Ghost Writers and Peak Ink

We’ve been concerned recently about whether things exist or not. Things like impact assessment reports, democracy in Northern Ireland or a peace process in the Middle East. We are in a sad state where we’re not sure if our politics is just bad fiction, but at least journalists are real, right?

I mean, somebody writes something you can call them to account, right?

When Spurs travelled to to Cyprus to play against APOEL Nicosia in the Champions League in the autumn they won 3-0.

We know this because Alan O’Brien reported from the GSP Stadium. We don’t know if he had a pie at halftime. They probably don’t have pies in Cyprus. Maybe some halloumi?

But the problem is Alan O’Brien doesn’t exist, he wasn’t at the stadium and his writing, whilst lovely, isn’t his. Buzzfeed busted the i and the Independent back in October using what they call a ‘cod byline’.

Read the full story here.

A statement from The Independent’s deputy managing editor Will Gore at first dressed it up as some kind of grand practice saying:

“The Independent stopped using pseudonyms some years ago – except where there is an overriding journalistic imperative, to protect the identity of a whistle-blower who has written for us, for instance, or to protect sources,” Gore said.

“We are reviewing our guidelines to ensure there is complete clarity on this among all staff.”

Later a Johnston Press spokesperson described the fake Alan O’Brien as “unacceptable”.

The Scotsman seems to have no such qualms.

Here’s the prolific but, we hear, non-existent Russell Jackson, writing about the new leaky Queen Elizabeth, rape, care homes, and incompetence or corruption on the Scottish Police force.

What is the point of it? It doesn’t seem to cover especially controversial subjects and there seems to be no ‘heroic’ whistleblowing reason behind it.

One suggestion is that it covers the reality of a small group of writers managing a large amount of content. We are after all in the era of ‘Peak Ink’.

Maybe none of this matters, maybe this is just old-school practice, the ‘tricks of the trade’.

But in the context of bleed between editorial and advertising and with the need for transparency and accountability and with the drive for churnalism, I think it does.

As James Cusick writes on the “branded newsroom”:

“What is written and how it’s written is not just about what’s out there. Instead content has become a driven derivative, ruled by commercial needs, party political worship, and, crucially, the reflex demands of suspect proprietors and their advertising directors. Content is now the prime territory of the marketing director; it is sponsored, monetised, sold at auction and branded.

Desk editors once in charge of a specific domain, are now the sub-servants in a chain of command that reaches up and deep into the ad department. News and its tangential neighbours can now be bought, sponsored, flipped or, crucially, silenced.

Just as oil companies have been pushed to environmental extremes to keep the cash flowing in the tough economic era that has followed “peak oil”, the shrinking of profits in the national news industry has brought about its own “peak ink” ethic. Gone is any firm divide between editorial and advertising. Almost gone is the need to offer a political balance on events or policy. And the neutral benevolent proprietor, if he ever existed? They have become almost a made-up character in highly-funded public relations operations – who fool only a few sycophants and committee advisers who bestow honours like cheap confetti.”

Here’s Russell’s slightly threadbare listing on Journalisted with a photo that has an uncanny likeness.

We contacted the Scotsman for comment but had no response at time of publication.

Comments (3)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    Match reports can now be written unnoticeably by machines, and these ‘softer’ areas of journalism will be used as guinea-pigs for the kinds of automation by artificial intelligence which will bulk-produce content trained to a pitch, baked with bias and diversified as easily as multiplication by look-up tables.

    Silence has a shape, which can now be disguised by autofilling.

    On the other hand, artificial intelligence will also be used to spot the machines, data-crunch the inconsistencies and flag content-of-interest for more in-depth (human or computer) analysis.

    Linguistic analysis will automatically highlight bias and strip content for input into fact-checkers. Trend analysis will plot alongside recorded policy shifts, and generated predictions will be continuously tested.

    Frameworks will be both machine-processable and rendered into human-comprehensible taxonomies and tag clouds, while correlation computations will pull up hidden connections beyond James Burkeian proportions.

    But if the day comes when the worst and best journalists are machines, will humans be able to make sense of their worldviews?

  2. Peter Fraser says:

    So basically the Scotsman is lying to its readers by suggesting they have more journalists on the books than is the case.

    Leads you to the conclusion that the Scotsman’s view of the world is recycled and adapted from elsewhere. This ammounts to lazy and misleading journalism where stories are never validated. In otherwords, the Scotsman is using second hand research / secondary research / desk research.

    How many other papers in Scotland rely on this method, it will no be isolated to the Scotsman. We know bbc recycle labour party reaearch to attack the Scottish Government.

    Are we suprised – sadly not!

  3. Jo says:

    “leaky Queen Elizabeth”

    Very harsh, Mike, very harsh!

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