing does indeed seem endemic, although I think Cohen's emphasis on a transatlantic divide is misplaced. I'm sure readers here can think of examples of, for example, US academics who have remained in post despite overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing.
Cohen reckons there is some link between high finance and a refusal to deal with malefactors:
Suggestively, Whittam Smith and [current Independent editor] Blackhurst worked as City journalists before they became editors. In publishing as in finance, professionals have the same aversion to punishing fellow members of the middle class.
This is frankly rather bizarre, particularly given that Cohen has cited several instances from the literary and academic worlds that have no connection to finance whatsoever. I think the truth is more that organisational leaders will make a simple calculation of what is in their own interests and act accordingly. Birkbeck, for example, will have realised that no matter what Figes' misdeeds, the scandal would eventually blow over. There was therefore no need to act. Whittam-Smith at the Independent, however, may well have assumed that he had more to lose by throwing Hari overboard than by standing beside him. Only the furious reactions of his readers persuaded him otherwise.
In the commercial world, the consumer is indeed king.