Hacks


TimesEarlier this year, I wrote on the refusal of The Times and The Spectator to address the large-scale plagiarism being practiced by their chess correspondent Ray Keene. The two publications were relying, I guessed, on the belief that so few people care about chess writing that they could not cause enough of a stink to threaten them…

Thus far this assumption has not been refuted. It deserves to be, however, and not merely for the sake of chess enthusiasts. If standards are ignored in one part of an organisation, one can bet that they are being neglected elsewhere.

I think this was a safe bet.

Sam Freedman is an educationalist who wrote an article on PISA, which ranks the scholastic performance of students in worldwide. The next day’s Times leader, he notes, bore a strange resemblance to it. It made several of the same points, and with similar phrasing.

Several times, for example, Freedman listed nations to illustrate his arguments. These nations appear in The Times, in the same order. Had Freedman named them according to rank, or in alphabetical order, it could have been a believable coincidence, but their apparent randomness makes this idea hard to sustain. Both Freedman and The Times observed that nations that improved rank had toughened their standards of teaching, including “Estonia, Mexico and Israel”. It seems implausible that they would choose the same trio, unless they both find it amusing to spell out “EMI”.

This is by no means the most damning detail, though. The Times leader references something that “the OECD calls “system stability””. This term was in quotation marks in Freedman’s article, but according to the man himself it wasn’t from the OECD. Unless he is mistaken, then, it seems implausible that it was not taken from his piece. The Times employee would have had to dream up the same eccentric term even as he or she was dreaming up the same arguments with the same data. It is not impossible, but it is very hard to believe.

Daniel Finkelstein, Executive Editor of The Times and Chief Leader Writer, claims that Freedman has not demonstrated a case for plagiarism, but does become the first Times or Spectator employee to acknowledge the charges against Keene. He claims that they are new to him, and that he cannot judge because he is not a chess player. One does not have to be Kasparov to observe that copying chunks of text from other authors’ works is plagiarism. It is plagiarism whether the subject is politics, science or psychedelics, and one does not have to stand for office, conduct research or drop acid to grasp the fact.

It is understandable to be averse to acknowledging the blatant misbehaviour of one’s friends and colleagues, but Finkelstein will have to face up to it or his excuse will somehow grow more pitiable. While his colleagues and peers ignore the issue, meanwhile, the low standards of their publications will continue to amaze.

CostanzaLaughing at the Guardian’s social justice warriors is a bit like mocking the hairstyles of the 1980s. It is neither difficult nor original. It is fascinating, though, to see them hunt through Western culture in search of perceived offences against egalitarian values. As much as they could be charged with utopianism in their efforts to impose equality, I think they are inspired not so much by thoughts of an endgame as by the affirming sense of righteousness that is obtained through the judgement of others. Take this passage

…there’s a strange double standard when it comes to being natural. Viewers of this summer’s Celebrity Big Brother were quick to criticise Courtney Stodden for her unnatural breast implants, but they were horrified when Geordie Shore star Charlotte Crosby wet the bed. Likewise, the I’m A Celebrity contestants were appalled when Adlington explained that sometimes she needs to pee in the pool to save time when training.

For this commentator, then, it is hypocritical to be repelled by breast implants the size of beach balls and by people urinating into communal bodies of water. This is like saying it is hypocritical for women to dislike both men who take more steroids than a prime Arnold Schwarzenegger and men who go to the toilet and fail to wash their hands. What is brilliant is that the last sentence required no exaggeration for comic effect. It is exactly like that.

GlassWhen Johann Hari was exposed for plagiarism, Nick Cohen wrote

Intellectual frauds expose a society’s tolerance of mendacity. British impostors show that they are from a culture where rules are for fools.

This is somewhat overblown, as intellectual frauds can expose a society’s ignorance. Nonetheless, there is something to it. Cheat can evade disgrace not merely because of their talents of deception but because of enablers, who are either indifferent to the truth or actively disdainful of it. This, as Cohen wrote, is common in the British press. It seems, in fact, to be true of his employers.

Last week, I wrote about the exposure of Raymond Keene, a chess columnist for The Times and The Spectator, as a serial plagiarist, who copies whole sections of writing from other peoples’ work and pastes them into his articles.

Both of his employers had been informed of this, and I took it upon myself to remind one of them: Fraser Nelson, who edits The Spectator. I sent Mr Nelson links to the evidence against Keene over Twitter on the 5th, the 7th and the 9th of September. On the 5th, I also sent him this email

Dear Sir,

I would like to draw your attention to the plagiarism of your chess correspondent, Raymond Keene. Many incidents, which have appeared in your magazine, have been documented here:

http://streathambrixtonchess.blogspot.co.uk/2006/10/ray-keene-plagiarism-index.html

When Johann Hari was found to have copied material from his interviewees’ books or other interviewers, your bloggers described him as “disgraced”, and guilty of an “extraordinary case” of “[playing] fast and loose with the conventions of journalism”. Mr Hari was at least not claiming his interviewees’ words for himself.

Yours,

BenSix

I have, like others, received no response. The Independent was slow to respond to allegations against Hari but it did respond. Keene’s editors have thus provided reason to think that his should be the more dramatic scandal on two grounds.

The sad fact is that cheats can and do prosper. Bloggers have been drawing attention to Mr Keene’s behaviour for years, but the trouble is that they have no obvious means of gaining attention on such a scale as to force editors of powerful magazines and newspapers to act. Yet they, and I, will not forget about this grubby business, and if it comes to light it will seem all the more shameful for how long it has been allowed to continue.

ChessI was never very keen on chess when I was young. This seemed odd, on reflection, as I loved military strategising almost as much as mint chocolate chip ice creams. Besides, my dad is an enthusiast, and rather talented. Perhaps that is what put me off. Perhaps one of the great reasons for playing board games is the prospect of triumphing over one’s father.

Chess is not among my interests, then, but journalism is. Some of the great scandals to rock journalism – or, at least, to fill column inches – in the past few years have been devoted to plagiarism. The exposure of Johann Hari as a hack who inserted quotes from his interviewees’ books or other interviews into his copy, for example, was headline news. He was forced to return his Orwell Prize and step down from his post at The Independent, whose failure to promptly sack him led to charges of a cover-up.

In the meantime, though, one columnist for The Times and The Spectator has been committing dozens of acts of plagiarism and his employers have covered it up by the simple means of ignoring the humble citizens who have exposed it. That they have been successful is largely due to their employee writing on a subject outside the mainstream: chess. Raymond Keene, an English grandmaster, is alleged to have plagiarised from others on over a hundred and thirty occasions, many of which have been documented online. In Garry Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors, the former World Chess Champion wrote…

It would appear that Capa had not in fact decided whether he should play for a win or a draw, and vacillation in a complicated position normally has unfortunate results.

In May 2012, Keene’s Spectator column contained this sentence…

It would appear that Capa had not in fact decided whether he should play for a win or a draw, and vacillation in a complicated position normally has unfortunate results.

There are similarities between these sentences – similarities, indeed, between every word. Elsewhere in his book, Kasparov wrote…

At the most appropriate moment! By driving the knight from f6, the pawn spreads confusion in the black ranks.

In July 2009, meanwhile, Keene wrote

At the most appropriate moment! By driving the knight from f6, the pawn spreads confusion in the black ranks.

He could have at least revised that strange exclamation mark.

Only Private Eye, among mainstream outlets, has called attention on the endemic theft – indeed, apparent kleptomania – indulged in these great pillars of British journalism, but Justin Horton, who patiently exposed Keene’s wrongdoing, has emailed both of their editors and received no response. They presumably think that people will not be so exercised by the behaviour of chess correspondents to provoke controversy. Thus far this assumption has not been refuted. It deserves to be, however, and not merely for the sake of chess enthusiasts. If standards are ignored in one part of an organisation, one can bet that they are being neglected elsewhere. No conscientious housekeeper leaves one room full of garbage.

There have never been more people learning to be journalists, but it remains a poor time to learn how to be a good one. The single exception is that of the foreign reporter, for whom a changing, conflicted world may be travelled with the aid of a bounty of resources that turn Walter Cronkite green. Otherwise, though, imaginations are warped by the struggle to distinguish oneself among one’s competitors, and style is corrupted by the habits of skim-reading, deadline-meeting and jejune polemic.

I have few journalistic ambitions, but it struck me to wonder what books – rather than blogs, Tweeters and content-aggregators – might help a young hack to appreciate their craft and to refine their own style. Here are a few suggestions.

OrwellGeorge Orwell Essays – Many journalists have aspired to be George Orwell, and it would do some of them good to actually read him. The great pleasures of the man are not found in his books but in his essays. There he could inflict his opinions on the reader directly, and what a pleasure it is to be the target of them. His spare prose was not a vehicle for one of the greatest minds but one of the more unique consciences: one obsessed with justice and offences against it, whether writing to oppose the exploitation of the poor or the monstering of the innocent naif Wodehouse, yet rooted in his affection for nature and community. For all of the strange deification, and distortion, there remain few more inspiring literary experiences than reading him grapple with the world, his peers and himself.

MenckenH.L. Mencken A Mencken Chrestomathy – Mencken was a callous snob whose Nietzschean leanings and bleak materialism steered him, sometimes, towards misanthropy and nihilism. He was also an incisive sceptic; a noble advocate for unpopular causes and a writer of amusing, elegant prose. I am hesitant to recommend opinionated commentators as they can infect their readers with overmuch confidence in their own worth and disdain for that of others. What inspires a willingness to break this rule is a suspicion that Mencken’s jolly bumptiousness, which rarely subsided into the collegiality of a Hitchens, will provoke readers as much as it will endear him to them. Among his castigations of the foolishness of democrats, moralists, Marxists, traditionalists, Southerners, zookeepers, chiropractors, sportsmen and the poor is bound to lie something to provoke ire as well as thought. It is an essential challenge for any serious person to have clever people to argue with.

Tell Me No LiesJohn Pilger Tell Me No Lies – The Australian muckraker’s collection of the highlights of the noble field of investigative journalism offers a bounty of treasures, among which one finds Martha Gellhorn’s writings from Dachau; Seymour Hersh’s reports on My Lai and Paul Foot’s exposé of the Lockerbie investigations. There is an obvious bias behind the selection, and I am unsure of why Edward Said’s Covering Islam is excerpted; not merely as it is not very good but as it is not investigative journalism. Nonetheless, the courage, gumption and humanity of the best pieces in this book make it inspiring to read; whether you wish to head off into the Syrian warzone or the archives of the CIA.

IrrationalityStuart Sutherland Irrationality – After reading such opinionated people as are found in the first books, it would perhaps be a smart idea for an aspiring journalist to be reminded of the limits of the human consciousness; of the dangers of presuming that one’s little brain has figured out the mysteries of the universe, or, indeed, of one’s own community. Stuart Sutherland’s entertaining volume exposes the follies of man, as provoked by our biases, and offers cause to question one’s ideas and intuitions. This not only illuminates one’s own vulnerabilities but helps one to empathise with the failings of others.

TurkelStuds Terkel Working - A great journalist must be empathetic. They need not be compassionate – though I feel that it would help – but they must understand the people about whom they write: their circumstances, their values and their ambitions. They must try to grasp the consequences of events on people. They must strive to appreciate what leads a politician to declare a war, and what might cause a plumber to rise from his bedsheets in the morning. They must listen. If listening were an art, Studs Terkel would have been its master. This genial old New Yorker tramped across the United States, settling down in front of car salesman, auditors, baseball players, soldiers, executives and librarians, and captured the rhythms and melodies of everyday lives. He is as good a cure for solipsism as a stiff drink is for an Autumnal evening.

childrenThe Daily Mail features a long article on Alexander – a young boy who misbehaves. All young boys misbehave, naturally, but Alexander is alleged to be a special case. We learn that the boy has urinated in public, hurled himself down flights of stairs and taken to calling everyone “Mr Poo Poo Head”, “including nice old ladies minding their own business”. Shocking that a child his age cannot even distinguish between the sexes.

Is it me or are more and more people being offered platforms from which to tell us about their kids? Shona Sibery, for example,  has made a career of writing about her children. The Mail columnist has informed her readers that she slaps them; puts them to bed early; feeds them drugs to make them sleep on aeroplanes and welcomes their public chastisement by strangers.

The moral and practical worth of these decisions I leave to be judged by the reader but none of them, I think, have the potential to be as damaging as writing about them in the national press. Being hit is a pleasant feature of nobody’s childhood but at least it is a private humiliation. As for Alexander: will he really want a detailed record of his unsanitary exploits floating about?

It is odd. A lot of parents fear, with some justice, that in the age of social media their children might innocently expose their private details to potential bullies, stalkers, educators and employers. Here are these parents, though, cheerfully elaborating on their children’s personal and often embarrassing habits and experiences, to an audience of hundreds of thousands of strangers.

I am not a father – indeed, I found it hard enough to care for a rabbit – but should these kids not have privacy until they are old enough to decide whether to flaunt their lives before the nation’s gaze? I know that contestants on reality TV shows have the mental ages of children but, still, this is going too far.

SparkI have no desire to comment on the specific processes by which Adebolajo and Adebowale came to be inspired to commit murder on the streets of Woolwich. There is much that is being speculated or that has yet to be said, and one’s conclusions would be necessarily presumptuous. This, of course, has never held back 99% of opinion commentators, and it sometimes does not restrain me, but for now I will observe and attempt to learn.

Still, the commentary is interesting. Jonathan Freedland argues that we should not consider the motives of terrorists as this “cede[s] [them], and violence itself, too much power”. Discussing the motives of particular terrorists may lend them a perverted glamour, yes, but I am all for the study of trends of violence. My general rule is that if people who would otherwise have been expected to be peaceful are blowing themselves or others up, something must have occurred that has provoked such a collective fever, and if it has the potential to cause so much desensitisation it may well have been a regrettable occurrence. Breivik, then, who Freedland mentions, seems to have been a vicious narcissist who found an outlet for his vicious narcissism. The fact that tens of thousands of Iraqis suddenly felt that causing violence was a sensible life plan, however, suggests that something had happened to their nation that should not have taken place.

Terry Eagleton is right, then, to say that we should not confuse explaining the motivations of criminals with excusing them. Still, one’s interpretations of their motives can lend them too much nobility. If, as some people have argued or implied, the crimes of terrorists were the results of their being blinded by humanitarian outrage over Western foreign policies one might retain more sympathy for them than if they had, say, been inspired by the wish to defend and further the supremacy of Islam. While I have no doubt that Western invasions  incline people towards jihadist beliefs, the fact that terrorism is prevalent in Pakistan, Nigeria, Thailand and the Philippines, none of which are known for their imperial atrocities, lead me to think that Islamic supremacism is a hefty factor.

Speaking of Islamic supremacism: Omar Ali, the President of FOSIS, claims that what he calls “the mainstream British Muslim community”, including the Islamic societies that he represents, are “the barrier to extremism”. (His bolding.) He cites “the great work they do”, from donating gifts to children’s hospitals to raising funds for charities. That is great work. Had he mentioned some other acts of Islamic societies, though, a more complicated picture would have emerged. I speak of…

  • Circulating quotes and videos of notorious jihadist ideologues.
  • Holding sermons in which students were told of the virtues of murdering people for changing their religious beliefs and committing violence in order to spread one’s religion.
  • Joining the intimidation of young Muslims held to have been overly licentious.

Mr. Ali is not functioning as a barrier to extremism but as a wall between us and extremism; thus to obscure it.

BenSix’s one-sentence summary of terrorism, then? Don’t be so aggressive as to lead people towards terrorism in their own countries or so tolerant as to allow them to become terrorists in yours.

Da Vinci CodeModern Conservatives seem to define themselves by their ability to annoy liberals. Nothing exemplifies this trend more than Telegraph blogs, on which fluffy-haired and fashionably-bearded young men compete to be the most assertive in defying mainstream liberal opinion, whether or not these views are of consequence or correct. Thomas Pascoe is the latest, with a baffling defence of Dan “Da Vinci Code” Brown. He sneers at his “smart-aleck” critics, who are, he assures us, largely “metropolitan journalists”. Mr. Pascoe writes for the Telegraph about markets and used to work in corporate finance. His adjective inspires thoughts of pots and kettles.

Pascoe’s argument is that Dan Brown is reviled by liberals, “for whom a novel lacks merit unless it involves a forensic account of two pre-op transexuals in sexual congress”, because he is a “white, middle-aged American of comfortable means…whose stories have a moral foundation in a Protestant world view”. One wonders which critics this applies to, as Mr. Pascoe references nobody. One wonders if it applies to Alexander Rose of The National Review, Rod Dreher of The American Conservative and Amy Welborn of The American Spectator – all of whom are white, middle-aged and middle-class American Conservatives who thought Brown’s novels stank worse than the bathrooms of a seafood restaurant. One wonders where Pascoe gets off  miring a literary argument in the turbid battlefields of the culture war. It is not only liberals who needlessly politicise.

Pascoe then attempts to defend Brown’s novels on their own merits. They are “gripping”, he suggests, which is perhaps true, in the same sense that a pub bore who seizes one’s arm as he gasps banalities into one’s ear is gripping. They are, Pascoe continues, “thought-provoking”. Why? Well, he “gather[s] his new work discusses overpopulation”. The subject matter of a book is not a measure of its insight. Ben Elton’s novels “discuss” the environment and religion but they remain far less thought-provoking than Jane Austen’s books about rich girls marrying off.

Finally,” Pascoe writes, “There is the question of Mr Brown’s prose”. It is not a question. It is a short, blunt answer in the negative. Regardless, Pascoe sniffs that he “do[es] not see that it is particularly offensive”, and adds it is “easy to understand and admits no ambiguity”. Is this another way of saying that it is prolix, laboured and inelegant? If Mr. Pascoe had the courage of his convictions he would defend the use of the words “renowned”, “seventy-six-year-old” and “man” in the first three sentences of The Da Vinci Code. That would be contrarian.

Pascoe ends with a middle-finger to Brown’s critics, saying that if they “possessed his ability and application, they would be in his position”. “They don’t,” he sneers, “And their envy is unbecoming”. Envy? I thought they hated the bloke because of his race. Decide upon which groundless smear you are committing yourself to, Mr. Pascoe! As for the idea that a critic has no right to judge practitioners: it is akin to saying, to rework a phrase of Tynan’s, that if one cannot drive one has no right to comment on directions.

I am not especially passionate in my dislike for Brown. His novels are dreadful but I doubt that most of their admirers would have turned to superior books if he had turned to plumbing rather than prose. Rather, it was Pascoe’s article that yanked my chain. He is trying to differ from conventional opinions but not with incisive criticism or fresh insight but aggressive grandstanding. He intends to provoke, but it is not reflection or enlightenment that he tries to inspire but defensive outrage. He stirs up conflict between ideologies but not in defence of an institution or a value but of a trashy novel. He is the inevitable offspring of belligerent dilettantes from O’Neill to Young, and the aggressive insincerity that he embodies will be applied to far more significant debates in the future. In the modern press, it seems to me, click-baiting and cat-fighting are the highest virtues.

BasicsSo, I read Brian Milligan’s account of his attempt to live healthily on a pound a day on the BBC website. My reaction was, I’m sure, the same as that of most readers – luxury. Hell, it didn’t even include the utility bills! That bugger lived a life of Riley on water, mushrooms and eggs from battery farmed chickens. I set out to prove that one can halve that and still maintain one’s grip on existence.

Day 1

Did you know that you can buy cans of rice pudding for fifteen pence? When I lived in London, a few years ago, they cost eighteen pence. How the heck they’ve managed to knock three pence off is beyond me. Perhaps they’ve found a cheaper form of sodium carbonate.

Anyway, I purchase a couple of these and eat them cold. If you don’t have a tin opener, bang them against the part of a wall where a brick juts out before the others and suck the milk and rice out of the perforations.

That is my carbs and protein sorted, but I need some fruit and veg. I pay a small child twenty pence to watch the road as I sneak into the allotments and pull up people’s carrots and onions. I eat them unwashed. The dirt contains a lot of B12.

Day 2

Tesco’s Every Day Value Lager costs a pound per almost two litres of booze. Sure, that’s two day’s savings but I don’t care becosh I luff you an I luff everyone and wheres the toilet i thought it was here but now i think it was krrrrsnotkl…

Day 4

Today I want to save twelve pence so I can buy a tin of Sainsbury’s Basics peanut butter. It occurs to me that products in the line of Sainsbury’s Basics have the most complex lists of ingredients around. How basic are sodium citrate and modified maize starch?

After a tin of baked beans, my stomach was still rumbling, so I sneaked around the back of supermarket to where they throw out past-it products for the binmen. It is incredible: like a mass grave for bread.

By now I am growing a little thirsty. And smelly. Thankfully, my clothes were torn and dirtied as I pulled up vegetables, and I can pose as a manual labourer. I walk into a middle-class neighbourhood, knock on doors and tell the occupants that I intend to check the gas meter or water pressure or something. A few of them ask for ID, so I just waggle a young person’s railcard before their faces. No one looks at the things. Once inside, I can down a glass of water and smear some more over my face and groin.

Day 5

Oh dear. Perhaps that doesn’t work all of the time. On the plus side, I am saving fifty pence a day and the food in jail is not as bad as one might think.

Day 6

Behind bars, I have had time to reflect on this experience. It seems that, as one blogger has elegantly detailed, Mr. Ferguson was neither living healthily nor living off a pound a day. Moreover, it strikes me that this media obsession with living frugally is an obnoxious sort of poverty porn.

I would not only accept but applaud the investigation of means of saving food that is hurled upon the colossal rubbish dump that we produce; of means of avoiding the corporate encouragement to spend more money we one have to; of means of saving electricity, petrol and water. I dislike, however, voyeuristic flirtations with hardship that serve to do little more than inspire comfortable readers to imagine that the poor have little to complain about and penny-pinchers to assume that the products of the systematic torture of animals are acceptable to buy as long as you are saving money. Let us try to reduce waste: from our plates, from our pockets and from our minds.

Bag MenAs I write, the teenager claimed to have perpetrated the Boston bombings is either being killed or being arrested by policemen. I can’t tell, because the journalists conducting the “live” news don’t seem to have a sodding clue. I might as well be listening to them in Spanish.

Posters on Reddit are facing justified criticism for fingering innocent men as suspects in the bombings. What might be overlooked, though, is the fact that it was not excitable netizens that splashed a 17-year-old track athlete across their front page but professional journalists of The New York Post. It was Gawker, Fox and CNN that published images of Ryan Lanza, who was innocently busing home as his brother stood accused of massacring children at Sandy Hook. It was ABC that linked Jim Holmes, a Colorado native who happened to be a member of the Tea Party Patriots, to the Aurora shoots that the police would attribute to a very different James Holmes.

This is not to absolve presumptuous investigooglers but to observe that the mainstream media has long been leading this pack of news-hungry hounds. This wreaks terrible effects on the emotions of the innocent yet accused, of course, and I expect it to have more destructive effects in time. What if a Bay Stater with a lot of testosterone and little intelligence had looked up from their paper or iPhone to see young Salah Barhoum jogging down the street, or if a headstrong Connecticuter had been eyeing the news while on the bus with Ryan Lanza? Someone is liable to be identified as the perpetrator of this or that atrocity and then face a beating or outright execution from vigilantes as they go about their business.

The frenzies of news updates that follow these events are bad for all of us. I kept tabs on Twitter as shots rang through Sandy Hook, and studied it as carnage was erupting in Aurora. What took place in those events? I’m damned if I know, and I suspect I’m not the only one. The media, both old and new, whips up a storm of facts, rumours and downright lies and then blows us to the site of its next tempest as the debris begins to settle. We are left unsure of what took place, still less of why, and remain dazed, giddy, and excitable – in no mood for reflection.

Rolling news has not merely affected the manner in which we observe events, but the types of events we observe. Why have we been so consumed by news of shootings in Connecticut, Colorado and Pretoria? They were almost wholly irrelevant to us. This is not to claim that they are uninteresting, or that one should not take an interest in them, but that we are being conditioned into following events according to their ability to generate rapid and sensational developments: the 20/20 cricket games to the slower, more complex and yet often more significant progression of events elsewhere. This could make us more impatient, more ignorant and, considering the grim nature of these spectacles, more insecure.

As I have been writing, the police have arrested the teenager. I hope it can be determined whether he is guilty, and, if so, why and how he managed to commit the act. To this end, I hope that people will be calm and patient enough to reflect on such inquiries, and their implications, with appropriate care. We need silence. We need space.

Next Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 164 other followers