What follows is my attempt to justify a bit of journalism’s grand larceny. . .
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my first exhibit is a quotation which presses the sheep-or-goats button hot-wired into every wannabe newsbreaker’s heart: “News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising.”
As a call to arms for we romantic change-the-worldlings it’s right up there with Voltaire (“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”) and the former journo-cum-playwright Sir Tom Stoppard (“I still believe that if your aim is to change the world, journalism is a more immediate short-term weapon”). My quotation exibit is said to have spilled, saint-like, from the lips of the legendary Washington Post owner Katharine Graham.
Only it didn’t. She pinched it.
US press baron William Randolph Hearst, his UK counterpart Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) and renowned author George Orwell are notable among the rival headline characters credited with originating the aphorism. But there are instances of similar sentiments stretching back as far as 1918 when a framed placard that sat on the desk of L. E. Edwardson, day city editor of the Chicago Herald and Examiner, famously proclaimed: “Whatever a patron desires to get published is advertising; whatever he wants to keep out of the paper is news.”
So we’re agreed, right? Very little under the sun is historically original for very long and history can’t be copyrighted so copycatting, with appropriate accreditation seems an almost proper way to proceed, imitation being (as pretty well everyone, everywhere has said at some time or other) the sincerest form of flattery.
Listen to the words of distinguished Harvard Professor of Mathematics Tom Lehrer who not only said but sang to great acclaim across the world:
Let no one else’s work evade your eyes,
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
So don’t shade your eyes, but
Plagiarise! Plagiarise! Plagiarise!
Okay, so the good prof IS better known as a satirist and entertainer than as an Ivy League academic but at least he isn’t a journalist and there is nothing in the Great Rules of Life that bars a man with a wickedly acid sense of humour from having his say.
Besides, plagiarism is a thing of the past, carried out furtively by scribblers looking for words and ideas that could be purloined and recycled as one’s own with no thought of attribution. The actual larcenous act still goes on, of course. But just as ill-bred poachers have turned themselves into middle-class foragers with fungi for sale to every deli in the district, plagiarists have recycled their black art to the altogether more respectably computerised skill of aggregation.
It is a skill which, when fully developed, saves the journalist’s liver from the depredations of hours spent earwigging customers in the Drum and Monkey and keeps him or her off the streets, instead spending days googling through rival websites looking for stories on which to stitch a local angle.
The English language version of this questionable activity may have started in far-off Australia, a great nation still lacking a sense of ‘place’ on the world scene and thus still attached to the apron strings of its birth mother, Britain, and it’s adopted parent, the USA. Indeed, I may have unwittingly created the monster myself, during several years in Sydney as deputy editor of The Australian and then as editor of the Daily Telegraph.
Example: an earthquake kills 100 in Nepal, all of them reportedly locals. A bad (therefore, ‘good’) story that would mean more to my readers if it could be ‘Aussie-fied’.
“Get me an Aussie angle!” I bellow. Phone calls to local travel companies reveal Sydneysiders anxiously awaiting news of Nepal-bound relatives, calls to the Australian embassy in Kathmandu lead to “dazed but lucky Aussie holidaymakers who were about to travel to the disaster-hit region”.
That’s aggregation: no primary fact-finding, a few bolt-on facts via telephone inquiry and an ‘angle’ is secured without ever letting that expense-creation machine (the journalist) out of sight of his keyboard. And everyone apart from the landlord wins.
So, having reduced plagiarism to copying with accreditation and then finally down to blameless and cost-efficient aggregation let’s take the final step, pat ourselves on the back for doing a friend a favour and re-publicise a magnificent farewell column by departing Northern Echo editor Peter Barron, latest in a line of great editors from my personal heroes W.T. Stead (1871-80), the father of investigative journalism and, in the 1960s, its greatest proponent, Sir Harry Evans.
This is journalism. Published by Peter, pinched by me: