A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a bile-filled post after spotting that Mail Online had taken a Marketing story of mine about Virgin Atlantic extending its trial of Google Glass and other technologies.
Not only had the Mail taken the story without attribution, it had lifted entire paragraphs wholesale, a practice which legitimately should get a reporter fired.
I called out the journalist, John Hutchinson, and kicked up a stink on Twitter where, luckily, quite a lot of journalists hang out who don’t like to see this kind of thing happening. It’s been hugely reassuring to have the backing of my fellow tech journalists.
Through these efforts, and some real behind-the-scenes digging by a good friend of mine at the Mail, I discovered that the Mail hadn’t directly plagiarised my piece.
Instead, it was sold to them by a newswire service I had never heard of previously, Specialist News Services. This is how the company describes itself:
We are one of the country’s leading press agencies, providing stories to the national press, consultancy services to the PR industry and media training, help and advice to a range of companies and organisations.
I contacted SNS directly and had a quick response from co-owner Mark Solomons, a man who proudly lists Jimmy Tarbuck telling him to fuck off as a highlight on his LinkedIn profile.
Solomons apologised and explained the plagiarism “wasn’t deliberate” which…well frankly I find hard to believe. I have seen the original copy of SNS’ story and the entire story is lifted. Not just fragments or quotes, but every paragraph is a direct copy of mine. Here’s their version:
SPECIALIST NEWS SERVICES
Passengers on Virgin Atlantic airline could see check-in times cut as staff use hi-tech Google Glass headsets to scan flyers’ passports.
They will also use mini-printers to print off boarding passes.
The airline is set to extend its wearable tech trial, whereby Virgin Atlantic staff wore the smartglasses and Sony smartwatches to greet passengers and supply tailored information ahead of their flight.
The trial was used for its first class passengers, but will now be expanded to general check-in areas.
David Bulman, chief information officer, said: “We are going to start with Google Glass, but we are trialling a number of different glasses.
“We’re trialling apps that allow staff to take a picture of your passport, which then works with our systems to find your booking and other information.
“We have done trials with printers that sit on people’s belts, so that we can print off boarding passes.”
Virgin Atlantic is still firming up the details and has yet to decide where the trial will take place and how long it will run.
Virgin Atlantic is also testing wearable tech within its own operations, Mr Bulman said, such as smartwatches for ground staff and facial recognition technology.
Virtual reality could be a cheaper, more convenient way to train up cabin crew, for example.
Virgin Atlantic pioneered flat beds and on-demand entertainment on flights.
I pointed out the similarities to my story for Marketing in my previous post, but you can compare for yourself (registration required).
What angered me most was how SNS offered me an eloquent apology, but no solution. I replied that plagiarism is a firing offence, and that I wanted not simply an apology, but some kind of attempt to make good. SNS eventually agreed to credit me or pull the story – I chose the credit.
Through the efforts of my friend, the Mail Online’s assistant editor had given me a call separately to discuss giving Marketing a link and credit on John Hutchinson’s piece.
This is probably about the best outcome I could have hoped for at this stage, but the whole episode was more stress than I needed. I know others have been plagiarised that don’t have the same connections, and so don’t even have the small consolation of a credit after the fact.
If I’m honest, my journalistic ego was the driving force behind my anger and my actions. But I do think episodes like this do raise questions. Should newspapers acknowledge agency copy? I went after the Mail’s John Hutchinson, believing him to be the primary plagiarist. But because the Mail don’t credit agencies (it’s not the only publication), there is no way I could have tracked it to SNS without extra help.
I’ve also namechecked SNS because from a commercial perspective, they’ve done a pretty shitty thing. The Mail will be paying SNS for access to wire copy, so rightly has an expectation that that copy isn’t stolen from elsewhere. This also damages Haymarket, Marketing’s owner. Like many publishers, Haymarket offers a syndication service – meaning if you want our copy you damn well have to pay for it.