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Copycat stories

Bob Evans’ obit of John Miller harked back to an era when Reuters correspondents and their copy were fair game to British newspapers and their men in far-flung places such as Moscow, Johannesburg, Havana, etc.


Unlike the more serious offenders, Bob notes that John - in his memoirs - noted that “the Daily Telegraph often did tell him Reuters stories were ‘like yours’. Perhaps on occasion they were too like yours”.


Any Reuters correspondent operating in the 60s and 70s, from Saigon to Buenos Aires, Hong Kong to Lagos, will have a jaundiced memory of a story shamelessly ripped-off and published under some celebrity by-line virtually unchanged.


It was a time when they got away with a few introductory words dictated over (an often poor) telephone line, or a brief telex message, to be followed by the money- and labour-saving words “pick up agencies”.


The more far-flung the dateline, the more prevalent it would be, especially in those places where the British papers had an arrangement to use the Reuters wire to file (“Special Services” - an important revenue-spinner), and their men in the field were frequent visitors to the Reuters bureaux.


The highly-respected Financial Times Africa editor Michael Holman, in the paper’s 1998 publication on journalistic practice “Inside the FT”, noted that news desk translation of correspondents usage of “official sources” was Reuters, and that when the response to a request was answered by “I’ll have to make a few calls”, that meant Reuters.


One that still irritates me concerned Donald Wise, a top-notch war correspondent and fireman for the Daily Express and Daily Mirror, who - sent to cover independence for Botswana in 1966 - looked down at tiny, red-dirt Gaborone and remarked: ”Bloody hell, they’re giving independence to building sites”.


Just a couple of years later, in Hong Kong I spent an uncomfortable night with a British army unit trying to stem the flow of refugees in the territory, fleeing the ravages of the Cultural Revolution in China.


The task was pretty hopeless, with scores of people floating down the Pearl River on rubber inflatables, others ditching crudely-built rafts or logs to swim to land using reeds as make-shift snorkels to evade notice. Most were in poor health, starving, some afflicted by leprosy who had to be separated and shipped off to the leper colony on Hayling Chau island.


Two days later, my story topped the Daily Mirror’s foreign page under Wise’s byline and Hong Kong dateline, even though he was in Singapore at the time.


When I next saw him, I upbraided him in my youthful righteousness. “My dear boy,” he said with incredulity, “it was a good story, or I wouldn’t have picked it up”. ■