Readers of The Australian would have felt a distinct feeling of deja vu after coming upon an article by media business writer Darren Davidson informing them that News Corp was, again, unhappy with the Daily Mail Australia for plagiarising  one of its scoops.

But the Daily Mail didn’t take the allegation lying down, promptly issuing Australia’s media writers with four examples in the past fortnight where it says its exclusives had been pinched by News Corp, even though, a Daily Mail spokesman says, doesn’t always provide attribution and a link back.

The allegation would seem familiar because News Corp made the same one in June last year, accusing the Mail of pinching no fewer than 10 News Corp articles in an Oz media section splash. The Mail responded much as it did today. The two sides eventually settled last September — News Corp said it was happy with the arrangement, while Crikey was told no money actually changed hands.

Daily Mail publisher Martin Clarke positively crowed about the settlement in an interview with the Financial Times, saying it had been settled “very much to our satisfaction”. Crikey understands both publishers agreed to remove certain articles first published by the other as a result of the confidential settlement.

Today’s allegations were first made on Friday afternoon, with the Mail receiving a legal letter from News Corp that was promptly followed by a request for comment from Davidson. His story cites the legal letter, which accuses the Mail of the “most egregious example of copyright infringement” yet seen, and quotes the Daily Tele’s editor Paul Whittaker calling it “a new low for journalism in this country”.

The story in question was a front-page scoop revealing an investigation by NSW Police on whether “slapping therapy”, in which children are slapped in a belief this can remove toxins, led to the death of a seven-year-old boy. The Daily Mail then covered the story, and the first six paragraphs of the Mail‘s original story, News Corp claimed in its legal letter, show the extent of the pilfering, with barely a word changed.

Crikey has seen the Daily Mail’s story as it was first published, and can attest to the extent of the similarities in the opening paragraphs. The Daily Mail’s first sentence is a slight rearrangement of the Daily Tele’s. The second is identical, apart from a statement citing the Daily Telegraph at the start. The third sentence is another slight rearrangement. The Daily Mail’s fourth paragraph is a long description of the slapping therapy seminars — one word was changed from the Daily Telegraph, and that was the addition of a “reportedly” partway through.

But the story now bears far fewer similarities to the Tele scoop, having been updated this morning. A Daily Mail Australia spokesperson said “in good faith we have made subsequent edits to the story while our legal advisers review the complaint”.

The spokesperson furnished Crikey with several examples of where stories and images first unearthed by the Daily Mail had seemingly been pinched by News Corp websites. These included:

“It is troubling that News Corp continues to cry theft when their stories are followed up with proper attribution by Daily Mail Australia. It’s time that their journalists and editors provide proper attribution and hyperlink to the original source when they are lifting stories from their more successful competitors,” the Mail spokesperson said. “Continuously, News Corp will provide a ‘name check’ to Daily Mail or MailOnline content deep in the story but refuse to insert a hyperlink to the original reporting according to online best practice.”

The spokesman also took aim at the use of the word “supplied” when republishing images first published by the Mail. Referring to the Chan and Sukumaran photos, he noted: “The pictures were credited as ‘supplied’, which Daily Mail Australia views as a transparent attempt to disguise the theft.”

The Mail Online is the English-speaking world’s most popular news website, and many within the Mail view this as a factor in why News Corp is pursuing the company. “It’s a target on our back,” one insider remarked to Crikey.

Media ethicists have generally deplored the use of content-lifting, even with attribution, as it leaves the companies that do the original reporting with little commercial benefit to show for the investment.

The Guardian’s media critic (and former Daily Mirror editor) Roy Greenslade has famously referred to the Mail’s use of such tactics as “magpie journalism”, and last year the University of Melbourne’s media ethicist Denis Muller told Crikey that the phrase “is a euphemism for plagiarism, and plagiarism is theft”.

But others say there’s little that can be done about it. Media lawyers told Crikey copyright provisions have a generally accepted carve-out for the purposes of reporting the news, making a successful legal case on the issue difficult.

OMD’s head of digital Ben Shepherd told Crikey last year that even if News Corp were to win a case against the Mail, he doubted much could be done about the practice, which is now a norm across much of digital publishing. “It’s too widespread, and too many businesses rely on the idea of re-reporting or curation to drive revenue,” he said.

“Read any of Australia’s masthead websites and you will see pieces of content sourced from Reddit, TMZ, YouTube, Twitter, imgur on a daily basis.  Some publications are pumping out hundreds of these sorts of pieces each week, others are trying to build entire businesses around the idea,” Shepherd said.

He said readers were over-serviced as a result in publications who try to “repurpose the internet to generated page-views”, which is a “waste of resources and people”. But he said publishers would perhaps be better served focusing on competing rather than suing.

“You can use your time and resources to sue someone or you can look closely at why they are benefiting from your work and why they are faster than you. Why are they quicker to market? What advantage do they have? How can you beat them? I feel it’s better to focus on those questions rather than ‘can we sue them?'”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey