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.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.