Who's afraid? The wolves are gathering, says Nick Lezard. Photo: Ronnie Macdonald/Flickr
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An email makes me cry. I pull myself together... then get another from my accountant

Down and Out with Nicholas Lezard.

Three emails, hard on each other’s heels. (I know this is the second week in a row I have used recent emails as the kick-off for a column but you know what? They’re among the few human interactions I have these days.)

Email No 1 asks me to accept a 20 per cent pay cut for something. No 2 is from a TV company, which is making a programme on a subject the producers’ would rather I was quiet about pro tem. They want to bend my ear, for reasons that do not entirely elude me. No 3 is from another organisation, which is asking me to be on a panel for something related to the London Book Fair. It can pay my travel expenses but nothing else.

The first email involves me having a little bit of a panic and a cry, followed by a period of pulling myself together and replying – mindful that a 100 per cent pay cut is never going to be entirely out of the question and too outraged a tone might be catastrophically counterproductive – that a 10 per cent pay cut might be more acceptable at this end.

Email No 2 is easier to deal with, especially after email No 1. I tell them that in my experience, being interviewed by a TV company involves having people pinch my ideas for nothing – unless you count an undistinguished cup of coffee something – and then not being on the telly. I take some satisfaction from writing this. (When in doubt, ask yourself: what would Beckett do? And as far as I know, he never appeared on telly.)

I feel a bit worse about the London Book Fair gig but by this time my dander is up and I’m full of piss and vinegar. Even though the person chairing the panel is someone for whom I not only have a lot of professional respect but whose beauty maddens me like wine, I reply curtly that I do not work for free.

Then another email. It is from my accountants. As you might have suspected, for I have hinted at this for some time, I hide from my accountants. To get charged a substantial three-figure sum to be told that I am f***ed goes against what I consider to be the life well lived. And although they did go through my books some years ago and tell me that they had never seen someone so honest quite so f***ed – and went through such rudimentary books as I had at a level of detail that means I would happily pay them to have done so, for they deserve to be paid, if I were not f***ed – I am f***ed, so I can’t quite pay them right at this moment.

But anyway, there they are in my in-box and very politely so, considering the circumstances, if I may add. One detail does not escape me and that is the HMRC officers’ take on all this, which my accountants have thoughtfully passed on. They, too, have been patient but it is along the lines of “the wheels of justice grinding slow but fine”. And if I thought I was f***ed at the end of the first paragraph of my accountants’ email, that was nothing.

When, in the relevant paragraph, I see the penalties, I go into a kind of fugue state, for they are amazing. But not unjustifiable, on their part. I can see their point of view.

Maybe if I wasn’t so f***ed, I would hire an accountant to bring the figure down a bit but at the moment what I really need is the testimony of a mental health panel and I do not have the time or non-f***ed-upness to sort that kind of thing out, which is itself a kind of testimony. After all, if my friend Professor BetterNotNameHimOrHer can, after years of trying to persuade the relevant people that HeOrShe has attention deficit disorder, somehow manage to get a teaching post at a very prestigious university, why can’t I, with my piles of books, my inability even to ask for money I am even owed and my generally disastrous circumstances, persuade them of the same thing?

The answer to email No 1 comes back. They will accept my terms, which comes as a pleasant surprise. Email No 2 is answered with an assurance that I will be paid a small, three-figure sum for my time. This, too, is acceptable. Email No 3 has not, at the time of writing, received an answer but this is understandable, for I had been very curt, what with one thing and another, and had not made a jokey comment about how the chairperson’s beauty maddened me like wine, and so on.

But the wolves are gathering around the door and, in true bohemian style, my tiny hands are frozen. I was inoculated against TB at school but it’ll be something else that gets me, I warrant.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

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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.