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.

Getty
Show Hide image

"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

0800 7318496