Fiendish: a hamster. Photo: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images
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I always let my children have hamsters because they didn’t live very long. But we never recovered from Spike

"He ran around, biting like the bastard he was."

Pets exist to teach children about love and death. Hence the succession of hamsters that have been part of my life. I’m not a natural animal person, as I am of the opinion that animals should live outside. As a child, I kept moth caterpillars and flies in jars of sugar as pets. When I was put in charge of the class newt it somehow escaped and was found all dried up.

But inevitably when my own children yearned for small furry things in cages I gave in. The best thing about most rodents is that they don’t live that long. I gave them good lives – and, what’s more, superb funerals.

I would wrap their little hamster bodies in clingfilm and arrange dried roses around them in a shoebox. We would talk of the great wheel of life and, though an atheist, I made an exception and created a kind of Hamster Heaven where all hamsters could nest for ever. The kids got so used to my extended eulogies for the souls of these sub-rats that they would soon be crying, “But when can we get another one?”

All except for Spike. Spike, whom they wanted to name Spunk, which I vetoed, was a vicious little bastard. Within two weeks of having him, he had bitten both my daughters and all their friends. The stream of little girls sobbing and bleeding meant the vampire rodent had to go.

I was moaning about this in the playground when an oversensitive couple who always seemed disapproving of my parental skills stepped in. Their child wanted a pet. A special one.

“You can have him, the cage, the food – the lot,” I said. “But he’s a total animal.”

“Perhaps he just needs some love and affection.”

“I’ll be round with all the gear later.”

“Do you think we should have some sort of ritual? You know, for the children to make this transition? It’s an emotional time . . .”

I live in Stoke Newington. I’m only surprised they didn’t suggest we all go to Relate.

A week later, they called to say that Spike had mutilated several more children and they were having doubts.

In their noddy therapist way, they decided that what Spike needed was “more space”.

I’d not given him enough love or freedom.

Two weeks later I saw them both, ashen and whispering, outside the school. They’d indeed given Spike more freedom and he ran around like the bastard he was, biting things until he bit through the TV cable, which started sparking. The telly had blown up and all the electrics in the street had gone down.

“Christ,” I said. “So I guess that’s the end of Spike.”

Now they would see how caring I was, with my rodent funerals. I wondered if his electrocuted body was charred.

“No, he was fine. We could hear him rustling in the dark,” they said mournfully. He was a special pet after all. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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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.