Commons Confidential: Whose gag is it anyway?

Let's see who wants to line up and claim Ed Miliband's “Is there anything he can organise in a brewery?” PMQs zinger as their own work.

Tristram Hunt, the man about town, suave historian and Labour MP for the Potteries, is evidently considered worth three of his party colleagues. The Zac Goldsmith lookalike pulled out of a seminar in London on employee ownership, organised by the right-leaning Social Market Foundation. Chi Onwurah, a shadow business minister, told the assembled policy wonkers that she was standing in for Hunt. What a coincidence, muttered John Woodcock, on sabbatical from the Labour front bench to recover from a fall: he’d been asked to cover for him, too. Most odd, piped up Ian Murray, also in Labour’s business team; the leader’s office had asked him to pop along in Hunt’s place as well.

What had detained Hunt, requiring three substitutes? I trust he wasn’t writing his nice little earner on the poorly Queen that appeared in the next morning’s Times . . .

The Sun’s front page, which channelled Winston Churchill to oppose statutory press regulation, triggered an outbreak of spluttering in the Commons tearoom. Contact details of Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames, the Tory MP for Mid Sussex, were found, I am reliably informed, in the files of News International’s hired hacker Glenn Mulcaire. Fatty is chummy with the Prince of Wales. My snout imagined the doubly outraged wartime leader didn’t know which way to spin in his grave.

Tuckerman, the posh, London-based estate agents, emailed MPs details of a Victorian pad in St James’s, a few minutes’ walk from parliament. The flat has a spacious reception, double bedroom, fitted kitchen and bathroom. “The property is advertised for £390 per week,” Tuckerman said, “but the landlord would take an offer to fall in line with the parliamentary allowance.”

The limit MPs can claim is £335. The housing benefit ceiling for a one-bedroom place is £250. Shouldn’t the cap on MPs’ second homes be in line with that of first homes for the electorate?

Every good gag is claimed by many parents. I was knocked down by the rush of Tony Blair’s staff boasting that they’d come up with his line, “I don’t have to worry about Cherie running off with the bloke next door,” at the expense of Gordon Brown. To avoid impostors stealing the credit for Ed Miliband’s “Is there anything he can organise in a brewery?” zinger that destroyed Cameron at PMQs, I can reveal that the gagmeister was the research star Tom Hamilton. Fraudulent claimants, please form an orderly queue.

Michael Fabricant’s blond weave makes the tweeting Tory look like a poor man’s Boris Johnson. The comparison is cosmetic. A right-whinger swears Mickey, a party vice-chair, appeared to be wearing make-up when he bumped into him in Westminster. The Lichfield Lip hadn’t, I ascertained, come hot-faced from a TV studio. Very hug-a-husky Cameroonism.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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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.