Political sketch: "Flashman" Dave asserts himself

But attacking a pensioner during election week is always bad form.

With United playing City in the most important derby game since the beginning of time you would have thought that MPs had better things to do before the match than bother the nation with politics.

Indeed, that was David Cameron’s gamble as he tried yet again to re-launch his political career after yet another of the worst weeks since his last worst week — the week before last.

But that was before Speaker Bercow intervened to give the Prime Minister the biggest dose of double dromedary since predecessor Gordon took the hump and headed for the Scottish hills two years ago.

His new beginning hadn’t exactly got off to a brilliant start anyway, what with the latest opinion polls showing the Tories double-digits behind Labour in the polls, Dave’s personal rating down again and local elections results due on Thursday.

But at least he thought he’d parked his present headache, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s love-in with the Murdoch family, with the Leveson inquiry, thereby giving him a few weeks grace.

But that was before Speaker John agreed to a Labour bid to haul the PM back into the Commons for one final roasting before they all disappeared until the Queen's Speech.

The Speaker's relations with Dave are said to be on the cold side of frozen stiff — but that was tropically warm compared to the atmosphere in the House of Commons as the Prime Minister turned up for his telling-off.

You could tell there would be no severe bashing today as the PM sat down with the embattled Jeremy firmly stapled to his side. And the danger of doing Commons business after lunch became immediately obvious as fans on both sides of the terraces let loose with the insults even before a fact was mentioned.

Ed Miliband, egged on by the Labour version of the Kop, hardly had to poke his stick into the PM before he was off and shouting foul and much worse. Ed demanded an immediate inquiry into relations between the Culture Secretary and the Murdochs in a sure-footed performance of someone who knows the high moral ground when he is standing on it. And Dave could only bluster in reply having pointedly reminded the Speaker that he’d said all this at Prime Ministers Questions last week.

Jeremy, breathing in and out like a goldfish with asthma, almost nodded his head off as his leader pronounced him not guilty — for the moment — and Chancellor George pressed even closer to him to prevent any attempt to flee the scene.

Notably absent from the PM’s other side was his Deputy Nick Clegg who, aware that his own deputy Simon Hughes was to back calls for an early inquiry, had chosen to go AWOL as indeed had the rest of the side of the coalition he provides.

As Dave’s temper grew shorter and shorter, the volume on his side grew louder apace, persuading Speaker Bercow to pour further oil on the flames by calling for calm.

It was to no avail and the PM’s well-known "Flashman" tendency finally asserted itself when Dennis Skinner made one of his traditionally blunt contributions, only to be told to take retirement and get his pension. Attacking pensioners in an election week is always bad form and even Dave’s side blanched a bit.

It was left finally to the wonderfully irrelevant Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tory MP who looks and sounds exactly like his name, to say that only  “a socialist yahoo” would rush to make a decision. Ed could only smile at the compliment.

A member of the protest group Avaaz holds puppets depicting David Cameron (L) and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.