Phillip Schofield's List shows the danger of treating internet rumours as news

Sometimes big stories can be ignored by news organisations because there is corruption, and sometimes because they simply can’t be stood up. So when did we start putting so much trust in Twitter rumours and David Icke?

“It took a momentary, cursory glance at the internet,” said Phillip Schofield, explaining the list of suspected paedophiles he handed over to David Cameron yesterday.

Schofield’s List made good television, as the presenter dramatically handed over the names on a This Morning branded card. But it didn’t make sense. And it wasn’t good journalism.

This was the moment when internet rumours and "cursory glances" became good enough. What did it achieve, this handing over of names from a few websites? It didn’t tell Cameron anything he didn’t already know; but it did make This Morning the biggest story of the day.

In the fallout from the Jimmy Savile revelations, there’s been a growing hubbub about suspected paedophile stories. There are several strands: delving into the murky past of light entertainers; looking at the sinister-sounding connections between Savile, the police and powerful people; and occasionally tying everything together into a giant conspiracy.

Normally rational internet folk have been linking to the likes of David Icke, suggesting that a man with an outlandishly unrealistic worldview could be near to the truth with this particular conspiracy theory. Names of former Prime Ministers have been dragged up and linked to paedophilia. Former ministers have been accused. Links to freemasonry, serial killers and the occult have been made. It is an overwhelming, astonishing story, if true.

If true.

But where is the evidence, the real evidence?  

Newsnight’s report began the latest deluge, though it was not directly responsible for it. However, the existence of the programme escalated the obscene guessing games which had previously focused on Savile’s entertainment contemporaries, and switched the focus to politicians.

At the heart of the report was an earnest attempt to establish what had been going on in care homes, and sensitive interviews with survivors. But that must now be seen in the light of today’s mistaken identity story in the Guardian – which is not an attack on the victim at the heart of the story, or a "rowing back" from the investigation, but an attempt to ascertain facts. Facts are all that we as consumers have to go on, and it’s vital that those broadcasters and old media that we still trust value them as deeply as possible.

If we are not careful, the facts recede into the distance amid all the lurid speculation and rumour. A "momentary, cursory glance at the internet" brings up all kinds of accusations: the bizarre, wrong, lying, deliberately smearing and occasionally correct.

Sometimes big stories can be ignored by news organisations because there is corruption, and sometimes because they simply can’t be stood up. Sometimes names are not made public – not out of deference to powerful perpetrators, but because there’s not enough evidence.

All the speculation diminishes the kernel of the story, which is that many people who have been horribly exploited and abused are finding the confidence to come forward. It is right that they are not disbelieved, and it is right that the way in which previous allegations were dealt with should be investigated; but it doesn’t necessarily follow that there was a massive cover-up. Nor does it follow that every single allegation is true, regardless of evidence. Perhaps some confusion arises when readers and viewers don’t realise that you can say what you like about the dead, but not about the living.

Now, more than ever, we need our traditional news outlets to be absolutely certain before they publish or broadcast, given the mass of wrong and misleading information out there. It’s what we as readers and viewers deserve, and should demand as a minimum standard. If we don’t, there will be no difference between "a cursory glance on the internet" and news.

The moment when Phillip Schofield handed David Cameron the list on This Morning.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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.