PMQs sketch: Incapacitating Dave

Ed demanded to know whether "Calamity Clegg" was for or against NHS reforms.

It was only after Ed Miliband revealed that everyone who was anyone in the National Health Service now opposed his plans for re-organisation that the Prime Minister said he had no plans to be incapacitated.

The news came as a major disappointment to NHS staff desperate to get their hands on him having finally seen his Health Secretary Andrew Lansley off to a darkened room. The revelation came as crowds gathered for what has become the weekly ritual of Cameron-clobbing, officially billed as Prime Ministers Questions. Dave used to bounce into the Chamber in those early easy days of his Premiership; sun-tanned, sleek and superior, more than happy to face down the Labour leader. That was before Ed found the NHS. Now it's a florid-faced substitute who turns up for ritual humiliation in front of his own less-than-happy backbenchers -- not to mention the Lib-Dem part of the coalition led by Dave's deputy, more than pleased to disassociate themselves from the disaster.

Relief shone on the Prime Minister's already shiny face when Ed kicked off his PMQs session with a couple of innocuous questions about the Leveson inquiry, but it was only to draw his target into a false sense of security.

He then proceeded to read out a list of organisations, most of whose names are prefixed by the word Royal, who take the view that Andrew Lansley is probably certifiable and the Prime Minister is at least guilty by association. Ed's list was so comprehensive that listeners were surprised not to hear that the Royal College of those-who-open-the-front-doors-of-hospitals-for-those-even-more-important were on it. But it was the list of those who were which obviously left the embattled Prime Minister to realize that were he incapacitated, the transfer from home to hospital might not be all he would hope for.

To be fair to Dave he had his own -- albeit rather shorter -- list, but with considerably fewer royal prefixes than one might have expected from someone leading the Conservative Party. With one opinion poll showing Labour with a six-point lead, Ed declared that this health bill could cost Dave the next election; a comment which brought a lull into the mutual swopping of insults which marks the behaviour of MPs required to turn up in the Commons to register on their way to lunch. There was a toast to absent friends in the shape of Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey, whose call for industrial action during the Olympics on the morning of PMQS could not have been better timed. In the good old days this would have had Central Office and the Daily Mail beside themselves with pleasure. But despite ritual huffing and puffing by the usual suspects it never really took off, even after the PM reminded the House that Unite pick up a third of Labour's bills.

Thanks to the magic of the Twittersphere, not to mention that the next General Election is still three years off, Ed was able to denounce his paymaster in public before Dave could have a go. Nick Clegg had earlier called on Ed to "rein in" the Unite boss, and this was clearly enough to allow the Labour leader to single out his Lib-Dem equivalent who tries -- and usually succeeds -- in turning himself into the invisible man on these occasions. But he must have moved inadvertently today because Ed spotted him and demanded to know whether the Deputy Prime Minister was for or against the reforms. Having read Nick's call to arms to his peers in the House of Lords you could see that Dave, not to mention the massed hordes of his side of the Coalition, would also have liked an answer on this. Nick mouthed his support but in the general direction of the Labour benches, thereby leaving both side still not knowing where he stood.

It was this which led the aptly named Tory MP Peter Bone, who makes regular attacks on the Coalition with all the candour of a man who knows he will never be a Minister, to ask the PM who would take over if he was incapacitated. Casting an eye over his deputy, described as "Calamity Clegg" earlier in the proceedings, Dave said he had no plans to be incapacitated. Ed just smiled.

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.