Parasite journalism: is aggregation as bad as plagiarism?

When a writer lifts thoughts - or even paragraphs - from an existing work, we call it plagiarism. But news organisations do the same, and call it aggregation.

Oh dear. The Observer's chief political correspondent, Andrew Rawnsley, has been accused by Paul Staines of writing a piece that looks worryingly similar to something that ran in the Economist.

Of course, Rawnsley is not the first journalist to be accused of passing of other people's work as his own (at the time of publication, he has not responded to Staines's allegations). Older people who I talk to in the industry say it's a very rare thing to happen - and when it does, it's usually an exhausted young graduate trainee who doesn't know any better. In my opinion, it happens all the time, it's just that people don't get caught very often. Johann Hari is the classic example - the only absolutely rock solid piece of plagiarism that could be pinned on him was a piece from a German newspaper article that he'd translated.

That gets to the heart of why people aren't caught. The internet is a big place - most of the time, if you steal a clever blog post written in another country and publish it in a UK newspaper, no one is any the wiser. It's not just the stressed out kids doing it either. In 2011, a Pulitzer prize winner was caught stealing at the Washington Post

It's probably always happened - but the internet has made it easier to find, and quicker to do. "Quicker" gets to the heart of the issue. Quite a few are resorting to the Ctrl-V and Ctrl-C option when time is short, and there's always a fine line between "inspired by" and "lifted from".

It used be the case that the hardest work you could do if you were a journalist was to turn in seven to ten articles a week, and that was only if you were writing on a daily paper. Magazine writers had the time to write big, expansive features, full of proper research and interviews. Now, many full-time journalists in print, broadcasting and online are being asked to blog, tweet, podcast and produce or edit 10-20 articles a week. In short, do two or three people's jobs. No wonder some are getting desperate. 

Of course, you still get some great journalism under this system. For example, perhaps the best meditation on Andy Murray's Wimbledon win was written by Ally Fogg in the Guardian. He wrote movingly of the way in which Andy Murray's win had given the town of Dunblane a reason to be memorable other than its ghastly 1996 school massacre. As soon as I read it, I thought, "That's a brilliant take on a difficult subject, totally different from anything I'd have been able to write".

Unfortunately, lots of people didn't read it in the Guardian - a lot read it in the Washington Post. Whole chunks of Fogg's article - indeed, whole paragraphs, as well as the argument, thrust and premise of it, and the supporting quotes - were repeated wholesale on the American newspaper's website. While Fogg was credited, and his own original piece was linked to, as he said: "Y'know there's a fine line between 'thank you for crediting my work' and 'here's my invoice'." 

I have to ask the question, in a word where journalism is a commodity, is stealing essentially the whole premise of an article, and then providing a link that very few people will click on, any different from what Rawnsley is accused of doing? Copying and pasting Ally Fogg's Dunblane piece, then topping and tailing it, probably saved that Washington Post writer a good couple of hours. Easier than working for a living.

It's not just American behemoths that are doing it either. British papers are doing it all the time too. Recently, I spoke to freelancer David Robinson, who had just had a feature printed in the Daily Express - about Nazi plans to bomb New York. Hours later, it was up on the Daily Mail website. Again, it linked back to Robinson's article - but it used his whole idea, and lifted the quotes he'd obtained, and the story he'd researched. As Robinson said to me: "As a freelancer I’m really only as good as my ideas. What rights do I have? It’s very dispiriting."

This kind of aggregation is legal, if frustrating for hard-working writers like Robinson and Fogg. Pieces are linked to, original authors are mentioned, but you have to ask what that's really worth. Of course, the content aggregation thing has been around as long as wire copy - most papers most days will have some of that, usually covering it as "by staff writer". (I know of one paper which has a fictional writer to whom it attributes wire stories - Mr "Harry Banks" - note the spike in his work rate in August.) What's different is the aggregation stuff is getting bigger, and people are using less wire copy, and more stuff other media outlets that have put out. It has the advantage over wire copy of being free. 

In my opinion, some of this stuff is just as bad as plagiarism. Aggregators are parasites, only slightly more benign than plagiarists - and sooner or later, parasites kill the host. Someone has to actually create words for other people to steal. It's just that actually paying for people to be creative is expensive. We'd better work out a way for journalistic creativity to pay - or we're going to have a much worse media in a very short time.

The speed at which journalists are now required to provide copy has taken its toll. Photo: Getty

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn sat down on train he claimed was full, Virgin says

The train company has pushed back against a viral video starring the Labour leader, in which he sat on the floor.

Seats were available on the train where Jeremy Corbyn was filmed sitting on the floor, Virgin Trains has said.

On 16 August, a freelance film-maker who has been following the Labour leader released a video which showed Corbyn talking about the problems of overcrowded trains.

“This is a problem that many passengers face every day, commuters and long-distance travellers. Today this train is completely ram-packed,” he said. Is it fair that I should upgrade my ticket whilst others who might not be able to afford such a luxury should have to sit on the floor? It’s their money I would be spending after all.”

Commentators quickly pointed out that he would not have been able to claim for a first-class upgrade, as expenses rules only permit standard-class travel. Also, campaign expenses cannot be claimed back from the taxpayer. 

Today, Virgin Trains released footage of the Labour leader walking past empty unreserved seats to film his video, which took half an hour, before walking back to take another unreserved seat.

"CCTV footage taken from the train on August 11 shows Mr Corbyn and his team walked past empty, unreserved seats in coach H before walking through the rest of the train to the far end, where his team sat on the floor and started filming.

"The same footage then shows Mr Corbyn returning to coach H and taking a seat there, with the help of the onboard crew, around 45 minutes into the journey and over two hours before the train reached Newcastle.

"Mr Corbyn’s team carried out their filming around 30 minutes into the journey. There were also additional empty seats on the train (the 11am departure from King’s Cross) which appear from CCTV to have been reserved but not taken, so they were also available for other passengers to sit on."

A Virgin spokesperson commented: “We have to take issue with the idea that Mr Corbyn wasn’t able to be seated on the service, as this clearly wasn’t the case.

A spokesman for the Corbyn campaign told BuzzFeed News that the footage was a “lie”, and that Corbyn had given up his seat for a woman to take his place, and that “other people” had also sat in the aisles.

Owen Smith, Corbyn's leadership rival, tried a joke:

But a passenger on the train supported Corbyn's version of events.

Both Virgin Trains and the Corbyn campaign have been contacted for further comment.

UPDATE 17:07

A spokesperson for the Jeremy for Labour campaign commented:

“When Jeremy boarded the train he was unable to find unreserved seats, so he sat with other passengers in the corridor who were also unable to find a seat. 

"Later in the journey, seats became available after a family were upgraded to first class, and Jeremy and the team he was travelling with were offered the seats by a very helpful member of staff.

"Passengers across Britain will have been in similar situations on overcrowded, expensive trains. That is why our policy to bring the trains back into public ownership, as part of a plan to rebuild and transform Britain, is so popular with passengers and rail workers.”

A few testimonies from passengers who had their photos taken with Corbyn on the floor can be found here