Whose words are these?

The strange evolution of a Martin Luther King quotation can tell us a lot about authorship.

Authorship is a funny thing. Take this blog post, for example. There, above the headline, is a large, pink egg-shaped object that bears an uncanny resemblance to the putty-faced ovoid I occasionally wash when I can't see through the grime. It's my face, trapped in that awkward sneery half-smile, and these words are mine.

Well, are they? You could say that I've lifted "these words are mine" from the beautiful lyrics of Natasha Bedingfield's spectacularly written song about songwriting, "These Words Are Mine". And there they are, the same Roman characters in the same order, the same English words implying a very similar sentiment to that pop masterwork. I would argue, though, that since I haven't surrounded them with the lustrous beauty that Bedingfield did, I haven't so much borrowed them from her fair quill, but simply reproduced a familiar phrase.

I think that's fair enough, but it's hard to know. When writing something, you're aware that you might stumble across something someone else once did before, whether you're doing so accidentally or knavishly. It's the latter knavishness that is frowned upon, of course, for tweet jackdaws who end up cracking gags that others have made before, using their own avatar and getting all the plaudits.

But then, what if you come up with the same thing independently, simultaneously? There is only a finite number of puns, for example: someone's bound to have thought about the same one as you, and done it before – and probably done it better. Does that mean you're a thief if you think you've come up with one yourself, only to discover that it came out of the Ark?

I ask all this because, this week, words from Martin Luther King Jr echoed around Twitter and Facebook. "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, even an enemy," he said. Or rather, he didn't. The quotation came instead from a Pennsylvanian English teacher in Japan, Jessica Dovey, who had followed her own sentiment with the true King quote:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.

Dovey's quote got added in to MLK's words, and then, for reasons of space in Twitter's 140-character limit, her quote became King's. Except he never said it.

Does it matter, now that we know a figure we admire didn't say these words – that they came from a pleb, someone who is just like us? Does it diminish their power? Does it erode credibility from those who repeated and retweeted the sentiment in those hours after the slaying of Osama Bin Laden, using the authoritative voice of a peace campaigner to reflect their views that the killing was less than morally perfect?

I think the answer is no. If anything, I feel it's a wonderful thing to discover a new, extraordinary quotation from someone completely ordinary. Would we have known about Dovey's words if they had not been wrongly attributed to someone more famous? Probably not. But I'm glad we did hear them.

It is too easy to attribute wise-sounding words to the wise people we've learned to admire. There are plenty of mistakes, bad quotes and less-than-pleasant things that got said by many famous figures whose other words are copied and pasted all over the place; but we tend to ignore those other sayings in favour of the aphorisms that suit our sentiments the most. It's a deal more complicated than that, but when you're trying to sum up your feelings in 140 characters or fewer, a lot of the richness to these passages does die away.

So, yes, I did write this; but I had help, from Natasha Bedingfield, from Martin Luther King, from Jessica Dovey. Would you believe me if I said I wrote this all on my own? Probably not. Does it matter if I did most of it by myself? I hope so. These words are mine. Trying to find the magic, trying to write a classic . . . sometimes we all borrow a little from somewhere else.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left