The Guardian Dodges Questions About its Standards but Damns The Mail: Part 2

When does journalism morph into activism at the Guardian and Buzzfeed?

Laptop in use

Working for Associated Newspapers is not easy and there are no shortages of people wanting to complain.

The latest attack on its editorial work comes from no less than Prince Harry, Sir Elton John, Liz Hurley, Doreen Lawrence and Sadie Frost, who claim they have “compelling and highly distressing evidence” that they have been the “victims of abhorrent criminal activity and gross breaches of privacy” by Associated Newspapers.

I didn’t write that, by the way, I copied it from the Guardian in an article written by Jim Waterson. He added that the group’s allegations of illegal activity, involving the publisher of the Mail, Mail on Sunday and MailOnline, include:

* The hiring of private investigators to secretly place listening devices inside people’s cars and homes.

* The commissioning of individuals to surreptitiously listen in to, and record, people’s live, private telephone calls while they were taking place.

* The payment of police officials, with allegedly corrupt links to private investigators, for sensitive inside information.

* The impersonation of individuals to obtain medical information from private hospitals, clinics, and treatment centres by deception.

* The accessing of bank accounts, credit histories and financial transactions through illicit means and manipulation.

Jim, I’m sure, was salivating at the further revelation of the group, pointing out that this could be the “tip of the iceberg” of what Associated Newspapers were facing, and that there may be many, many more alleged victims.

I’m pleased that my request for the Guardian press department yesterday to investigate Jim’s own alleged failings, and those of his undeclared connections with his former employer at Buzzfeed during his story about me, did not distract from his ability to work on this important event.

At my agency, a complaint can often involve the reporter spending all day writing memos to make sure that we can act to correct any error. Obviously, the Guardian is much more efficient as Jim appears to have not needed any time at all. I would say that I too have “compelling and highly distressing evidence” that I have been the “victim of abhorrent criminal activity and gross breaches of confidentiality”. I probably have a lot more than five points, but these would be probably the “tip of the iceberg”.

* Corrupting editors and journalists working for MailOnline and others to get them to steal my news and send it to my direct competitor.

* Using journalism to obtain confidential documentation under the guise of writing about me, and then handing that to lawyers (and possibly the Guardian).

* An editor (Ben Smith) coming up with a headline, The King of Bulls**t News and then getting journalists to scour the Internet for anything that proved it was true.

* Conducting a campaign of intimidation and bullying by lobbying media columnists and putting pressure on our publisher partners to stop using us.

So far, neither Jim nor the Guardian have been interested in covering this story, a surprise as it has lots of interesting media angles, like a failure by Buzzfeed to protect their anonymous sources. Another interesting angle is potential malice, also an important factor to consider, where the dislike of someone like for example MailOnline colours what you write. I have in my hand copies of editorial discussions at Buzzfeed in London, where Jim used to work, where the most commonly used phrase by the team was along the lines of “F**k CEN” and “I F**king hate CEN”.

These professional journalists had never met me before, and the depressing thing is the only crime I could find to justify the dislike was working for Associated Newspapers, something which I had foolishly revealed in an interview with Press Gazette. The single PG article sparked a huge investigation using 80+ staff and award-winning journalists.

Sometimes I wonder how it can be that I am still here and still in business, given the level of hatred I and my small team have inspired by simply working for the MailOnline.

Buzzfeed’s then editorial director, Robert Colville, wrote to the Buzzfeed team about keeping up the pressure after they published their initial story, which was already damaging enough with its “King Of Bulls**t News” headline.

It included the following points: contacting Roy Greenslade (at the time a top UK media analyst writing a media column for the Guardian) and other media commentators, taking on the UK Press Gazette for its sympathetic approach to CEN, do more research into a CEN charity project, look at the documents leaked by BuzzFeed informants detailing CEN’s discussions with its clients to reassure them in the wake of the BuzzFeed story, and demand CEN hand over details of the internal investigation mentioned in this paperwork, and also write about it.

He also demanded that we appoint an “independent figure” to review (our) output. Colville also wanted his team’s research into CEN stories to continue and more examples of CEN ‘fakery’ to be found. He also felt that they were entitled to an explanation from the Mail if they continued using our stories. At the end of the list, he warns the team to be prepared for the “long haul” as it seemed clear CEN was “going to tough it out”.

If anybody is wondering if that is normal after a media organisation has carried out an investigation into alleged wrongdoing, I can tell you that it is not. When you publish something like this, you leave it to the court of public opinion to decide. At the very most, if there were allegations of illegality, you might hand paperwork to the police, but no more.

But then again, I have argued for years with few people listening that Buzzfeed is not about journalism. It is about commercial interest and activism, which have no place in journalism. And that was where Jim Waterson was trained. The above activism so far mentioned was admittedly all carried out in the Buzzfeed team where he worked, although I have no evidence he was involved in any of that although with 80 colleagues involved over a 14 month project, I can’t imagine he did not know.

But when he moved to join the Guardian as media editor, he never showed any interest in investigating thisstory that he presumably had first hand sources for, and had it not been for the Press Gazette, there would probably have been no coverage. The Guardian, and Jim, only became involved with this business at all when my agency wrote a story about a Dutch girl that a former Reuters journalist announced was fake on the basis of a 10-minute phone call with another journalist, and which the Guardian repeated.

I was sure that the fact the MailOnline had been one of the first to publish our story would make it irresistible to Buzzfeed, and sure enough, before long, that paragon of journalistic virtue Mark Di Stefano, was in contact.

DiStefano email to Leidig

Mark Di Stefano is the reporter that later left Buzzfeed to go to work for the Financial Times, but was suspended and then resigned after he hacked into a video conference of calls held by the rival Independent newspaper and its sister title the Evening Standard about planned staff cuts. The FT’s code of conduct states: “The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by … intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails. Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge … can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.”

But he was lucky to escape with just losing his job.

One-of Britain’s top media lawyers, Hugh Tomlinson QC, cited the Data Protection Act and the Computer Misuse Act when quizzed about the case. Mr Tomlinson told Byline Investigates: “A person who accesses someone else’s private Zoom conversations is likely to have committed criminal offences under the Data Protection Act 2018 and the Computer Misuse Act 1990. He said: “In addition, the access is likely to constitute a breach of data protection law, a misuse of private information and a breach of confidence.” Other experts said Mr Di Stefano’s alleged interception displayed elements of ‘live phone tapping’ which is a possible offence of unlawfully obtaining communications data under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, punishable by up to 12 months’ jail.

A legal source said: “This could fall under Section 3 of the Investigatory Powers Act which precludes a person intentionally intercepting communications in the course of transmission by means of a public or private telecommunications system.” Its predecessor, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (RIPA) was used to punish phone hackers at tabloid newspapers following the News of The World’s closure in 2011. That was the same News of the World where the Guardian launched a campaign that was relentless over phone hacking that resulted in the closure of the News of the World and reporters being jailed. That reporting network was obviously continuing to operate, according to the memo that I got from Mark Di Stefano.

I could have gone to the police, but felt it was not necessary to make a criminal complaint of it, because I was confident I would win my libel case for defamation. And to be honest, at that point I had to decide if I really wanted to risk journalists going to jail.

I couldn’t justify that and, in the end, the Buzzfeed team behind the story did not deserve that. With the exception of Heidi Blake and Ben Smith, the team mostly came over as naive. At least those that had been foolish enough to put their names on the story, as opposed to the likes of Smith and Blake who had been the puppet masters, and wisely decided not to be bylined for their efforts.

Alan White in particular stands out. He apologised at the end of our meeting in the lawyer’s office, to the obvious annoyance of Buzzfeed’s lawyers for the way things worked out, and I was pleased to see that he is now a successful editor in his own right. I wish him, at least, well.

And I’m glad I did not pursue a police complaint, although I considered a civil claim, but I simply did not have the funds necessary. While it might be very popular to demand money from the cash rich left-wing intelligentsia to bring down the News of the World, there is very little sympathy for a tabloid news agency.

Buzzfeed of course, according to research at the time, did not have much credibility with the general public either, and that helped me shrug off their claims about me, but the Guardian was something else entirely. At the time the Guardian article was written, I had a crucial court case appeal coming up, any suggestion that we were producing fake news was a powerful argument to have the case thrown out.

Here is for example an extract from the court paperwork on how the Buzzfeed lawyers capitalised on our alleged bad journalism:

“The story caused an uproar about the Dutch government euthanizing a vulnerable minor until the girl’s grieving family revealed that she had committed suicide at home on her own, without state intervention. Simply put, it is rank hypocrisy for Plaintiffs, who continue to abuse press freedoms by callously profiting from fake news stories, to ask this Court to deprive BuzzFeed of their constitutional rights in order to stifle responsible reporting about CEN’s egregious conduct.”

Sounds great doesn’t it? But not if you read the rather more boring reality including the fact that nobody including her family ever said it was suicide and the other things that we pointed out in 2019 that nobody listened to.

But never let the facts get in the way of a good story, especially when it is a chance to take a knock at anything to do with Associated Newspapers. From my side I don’t need to have expensive lawyers to do fishing expeditions like Prince Harry and the rest and get facts. Using journalism, I found out the names of every single informer that Buzzfeed had, although Buzzfeed would call them whistle-blowers.

But in order to be a whistle-blower there really needs to be something illegal going on, and the crime of working for Associated Newspapers is, as far as I know, not likely in most places to justify that, although perhaps there are more than a few that would agree. I have not made those names public, although it was enormously tempting to, given the damage they caused from stealing from their employers and basically saying things about me anonymously that can be proven were not true.

But for future reference, anybody thinking of telling something anonymously to Buzzfeed, don’t do it if you want your name to be kept a secret.

A few snapshots of the hundreds of pieces of proof I have gathered includes a memo on 15 January 2015 where Alan White writes to his colleagues, Tom Phillips and Craig Silverman, where the focus is not on CEN’s fake news factory, but instead to outline plans to infiltrate the MailOnline.

He says: “I’ve messaged a friend at the Mail. She’s going to try and think of someone on the pic desk that she can trust.” Craig Silverman, missing the gender of the contact, assumes that going down the pub means drinking with a man and writes: “Feed him many pints and collect excellent quotes!”

I wonder if that pint will be much consolation now that she and everyone else has been named by Buzzfeed as the source of illegally gathered documentation?

This young lady ended up quoted in the Buzzfeed piece as saying: “One person, who works on the picture desk of a major British publisher and requested anonymity on the grounds that their ‘bosses would kill them’, described CEN as ‘utter fucking shit’. She told Buzzfeed: ‘I do not trust a single bit of what they send us’. She had apparently “raised the issue several times with their news desk, but that CEN’s stories ‘bring in clicks, so no one seems to care that much’.”

One of the weird things about the whole thing is that despite Buzzfeed’s obvious hatred for my agency, we actually campaigned regularly for a lot of the things that they would have cared about if they had bothered to look, and even with the day job of tabloid news we were not actually doing anything different to the content that Buzzfeed itself was producing, apart from the fact that our content was ending up in the MailOnline.

The woman above carried on working on the Mail Online for more than a year, then moved to become a picture editor on another publication in the US where she happily continued purchasing stories from us on a regular basis for years without ever complaining. As Richard James, who used to work for Associated Newspapers and took our content when he was at Metro before moving to join Buzzfeed, pointed out: “We aren’t immune to publishing fake news/falling for hoaxes ourselves, so as long as we focus on the incredible pick up this guy’s ridiculous stories get across the world were on firmer footing than simply screen grabbing 10 Mail stories.”

So that’s all right then.

It was really rather depressing going through pages of hatred without any trace of proper journalism because it seems it wasn’t necessary to know anything other than the fact that I worked for Associated Newspapers, and that made it OK to, as they put it, try to destroy a business that had taken me more than a decade to build, and everything about my professional reputation. I did, of course, try to let the Guardian know that we were actually more than just that, unfortunately, Jim Waterson was the man that made decisions about that and even when sent a DM he wasn’t really interested.

Jim Waterson Michael Leidig exchange

Assuming that it would be easy to win a libel case on a story that was pure fiction, we took them to court, confident of victory and maybe a few paragraphs in the Guardian to finally talk about my new journalism project.

Buzzfeed responded by continuing to send journalistic requests to my clients knowing that the repetition of allegations of fake news would make them nervous about using us, and it worked. In a post-hacking world, there’s no easier way to scatter nervous newsdesks than to whisper “reputation” in their ears.

Not all of the “journalistic questions” turned into stories, but one of them that did was about Noa Pothoven, and how we allegedly misreported that she had died from euthanasia.

If you read my earlier article here, you will know that I have already explained in detail how the former Reuters journalist Naomi O’Leary also felt that our report was fake news when, on the basis of a 10-minute phone call with a Dutch journalist that I believe she had never met before, she went on to allege serious errors in the reporting of papers that used what we had written.

It didn’t surprise me, therefore, that Buzzfeed, with a crucial court decision in our libel case due at exactly the same time, was determined to put as much focus on the story as possible. What is a surprise is that the Guardian, that previously had ignored the original Buzzfeed story, was suddenly keen to back them up.

Then again, previously, they didn’t have a former senior Buzzfeed staff member working for them as their media editor.

I had feared that Buzzfeed would be working themselves into a frenzy looking for anything to feed to the lawyers with the US Second Circuit Court reviewing the case. After all, Buzzfeed were due to file on 2 July, and our rebuttal was due two weeks later, on 16 July.

Buzzfeed pounced on the euthanasia story with relish, and had written two articles to hand to their lawyers for use in the court case to bolster their claim we were a fake news agency. Strangely, I was not worried about that, as their reporting seemed to have had little impact up until then and I never found any major media news outlets repeating any of their allegations.

But this time round it was different. This time the Guardian noticed, and when that then ended up in Buzzfeed’s submissions to the judge in our libel case, it made a very big difference.

Of course, we tried to reply to the allegations and to explain that it was not as clear cut as it seemed. This was sent out the same day as the social media post was going viral, but with no takers, because by then the matter had already been decided in a social media storm.

At the time, in his email to me about the Dutch story, Mark Di Stefano, made no secret of his access to more hijacked confidential memos from my newsdesk to their competitors.

Anyone in the news business will tell you that the editorial queue and newsdesk correspondence is extremely confidential, it is not only about protecting exclusives, but there is also sensitive data there about stories like sources, as well as the next day’s exclusives.

And sure enough, as we continued to file to desks, nervous about the accuracy of our reporting on the Dutch story, so these extremely confidential stories and indeed confidential memos about alleged inaccuracies found their way over to Mark Di Stefano.

So where did he get it? Was it the same team he had working at the Mail Online and the Mirror and other UK media that had been sent the story?

When Mr Di Stefano got in touch, I was already used to their methods and we had already found that a Buzzfeed report had little weight with the court. A complaint by the Guardian would have been a very different matter but of course they had always ignored it — and as the day ended and we prepared for another Buzzfeed hit job, I had no idea that this time round the criticism was going to be taken to a whole new level.

If you do not want to follow the link to the Guardian report, this is the section cut and pasted here that did the damage.

“According to multiple sources at British national newspapers, news outlets were alerted to the story by the newswire Central European News, which specializes in supplying unusual and quirky foreign stories to English-language news outlets.

“CEN, which has previously been accused of providing unreliable information, did not immediately return a request for comment. Michael Leidig, who runs the agency, has always contested claims that it provides dubious information.

“Earlier this year, the company lost the latest stage in a four-year libel case against BuzzFeed News over a 5,000-word article in which Leidig was described as the “king of bullshit news”.

“Additional reporting by Jim Waterson”

That looks to me like Buzzfeed and the Guardian were keeping in touch on this one. The Guardian and other papers will often share material with each other to ensure a deeper dive on complicated cases, it also of course doubles the impact on stories where they care about having a say.

If you are reading this, and you are a journalist, I think you will agree with me that a story has a flow, each paragraph flows into the next when it’s written by a professional, as I assume us to be, and that means you can easily spot when something in a story doesn’t really fit because it was welded ham-fistedly in after a regular piece of journalism had been created.

Judge for yourself, does it seem out of place? Does it really fit in the story?

Jim Waterston not only works for the Guardian, he is the media editor, and is responsible for holding other media to account, ensuring that they match the very highest standards of professionalism.

Together with his wife who works for the BBC they are a media celebrity couple.

But what he should have done given all the above is excused himself or, at the very least, made a declaration of interest.

Yet he was allowed to write a story that was not only devastating because it was a big hitter like the Guardian, but also because it was used against me in a court case to show that we were continuing to produce fake news.

I can only speculate on what a claim by the Guardian as the paper of record for Google and one of the top 10 most read news sites in the world would meant to the court as we asked them to side with us in ruling that the Buzzfeed criticism was unjustified.

It is my belief that Buzzfeed and the Guardian were in touch about the story, although the Guardian declined to answer my questions on matters that would prove it, like whether the source of the anonymous sources referred to was Buzzfeed?

Given that Mark Di Stefano had been using information taken from rival publications in the Buzzfed claim, in my opinion that is something that on its own the Guardian should have been prepared to look at.

Don’t get me wrong, there is no confidentiality on illegality, and in the media, we need to be more open to scrutiny than anyone, so leaks are accepted to a degree, but the question is, when is it journalism and when is it activism?

And even if journalism, is it valid if there is malice involved?

But that was not all . . . . . .

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Author, journalist, and editor Michael Leidig is the founder of NewsX Media, CEN Agency, and Mediatech Support. Vice chairman of NAPA. Reporting without fear or favor.

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