A new maxim for Maxim -- don't plagiarise

There has been lots of talk about the role blogs have played overseas in digging up dirt and bringing down powerful media figures, most notably CNN's news boss Easton Jordan and CBS news anchor Dan Rather. But until now the local scene has been more occupied with student politics-type bickering, Deborah Coddington's pashmina and Russell Brown's gout.

But this week saw a scandal unfurl in the blogosphere which could have a major impact on the media, not to mention wreaking serious damage to conservative think tank the Maxim Institute.

In some ways it is a shame Maxim's credibility is going to hell in a handcart, as a lot of the policy work it does is sound ­ if a little shrill.

Maxim Institute is a Christian organisation formed in 2001 by a group including respected former Auckland Grammar headmaster John Graham who think New Zealand is heading down the gurgler and like to express it in the strongest terms.

Here is a typically thumping bit of Maxim rhetoric, from its website "About us" section: "Let's face it, our society is losing its way. For a quarter century we have seen the foundations of our society weakened and the keystone for future generations, the family unit, is now in disarray. Beneath us is the quicksand of family disintegration, welfare dependency and a culture centred on self."

The story which will make it much harder for Maxim Institute to get society back out of the quicksand and back on the straight and narrow was broken by Brown in his blog Hard News on October 13.

Brown posted a memo from Christchurch's The Press editor Paul Thompson, dated the previous day, informing staff that fortnightly columnist Alexis Stuart had been canned because of "concern about the originality of some of her material in her most recent column."

Mr Thompson explained that a reader had noticed the wording in part of Stuart's column was identical to a previously published commentary written by the Maxim Institute's director Bruce Logan, who is also her father.

The Maxim website describes Mr Logan as a former secondary school principal who is "held in high regard for his thought-provoking well-researched commentary."

It might like to change that wording after reading a nine- page analysis of Mr Logan's commentaries by Paul Litterick, spokesman for the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists, posted on the website Fundy Post.

Mr Litterick revealed 10 instances in which chunks of Mr Logan's commentaries published in The Press, the New Zealand Herald and the Otago Daily Times had been lifted without attribution from other sources including famous writers such as Melanie Phillips, Digby Anderson and Christopher Hitchens.

In response, Mr Logan told the New Zealand Herald yesterday he was embarrassed and had been careless. "I have a habit of writing things down and forgetting where I get them from."

This seemed a rather strange explanation since he is unlikely to have transcribed large chunks of text verbatim with paper and pen ­ and far more likely to have cut and pasted them on a computer, as Mr Litterick did when putting together his gleeful exposé.

At the end of the lengthy diatribe, Mr Litterick explained he had used a web-based programme called Copyscape to detect the plagiarism. The site sounds easy to use; you just type in the URL of the page you want to test and it searches the web for similar text.

Naturally, this is timely warning about the power of the internet for all journalists just as last year's Renee Kiriona affair fades from their minds: always, always, always credit your sources.

(Ms Kiriona, a New Zealand Herald journalist, was found to have cut and pasted a Waikato Times story into her own work without attribution.)

The latest plagiarism fracas may prompt more local journalists to adopt the US press practice of disclosing details about the way in which quotes were obtained ­ whether in a face to face interview, over the phone or supplied by email or in a statement ­ or of course copied from someone else's story.

A recent Press Council ruling in favour of Queenstown's Mountain Scene over a Southland Times article also made it clear journalists must cite publications when they lift quotes from them.

The Logan scandal has also sparked a debate about "slipping standards" on local journalism chatgroup Journz with one chatgroup member bemoaning the trend for journalists to research stories via email and then cut-and-paste the answers into stories.

"Is this the way journalists are now starting to conduct interviews? It seems to me to be pretty lazy ­ but a clever way to get others to write your stories."

But as regrettable as the Logan scandal is ­ could Russell Brown get any smugger? ­ it reminds us that leaving the facts to speak for themselves is always more powerful than telling readers what to think.

Want attention? Try whispering rather than yelling, showing rather than telling, playing things down rather than whipping them up.

The Maxim Institute's messages may have had even more impact if Mr Logan had used simple words and authentic feelings rather than smartarse prose, whether it was his or someone else's.

The organisation might also regret using its "letter wizard" technology which allows letterwriters full of spluttering hysteria and moral outrage to bombard newspapers with missives closely resembling spam.

Of course Mr Brown , Mr Litterick et al ­ "Maxim Institute are 'moral thugs'" ­ could also do with a reminder not to over-egg the pudding.

[Published in the 21 October 2005 print edition of The National Business Review]

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