This was the first HT column, came out some days ago in Delhi under the headline Wake Up and Smell the Copy on the HT edit page.
“Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?(Subtitle: Who will watch the
watchmen)” asked the Roman poet Juvenal with some asperity, sometime
around the second century AD. This was, of course, before the Internet
answered that question: The answer: Anyone with broadband.
The media is supposed to be our nation’s watchdog – the filter through
which we see our government, our legal system, our culture. It’s a
sacred relationship, and one that’s easily broken. We might still go
on reading our favourite papers for entertainment, or for
advertisements, but if our trust is lost once, it’s lost permanently.
And thanks to the Internet, that vast ocean of information and
entertainment, if a journalist breaks our trust, we are now in a
position to find out.
The Internet is a journalist’s best friend. Any amount of information
from anywhere in the world is available at their fingertips through
one small visit to the altar of the Great God Google, and a journalist
is now in a position to write well-informed, up-to-date articles on
any issue with less effort than ever before. Add blogs, wikis,
newsfeeds and broadcast media, and there’s really no excuse for sloppy
reporting any more. Critics who aren’t sure their own viewpoints pass
muster now have access to other people’s views from all over the
world, neatly arranged in relative degrees of appreciation. As
readers, we think this is a good thing – research always adds value,
but not at the cost of integrity. All we ask is honesty, and a degree
of intelligence. Because the Internet makes the same information
available to everyone. And when we find shoddy, recycled, hastily
rephrased cut-paste jobs from foreign websites happily paraded in
front of us with new bylines attached, it’s annoying, to say the
least. Not only is it ethically wrong to steal someone else’s work and
pretend it’s your own, but it’s also an insult to your reader’s
A number of leading Indian newspapers have faced accusations of
plagiarism in recent years. Editors have resigned; other editors have
turned a blind eye to cut-and-paste senior critics. But over the last
few days, no fewer than three popular and respected dailies have been
caught lifting content from the Internet – we’re talking direct
copy-paste jobs here, not skilled plagiarism but Juvenal delinquency.
When tales of their misdeeds were circulated, one paper apologized
promptly and gracefully to the cricket website concerned, one glossed
over the incident with a clarification as vague as the controversy
itself and the third still hasn’t publicly reprimanded the veteran
film critic concerned. The issue might die down soon; the public
attention span is notoriously small.
The journalists were uncovered by independent watchmen who happened to
be well-informed readers and had read the original articles as well;
media bloggers who then publicized the issue across the Net on sites
like Amit Varma’s indiauncut.blogspot.com.
Plagiarism and copyright are knotty issues, especially when applied to
news media. It’s difficult to draw the line, certainly, because there
are only so many ways you can tell a story, and the facts are the same
everywhere. And there’s just so much information floating around on
the Internet that you’re likely to find at least three articles
telling the same story in the same way. For reviewers as well, there
are only so many things you can say about a film or a book, but one
thing is clear: Even if you’re using someone else’s ideas, the very
least you can do is not quote them verbatim without attribution, and
not try to escape detection by substituting synonyms in your
copy-pasted sentence. If the computer is your weapon and your refuge,
the Input-Process-Output model should inspire you; the very least you
can do is put your own spin on things. To assume that your readers
will not be able to tell if you stick in a complete sentence here and
there from material available online, and paraphrase the rest of your
review, is, to put it mildly, lazy, arrogant and stupid.
In 2003, the New York Times, having found Jayson Blair, one of its
reporters, guilty of plagiarism, published a 10-page special report to
apologize to readers for reaching the lowest point in its 152-year
history. “For all of the falsifications and plagiarism, The Times
apologizes to its readers in the first instance, and to those who have
figured in improper coverage. It apologizes, too, to those whose work
was purloined and to all conscientious journalists whose professional
trust has been betrayed by this episode,” they said over 7,500 words.
This was more than a self-flagellation exercise – the whole point was
retaining their readers’ trust. Our newspapers are making a grave
mistake by pretending plagiarism never happens. When it’s brought to
public attention, the only possible thing to do is to apologize
instantly – not only is it morally right, but it ensures that readers
know that it’s not within the newspaper’s agenda to steal, and that it
was the fault of the individual journalist, hopefully duly
reprimanded. In a time where newspapers are already under fire for
excessive navel-gazing, and with television and the Internet (marginal
now in India, but wait and watch) already making inroads into
readership, pretending in the face of hightly available facts that
plagiarism never happened is irresponsible, and not only undermines
the credibility of the newspaper in particular, but of the medium as a
There is another aspect to consider, though: If you’re plagiarizing,
you’re in good company. Consider this who’s who of plagiarists:
William Shakespeare, George Harrison, Alex Haley, Martin Luther King.
TS Eliot wrote “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
The previous paragraph was more or less completely stolen from The
Guardian. Long live the Internet.