Sydney’s Sunday newspaper wars — thought to have dwindled after The Sun-Herald effectively vacated the space by posting a record 19% circulation drop — are back raging, this time over the sordid Alan Jones scoop saga.

As Crikey reported yesterday, a swingeing legal letter sent to Fairfax by eagles acting for outgoing Sunday Telegraph editor Neil Breen accused his rivals of swiping his Jones exclusive, and also detailed a litany of past instances where The Sun-Herald nicked his copy without attribution.

Breen’s beaks cited the lifting of an exclusive Sunday Tele photo from last year’s Queensland floods and, in the same January 16 2011 edition, another story on Matthew Newton that included quotes from a rare interview with Tele gossip queen Ros Reines (alongside an hilarious pic of the booze-addled actor jogging).

Late-night swipes have a long history — they usually arise where a rival obtains the first edition of a competitor masthead (often delivered to their office), combs through it for scoops and then cobbles together a quick and nasty spoiler for the second edition as the clock strikes midnight.

Wire services such as AAP often do the same thing, but the problem arises when the pick-up isn’t attributed with a crow-eating admission such as “according to the Sunday Telegraph“.

As former Herald Sun editor Bruce Guthrie told Crikey last year, even in the age of the internet when exclusives rarely last 10 minutes, “the only way to do a pick up like that ethically is to match the story but credit the organisation”, perhaps using the proprietor’s name (Fairfax, News Limted) rather than the newspaper’s title to soften the blow.

In Sydney, this isn’t helped by The Sunday Tele‘s early publication time — the paper can be snaffled as early as 7pm on Saturday in the Sydney CBD (compared to 9pm for The Sun-Herald) and by 11pm the first edition is usually for sale 800 kilometres away in Melbourne where Crikey sometimes picks it up from 7-Eleven.

The dubious tactic’s most virulent exponent was disgraced UK Sun editrix Rebekah Brooks who, during her stint at News of the World in the mid-1990s, famously dressed as a cleaner and hid in the toilets on Piers Morgan’s instructions to snaffle an early edition of the Sunday Times, which was carrying exclusive extracts from Jonathan Dimbleby’s biography of Prince Charles.

And closer to home, The Age and the Herald Sun went toe-to-toe last year after a Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker splash on the Office of Police Integrity’s bugging of former deputy police commissioner Sir Ken Jones’ phone was re-run — without attribution — in the second edition of the Herald Sun.

Then-Age editor Paul Ramadge wrote to his Herald & Weekly Times counterpart Phil Gardner to complain about “plagiarism”, branding it “one of the worst examples of a story being lifted, without attribution, by a competitor newspaper”.

The Hez did not credit the source, although editor Simon Pristel later argued the paper was able to “wake up” police powerbrokers to verify the story individually with its own sources.

At the time, The Age also alleged its higher-selling but physically smaller competitor had lifted photos from a 2010 riot outside an Oakleigh Bob Jane store.

But sometimes a preserved scoop can bring the sweetest revenge. After Antony Catalano defected to The Age from The Sun in 1990, he delivered copies of the screaming exclusive breaking a new element of the “Mr Cruel” case the next day to his former colleagues.

Newly appointed Sun-Herald editor Kate Cox has not responded to Crikey‘s request to comment on the spat.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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