Thursday, August 22, 2013

Should top journalists write their own stories?

Lee gets his name in the noosepapers
Oh, the irony.

There was a story in the Daily Telegraph last month headlined Top comedians don't write their jokes, claims Stewart Lee. In this shocking exposé, top journalist Rosa Silverman revealed … well, pretty much what it says in the headline. 

In a strange coincidence, only 24 hours before Silverman filed her story, top journalist Jonathan Brown had run a very similar story in the Independent. What made this coinicidence even stranger was that they were reporting part of a talk that the comedian had given several months before.

Lee wasn't happy about this, but it wasn't Silverman or Brown who attracted his ire.
As he explained on his website, he was annoyed that "Jay Richardson, of the Chortle website, has found on-line footage of an hour-long talk I did at an academic conference six months ago on the subject of stand-up as writing, and taken selective sentences out of it at the expense of any mitigating context, inadvertently creating a controversy which will drive traffic through the website."

Richardson certainly did a bit of a number on Lee, taking a few comments completely out their original context of a lecture on the development of comedic style and the role of the writer-comic. Here's the comment - more of a joking aside, really (Lee is a comedian, after all) - that provides the basis of his article:
"I like to think stand-up comedians who rely heavily on writers will one day be stripped of whatever artistic awards or financial rewards they received in their careers, like disgraced, drug-taking Tour De France cyclists."
Chortle's article isn't very good, consisting largely of a big headline and the key comment, followed by a procession of selected quotes with very little input from Richardson, other than to say that the agents of the named comics refused to comment. Chortle generously provided a video of the talk, but it's nearly an hour long. The important comment is here, at 24.32 minutes in, with the Tour de France dig about 90 seconds later.

Isn't it odd that Brown of the Independent became aware of Lee's speech within 24 hours of Chortle writing about it? It must be a coincidence, or surely Brown would have mentioned the fact that he was regurgitating Richardson's story. It's even odder that Silverman also noticed Lee's six-month old speech within a few hours of Brown's piece being published.

To give Brown some credit, he's clearly watched the video and provided the actual quotes where Richardson didn't, and pointed out that the Tour de France drug cheats comment was made "jokingly". But he didn't add any new quotes to what Chortle had reported of the lecture, although he did get a comment from another comedy website. 

But what about Silverman? She seems to have come up with exactly the same quotes as Brown. In fact, the structure of her piece is almost identical to Brown's. Brown begins:

"Some of Britain’s most high-profile comics use behind-the-scenes writers to furnish them with material, marking a break with the traditions established by alternative comics in the 1980s, stand-up Stewart Lee has claimed. Andi Osho, Michael McIntrye, Jack Whitehall and Frankie Boyle are among the artists named by Lee in an address to English students at his former Oxford University college. “They all use writers. They don’t often admit to it,” he said."

Silverman, meanwhile, starts off thus:

"Some of Britain’s most successful comedians do not write all their own jokes, instead relying on others to pen their material, the stand-up comic Stewart Lee has claimed. Jack Whitehall and Andi Osho were among the high profile comics named by Lee, who contrasted the practice with the way alternative comedians in the 1980s worked. Addressing English students at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, his former university college, he said: "They all use writers. They don't often admit to it."
Both writers follow this opening with exactly the same quote from Lee's one-hour lecture. Brown edits it slightly differently to how Richardson did on Chortle, but Silverman has - entirely coincidentally, no doubt - edited it exactly the same way that Brown did. 

Spooky, isn't it? I mean, if you were writing a piece about people passing other people's work off as your own, you'd make damned sure your writing in no way resembled another article on the same six-month old subject published only hours before you started writing yours. Wouldn't you?

Jay Richardson's Chortle article, dated 17 July
Jonathan Brown's Independent article, dated 18 July
Rosa Silverman's Daily Telegraph article, dated 19 July
Lee's riposte to Chortle, dated 19 July

Moral: Regurgitating someone else's article is worse than using someone else's joke.


  1. "Entirely coincidentally, NO doubt". Sorry.

  2. Yeah, I really should have slept and had another read this morning. As I always say, everyone needs a subeditor.

  3. I feel the ethical angst quite personally, but I also realize that at least half the Internet would not exist if all regurgitated research and reporting were removed from it. Indeed, there wouldn't be much more to the Internet than Google, Amazon, Wikipedia, and oh so many cats.

    I haven't yet decided whether this would be a good or bad thing to happen.

  4. Depressing, isn't it? I came across your blog looking to see if anybody else had noticed an absence of intelligence in large elements of the nation’s journalists. Well, I say ‘journalists’, but I doubt if they’re that. Real journalists are a cherished breed. They do proper research and write articulately about things that interest them, and they are then dumped by their bosses who are more interested in readership than facts. Hence, our papers now exist for the web and are filled with click bait written by half articulate twentysomethings straight from university and a keen eye for a sensational headline but little ability to fill an article with anything as equally compelling.

    The Lee lecture is well worth watching if you’re interested in comedy or just the writing process. One of the most interesting things I’ve seen on the internet in a long time. It makes a change to see something original and intelligent instead of the deathly dark matter that fills 99% of the web. In fact, that comment could equally apply to your blog. Delighted to have found you. I’ve added you to my blogroll.

    1. Thanks for finding the time to read Mr Spine, between disrupting funeral corteges. Lee's lecture is fascinating: having done my first-ever stand-up show two weeks ago, I appreciate his analysis. My stuff was all original, while another stand-up 'virgin' simply regurgitated the best of "The Big Book of Sexist and Racist Jokes, 1975".

      I sometimes despair of the nationals, since I used to be editor of a shipping magazine and quickly became aware that our basic ethics were sturdier than those at the broadsheets.

    2. Oh, you're a braver man than me. I occasionally daydream that I'd try to do stand up but I know what a disaster awaits me. I don't think I have it in me to practice, as Lee does, refining his act night after night. Plus I love the writing process too much to get rid of it.

      The question is: did people laugh? Did they heckle? Would you do it again?

      Urgh? A shipping magazine? Really hope it wasn't Yachting Monthly'!

    3. Definitely not Yachting Monthly. Commercial shipping only: tankers, bulkers, containerships and occasionally cruise ships.

  5. Nice blog. I really appreciate your effort and work. The article critique writing is a best site for everyone who wants to write a best article about any topics.