Good publicity v bad publicity

Mike Ridley, Graeme Culliford, The Sun…

‘Journalists’ Mike Ridley and Graeme Culliford lifted copy from an exclusive interview I spent nine months preparing… Good publicity v bad publicity

As they and The Sun newspaper face an investigation into their actions, I analyse why journalists such as Mike Ridley and Graeme Culliford, who should know better, do it… and how it impacts the interviewees.

Culliford referred to the 1000 words he lifted as ‘my article’

It’s already in the public domain in an article in Press Gazette, the Industry’s newspaper, that while the parents of Charlie Gard and myself were delighted with a sensitive and deeply personal interview which went on the front page and inside four pages of the Daily Mail newspaper, The Sun lifted large parts of it and over the same weekend put it out as if it was their ‘exclusive’. As if that wasn’t enough they stripped quotes and facts out of our carefully worded story and made them into shocking, vile headlines, which caused the Gards (and myself) to suffer extraordinary online abuse.

What the Sun did – aided and abetted by journalists Mike Ridley and Graeme Culliford (who put their bylines on the stories) – is now the subject of a formal complaint.

The background to this story is that, unlike the Daily Mail which always highly regarded the Gard’s story, The Sun was initially less enthusiastic: ‘It might not be possible to run this Sunday as I have got a few other ‘grim’ stories,’ said one editor when I spoke to him about it (and later, when it made the front page of his rival paper, admitted: ‘I should have snapped your hand off.’)

Nevertheless The Sun and co rapidly decided they wanted the story, with features writer Mike Ridley clearly tasked with the job of  trying to persuade me that The Sun newspaper was a wonderful publication that would support the Gard family.  Mike Ridley rang, emailed and texted often and each time he was full of ‘genuine’ concern for the Gards, gently asking me how they were following their son’s death. Readers, he said, would generously support any charity they were beginning.

However, when following their son’s death, it came to their final interview, the family told me while they were flattered The Sun wanted their story, they only wanted their story in the Daily Mail, which broke their story first. They were loyal to them and preferred the Daily Mail style of writing.

Their decision should have been respected. However, what happened next can only be described as The Sun, Sun on Sunday and Sun Online giving all of us a ‘good kicking’.

Furious that he had not secured the interview with his newspaper, Mike Ridley was clearly up until late the night before publication of my interview waiting for details to be revealed in the first edition or online so he could lift large parts of it in time to make the Sun (and con readers into thinking this was a Sun Exclusive) on the same day. He also stuck his own name on it under a defiant ‘Exclusive”. His byline subsequently appeared on ‘click bait’ online ‘exclusive’ stories with made-up ‘facts’ and vile headlines made from quotes taken out of context from the Mail interview.

The following day Sun on Sunday writer Graeme Culliford stuck his own smiling photo on yet more lifted copy from my interview with the Gards in the Daily Mail. For good measure both stories appeared with personal photos from the Gard’s – used without any consent.

In 30 years of journalism I have never lifted someone’s copy and passed it off as my own – let alone stuck an Exclusive strapline on it. And let’s be honest – we all know lifting this amount of copy is morally wrong. After all, we are told from childhood not to copy or plagiarise another’s work.

Despite this, over two days both men took an extraordinary amount of copy from one interview, and the way they wrote and presented their stories caused enormous distress for the Gards who suffered extraordinary abuse from ‘generous’ Sun readers, who were hugely misled by the stories.

There has been no apology from The Sun nor these individuals for the multiple horrible articles they made from lifting copy from one sensitive interview – and this deeply personal feature they plundered was not a news story that anyone could claim needed to be reported in the public interest.

There is much pressure on staffers in the national press to bring stories in and get bylines in their paper. Certainly Mike Ridley would have been under a lot of additional pressure. After all, he had been tasked with getting myself and the Gards to put their interview with The Sun newspaper  – and he had failed. So maybe he felt shafting myself and the Gards like this, not caring what the copy looked like or how grieving parents would take it, was well deserved for having the nerve to turn him and The Sun down.

I am unsure why Mike Ridley and Graeme Culliford became journalists in the first place.  But it isn’t a career many of us go into because it is well paid (compared to other jobs, it is not.) I am sure like many of us who become journalists, they hoped to expose wrong doing and help get stories out there for the ordinary person.

I doubt it was because they wanted to rip off a colleague’s copy and cause distress to grieving parents, ordinary members of the public, whose first baby has tragically died.

A recent story in Press Gazette reports that graduates are leaving journalism because they do not like the way they are expected to rip off and rewrite other people’s copy. This is surely because to work on Britain’s biggest papers, The Sun, Sun on Sunday or Sun Online morals need to be quickly forgotten. A conscience is not required and possibly detrimental to success.

Indeed when I asked for their comments, Mike Ridley did not respond but Graeme Culliford clearly believes he did nothing wrong. He justified his actions saying: “I did credit both you and the Mail in my article.” He was referring to one sentence buried half way through ‘his’ 1000-word lifted piece which stated ‘Speaking to journalist Alison Smith-Squire in the Daily Mail …’

Incredibly sad that journalism has come to this. If I were ever asked to rip off someone else’s story and stick my name on it, I would walk. I would never allow my byline to be placed on any sort of story plagiarised from someone else. And to sensationalise the words of a bereft couple whose baby has just died beggars belief.

But obviously for Graeme Culliford and Mike Ridley, it’s all in a day’s work. After all, if it sells papers, and brings valuable clicks to your website, who gives a toss who you upset in the process.

 

Alison Smith-Squire

Alison Smith-Squire is a writer, journalist and media agent selling exclusive real life stories to newspapers, magazines and TV. She owns the sell my story website Featureworld.co.uk, which was set up to help ordinary people sell their stories to the press.

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