We need to talk about plagiarism. We really need to talk about plagiarism. Why? Because it exists, and to paraphrase a film critic friend of mine: “It seems like there’s a new plagiarism scandal in journalism every month.”
He’s right, it does feel like that, and from recent examples like Lianne ‘The Queen of Cut and Paste’ Spiderbaby, to Shaun Munro and T.J. Barnard from WhatCulture! it feels like the journalism industry has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
As a journalist, all you have is your integrity, and once that’s gone, you have nothing. You are only ever as good as your last article, you will only ever be as good as the best article that you have ever written. Plagiarism never benefits anyone because once the plagiarism is uncovered – and it will be uncovered – then the writer and their publication will lose credibility and respect.
What shocks me is when people try to stick up for the plagiariser; although nine times out of ten, these are usually fans of the writer, who don’t work within the industry, but there have been exceptions. Tim Lucas, the editor of Video Watchdog, made a very premature statement supporting Spiderbaby when her plagiarism was discovered, which he was then forced to retract when it became clear that she had in fact, plagiarised the articles that she’d written for him too.
It’s odd that when a plagiarism scandal erupts, that many editors will stand by the plagiariser despite proof of their wrongdoing. For example, in 2011, Simon Kelner, then editor of The Independent, stood by Johann Hari after evidence of plagiarism and other questionable behaviour was brought to light. Instead of being sacked, Hari was suspended and sent for ‘retraining’ in the US. He handed back his Orwell Prize, made an “evasive” public apology, but didn’t personally apologise to the writers that he had stolen from.
During his suspension, Hari decided not to return to the paper, and while both Hari and Kelner have since left The Independent, The paper’s reputation was badly damaged, just as Hari’s reputation was severely damaged by his plagiarism. So, despite Kelner standing by Hari, it was all for nothing; everyone came off badly because of his plagiarism and their failure to deal with it properly.
Obviously, an editor must support their staff, but when a staff member has plagiarised someone else’s work, then they must also protect their publication. So, why then, do some editors reveal their loyalty to a plagiariser, when a plagiariser, by definition, is incapable of thinking of anyone but themselves? In the case of WhatCulture! their initial reaction was to continue as normal by not commenting on the accusations, and continuing to publish work by both the writers in question.
A few days later, and after significant pressure, they broke their silence, saying:
Although the editors may have thought that by acknowledging the scandal, they were then dealing with it, these tweets only created more questions. What processes? What disciplinary procedures? What steps had been put in place? By not being transparent and open about what exactly they were doing, WhatCulture! were complicit in their silence; it looked like they were supporting the plagiarisers on their team over basic journalistic integrity.
Unsurprisingly, no one felt that this was good enough, and not long after, WhatCulture! released an official statement on the scandal. They apologised profusely, not just to the writers whose work was stolen, but tellingly, they also apologised to the plagiarisers for putting them under too much pressure. Additionally, the offered compensation to all the writers who had been ripped off. It was a long time coming, and while the editors were initially slow to act, they did claw back some respect.
There are two very positive lessons that we can take from these recent plagiarism scandals. The first is that for every plagiariser, there is someone, somewhere who is willing to put the time and effort to research their output and find examples of plagiarism. So, for every Lianne Spiderbaby, there is Mike White, and for every Shaun Munro and T.J. Barnard, there is Maxwell Yezpitelok, Simon Columb and Ali Gray, willing to blow the whistle, to hold critics to account and to reveal the extent of every bad journalist’s unethical practices.
The second lesson is that each time this happens, each time someone is caught plagiarising, the net tightens just a little bit more. People get angrier, editors get more wary and publications continue to crack down on this immoral and unethical behaviour. Exposing plagiarism in all its forms, whether it is uncovered in art, design, photography, film, music, journalism, poetry and academia forces us to confront it head on. It makes representatives of all these industries start to think about how they can make their respective disciplines better and more trustworthy.
In the case of journalism, the industry is under enough threat from outside forces for it to be destroyed by a series of bad journalists. As a collective we are already dealing with their being not enough jobs, little money, a lack of job security and cuts. Take a look at the new arts section from the Independent On Sunday, where it was decided that sacking all their arts critics – each of them well-respected writers with years of experience – was preferable to publishing ‘reviews’ like this.
Clearly, this attitude isn’t good enough, and when editors and publications fail to properly deal with plagiarists, it not only undermines our industry; it damns us all. Inaction will be the death of arts journalism; not online content, not a lack of advertising, but apathy. Our apathy will kill the industry.
Publishing bad writers with poor ethics and an even worse attitude is not a good idea, and editors and publishers must stand up to these people. Their inaction condones the writer’s behaviour and ensures that they will get away with it time and time again. It’s time to make a stand, to send a message to say that plagiarism will not, and should not be tolerated under any circumstances.
It’s time to talk about plagiarism. We really need to talk about plagiarism. Why? Because we can’t keep letting this happen in journalism.