Simple Lack of Courtesy or A Deeper Problem? The Law Society Gazette and Accurate Reporting.

In which a Law Society Gazette reporter silently appropriates academic writing and pretends that he conducted an interview to make his article more interesting.

I am grateful to the Law Society Gazette. In all my years as a legal academic who permanently guests in a philosophy department, I have never had an opportunity (or indeed the need) to start a text with a quote by Schopenhauer. I now can, and I have the Gazette to thank.

“There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. While the one have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, the others want money; and so they write, for money. […] Hence, their writing is deficient in clearness and definiteness, and it is not long before they betray that their only object in writing at all is to cover paper. […] The truth is that when an author begins to write for the sake of covering paper, he is cheating the reader; because he writes under the pretext that he has something to say.” (A. Schopenhauer, The Art of Literature [http://bit.ly/1xwQDdK])

Academics write for the subject’s sake, and respect their colleagues’ writing. It is a fundamental value of academia, and one which lends integrity and value to our work. A recent encounter with a Law Society Gazette reporter suggests that he, sadly, only writes to cover paper and make money, and does not respect others’ writing.

A respected colleague of mine, Professor José Miola of the School of Law at the University of Leicester, and I wrote an analysis piece about the, currently hotly debated, Medical Innovation Bill (generally referred to as the “Saatchi Bill”). This piece, we felt, was very timely and merited swift publication. After contacting a couple of the usual outlets for scholarly work (academic journals) it became clear that the turnaround times of these journals did not lend themselves to swift publication. We discussed this but felt that our contribution to the debate surrounding this wretched Bill was too important to abandon, so we approached John Hyde of the Law Society Gazette by e-mail on the 11 November:

Dear John

I enjoyed your recent reporting on the Saatchi Bill. A colleague from Leicester’s School of Law and I have written an analysis piece on the Bill. We wanted to submit it to a law journal, but their turnaround times are too slow for the piece to have any chance of appearing in a timely way. I was wondering if you thought it might be something for the Gazette website? I attach a PDF and would be grateful for any views you might have, or maybe you want to point us in the right direction in terms of whom we might need to speak to.

Kind regards

Nils

The intention, clearly, was to find a home for our text. Unfortunately, Mr Hyde was too busy to respond to this e-mail. In the evening of the 12 November, I heard from José that there was to be some significant reporting in The Times on the matter and felt that this would be a perfect window of opportunity to publish our analysis at the same time. I wrote to John Hyde again:

‎John,

Apologies for following up on my Saatchi mail so quickly. My co-author Prof Miola will be in tomorrow’s Times ‎commenting on Saatchi. This might be an opportune moment to decide whether you are interested in the piece or not – if not we’ll blog it elsewhere to coincide with the Times interview.

Kind regards

Nils

Again, I received no response. Friday (14 November) in the afternoon, I received a somewhat bemused text message from José:

[…] In other news, the Law Society Gazette published a piece on Saatchi and included a quote they said I’d given to them – when asked where they got it since I hadn’t spoken to them they said they got it from our paper. […]

The Law Society Gazette website indeed presents a short article, by Mr Hyde, about the Saatchi Bill (which came hot on the heels of the Times reporting). The piece indeed includes a quote from my friend José. Here’s a screenshot of the original post on the Gazette website:

It might simply be that Mr Hyde underestimated the profound love affair academics have with their own writing, but our intellectual product and our reputations are significant parameters underpinning our careers. We react very nearly with anaphylaxis when we encounter colleagues who use shoddy attribution in academic writing. We debate ad nauseam each and every instance of lack of academic integrity. I am certainly not so naïve as to think that The Law Society Gazette adheres to the same high standards as academia, but I certainly think that there is a minimum threshold of accuracy which the Gazette should be very reluctant to undercut. Mr Hyde’s use of our paper does, in my view, undercut this threshold and this raises a number of problems. These problems go to consent, accuracy, and reputation:

  1. Consent: Mr Hyde received our paper with a view to discussing the publication of the paper on the Gazette website. It is clear from the e-mail exchange that we didn’t provide him with the unpublished (!) manuscript so he could silently dissect it for his own purposes. It is, at best, maximally discourteous to appropriate our unpublished manuscript for his own purposes and not ask for permission or at least react to our e-mails.
  2. Accuracy: Mr Hyde gives the impression in the online article that he has actually spoken to José (“Professor Jose Miola, from the school of law [sic.] at the University of Leicester, has told the Gazette […]”). He has not, in fact, spoken to José, so this item of information is clearly misleading the reader. Would he take a sentence out of a blog post and encapsulate it in a way which suggests that he has spoken to the author? He likely would not, as it would be too easy to determine that this was untrue. An unpublished manuscript is a lot less problematic. On the contrary – if we ever did publish the manuscript, it would look as though we had written the sentence in question after the Gazette had written it, making us look silly, or even as though we had plagiarised ourselves. This reduces the value of our writing, necessitating a redraft – meaning a manifest detriment. Mr Hyde caused us harm through his actions.
    A further, minor, point on accuracy is the fact that the paper is José’s and mine, so (whilst I would of course generously let José have his day of fame in the Gazette) the quote ought to accurately be attributed to both of us. This would not, of course, fit in with Mr Hyde’s fantasy of an interview so it is, whilst somewhat arbitrary, entirely understandable why he chose to only attribute it to José. It just looks more real.
  3. Reputation: Quite simple – as academics (especially legal academics working in a very contoversial area such as medical law), we need to be sure that we are quoted in an accurate fashion. When we speak of the law around abortion, neonaticide, mental health, or experimentation, the potential for reputational damage as a result of inaccurate reporting is immense. Imagine the unpleasant experience of being quoted in an online publication without actually ever having been given the opportunity to give a quote to that publication in the appropriate context.

To be clear, I am not assessing Mr Hyde’s behaviour as being legally problematic. I have not given this question any thought. I am suggesting that, wholly independent of the legal aspects of this, his actions were entirely inappropriate, misled the reader and raise legitimate questions in relation to the quality of his reporting, at least in this individual instance. There was clearly a need to discuss what was going on here, and – given that I had so far been unsuccessful in securing an e-mail response from Mr Hyde – I took to Twitter:

This accelerated matters considerably. I received an e-mail three minutes later:

Hello Nils,

Just seen your tweet – is there a problem?

John

And I responded thus:

Hi John

I’m afraid there is a problem indeed.

I sent you an unpublished manuscript to see if you would be willing to publish it on the Gazette website. I don’t hear from you at all despite mailing you twice (the second time giving you a heads up re the forthcoming Times piece) and now I see that you have used our unpublished paper as quote material for your own Saatchi piece (attributing the quote, somewhat arbitrarily, only to Prof Miola). It’s at best pretty discourteous of you, frankly. At worst we need to discuss whether there is an issue of journalism ethics. I wonder how you propose we deal with this rather unfortunate situation.

Regards

Nils

One would have thought that there might at least be an apology forthcoming. Had this been the case, I would have likely left it at that and simply kept in mind, for future reference, to take Mr Hyde’s reporting with a considerable grain of salt. Alas, no apology but he responded six minutes later with a very curt e-mail:

Quite simple, I shall remove all mention of your article.

And so he did. And now the online article looks like this:

This is annoying in so many ways, not least because Mr Hyde has in essence covered his tracks by not including a note that states that the article has been changed. Other online publishers keep a record of amendments to their articles (as an example, see the Guardian website), which is simply good practice in terms of transparency and accuracy.

It is also annoying because it is extremely discourteous. It is, on the one hand, discourteous to José and me. Having robbed us, Mr Hyde could have at least had the fortitude of character to apologise or explain his behaviour, rather than being curt and arrogant. On the other hand, it is discourteous to the reader who has, in this instance, been misled to think that the Law Society Gazette actually spoke to the experts who they assert “told them” something which the Gazette reporter is not at all qualified to assert on his own. When caught out, Mr Hyde covers his tracks by silently amending the online record.

In a more general way, the whole affair raises (in my mind) the spectre of doubts about the quality of journalism at the Gazette. Are the experts cited in Gazette articles generally aware that they have been cited? Were the quotes given in the appropriate context or simply lifted from elsewhere? Can I trust this source of information? Mr Hyde’s actions have most certainly damaged the integrity and reputation of the Gazette. This has been a thoroughly unpleasant experience and I do hope that it is not indicative for the overall work ethic of Gazette reporters.

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