Hidden In Plain Sight


So I was faffing around on Twitter today while editing my current novel, and I saw an intriguing tweet. Rob Mallows, who runs a website devoted to Len Deighton, posted a link to a new website devoted in its entirely to Desmond Bagley’s 1970 Iceland-set thriller Running Blind and the TV series adapted from it.

Well, that is pretty niche! But though I’ve only seen a few clips of the TV series on Youtube, I think Running Blind is a superb novel and Bagley is one of the finest (and most consistent) thriller-writers of the Cold War. So I had a look at the site. It is very well put together and well-researched. It also had a line in it that made me stop short, about an unpublished novel by Bagley set in Antarctica. I followed the link to the Howard Gotlieb Archival Center in Boston and to my amazement saw they have in their possession a dozen unpublished novels by Bagley.

Let me just say that again: they have a dozen unpublished novels by Desmond Bagley.

One is titled The Man From Hell’s Gate. Brilliant title.

More rooting around (and help from people on Twitter) reveals they also have in their possession:

  • An unfinished novel by Eric Ambler, Gentleman From Abroad, which according to one biographer he abandoned ‘in an advanced state’;

  • Three unmade screenplays by John Cassavetes, including a sequel to Gloria and a film he was going to do with Don Siegel;

  • Drafts of James Bond scripts by Donald Westlake (I suspect, based on mentions elsewhere, for Tomorrow Never Dies);

  • Unpublished material by Derek Raymond, including two completed novels.

And much more besides. Any of these are very exciting in their own right, and only seem to have been barely mentioned if at all in the literature about these writers. How extraordinary to think so much material sits like this unnoticed, until one day it’s placed in a catalogue online and finally there’s a way to sift through the haystack to find the needles. Unseen material by Eric Ambler. Bond scripts by the creator of Parker. Twelve whole Desmond Bagley novels. Some of this is likely to be unpublished because it wasn’t much good - but considering the writers in question, at least some of it might be brilliant (indeed, Cassavetes and Siegel were both very happy with the script they wanted to make). And all of it, I suspect, will be fascinating.

I am knee-deep in edits, but needless to say, I’m in touch with the Center and will investigate fully as soon as I can.





The Slow Drip Of History


In Dead Drop, I took a fresh look at one of the most famous spies of the Cold War, Oleg Penkovsky. A colonel in the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, in 1960 Penkovsky volunteered to spy for the West and was eventually ‘run’ jointly by MI6 and the CIA. He provided crucial information to the West, including manuals that helped identify the missiles Khrushchev had placed on Cuba. The CIA’s senior analyst Ray Cline told historian Christopher Andrew that Penkovsky’s intelligence was vital to the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as it allowed the agency to ‘follow the progress of Soviet missile emplacement in Cuba by the hour’.

The CIA’s involvement in the operation made my research a lot easier, because in 1992 they declassified a vast amount of material about it, including all of the transcripts of the meetings they and their British colleagues had had with Penkovsky, albeit with some redactions. I read over 1,400 pages of raw material during my research.

MI6 take a very different view to this process. Not only have they never declassified a single document about the operation, they even (indirectly) asked that I remove several pieces of information from the book, including some that was already firmly established in the public domain. In one case, the information featured in an obituary that had been published in The Times, while in another it was in an entry on Wikipedia.

So there are still holes in our knowledge of this operation, despite it taking place over half a century ago. The same applies, of course, to many other operations and aspects of the Cold War. But some of these holes are, slowly, being filled in. Last month the CIA declassified a new tranche of documents, including a couple that relate to Penkovsky.

One is written by Leonard McCoy, the brilliant CIA reports and requirements officer who worked on the operation, and who I was lucky enough to interview for Dead Drop. His article – undated but judging by one comment probably from the 1980s – adds little new, but fleshes out a few tradecraft details and makes it clear how valuable agent HERO was to the CIA. McCoy concludes that the Russians most likely realized that Penkovsky was betraying them thanks to information from two double agents, William Whalen and Jack Dunlap. He also notes that the CIA’s fondness for camouflage and deception operations during the latter part of the Cold War was triggered by a Soviet intelligence manual on the subject they had been passed by Penkovsky.

The other document the CIA has declassified about the operation is ‘Reflections on Handling Oleg Penkovsky’. Also undated, this looks to be a much newer document, probably from 2011. It includes an interview with Rodney Carlson, who as a junior CIA officer had worked on the operation.

Carlson’s name is, absurdly, also redacted from the interview, even though the first footnote in the document refers to a book that discusses him by name in relation to a meeting he had with Penkovsky in the American ambassador’s residency in Moscow on July 1962 – which he also discusses in the interview. So, as with MI6 and Wikipedia entries, caution over which secrets to reveal can seem frustratingly arbitrary.

Nevertheless, the unredacted content of the document makes it clear it is Carlson being interviewed, and his recollections of the events even five decades on are revealing.

The first revelation is a general one: we get a clear sense of his personality, I think for the first time in public. He is sharp, astute, and like McCoy has an exceptional recall of the operation. His role in it remains unchanged, but the effect is rather like hearing an extra speak in a cut scene from a film suddenly, we see an unexpected and slightly different angle on events.

Intriguingly, Carlson points to an anomaly in a statement by a KGB officer made to the author Jerrold Schecter in 1990. While the Russians have always insisted that Penkovsky was initially detected by routine surveillance, one KGB officer told Schecter that the way he had been caught still couldn’t be revealed. ‘That suggests there was more to Penkovsky’s compromise,’ Carlson said, ‘probably a lot more, than a suspicious sighting during routine surveillance’.

The current consensus in the West is that the Russian story of routine surveillance is correct. Someone who disagreed was the late Pete Bagley, a CIA officer who had reviewed the Penkovsky operation and who I interviewed for Dead Drop. He made the same point as Carlson, hitting on precisely the same anomaly, in his book Spy Wars, and it was the starting point for my research. Leonard McCoy had been more coy on this point and is in his article. Others have pointed to Whalen and Dunlap as being possible instigators of a chase for Penkovsky, but his wording also doesn’t suggest someone who necessarily believes the KGB line, either. 

In Dead Drop, I discuss at length the possibility that there was indeed ‘a lot more’ to Penkovsky’s detection than the KGB’s story of how it happened, and present what I think is the most likely scenario. But it’s fascinating to learn that at least one CIA officer who was involved in the operation felt the same as recently as (it seems) 2011. It might simply be that Carlson read Bagley’s book and found the anomaly convincing, but even that is interesting, as many in the CIA were very much against Bagley's book and his approach, among them Leonard McCoy.

A huge amount is known about the Penkovsky operation, and I hope with Dead Drop to have written as close to a definitive history of it as I could. But one can always learn more. Both these newly declassified documents contain snippets of new information, even if only of texture, as well as some curious omissions – the interview with Carlson has nearly two full pages redacted – despite the fact that these events took place in the early Sixties.

MI6 has yet to declassify its side of the operation, as have the KGB and the GRU. So it might be decades before the complete story is known, if then. Espionage history, perhaps even more than other branches of history, arrives in a slow drip.





Owen Jones: And How He Gets Away With It

On Thursday morning, I received an email from a stranger, Henry, who had found something in Owen Jones' bestselling new book The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It. I've previously asked Jones about the way he's presented a quote in the book, and got what I thought was a very unsatisfactory answer. Henry highlighted a claim Jones made in The Establishment, that 92 percent of the top 50 publicly traded companies in the UK had a parliamentarian as either a shareholder or director. But the report Jones cited for this said it was 46 percent of the top 50 - Jones had mistaken this for 46 out of 50.

This is a howler, but hadn't he just misread a figure? Well, no. Looking at it closely, I saw Henry's point: this seemingly trivial error was more serious than it appeared. Jones didn't simply misread a figure in the source he'd cited - he didn't research it at all, and even as 46 percent it's very misleading. The figure also happened to be one Jones had seized on and mentioned in several interviews and articles, and always as if it applied to today, when his cited source was a 2012 report. His repeated mentions of this statistic were widely noticed - for example, one tweet by Bonnie Greer about it during a talk he gave at the LSE last week was retweeted nearly 600 times:

'92% of top 50 companies in #UK have a director or a shareholder who is also-an MP via @OwenJones84 #LSEestablishment #HoC #transparency'

One of the replies Greer received to that tweet was 'god, that's terrifying!' And it is.

It might well be that the relationship between MPs and business is too cosy, but this statistic is incorrect. What's worse, though, is what it says about how Jones researches. In the book, he introduced the figure by saying 'according to a 2012 study', and endnotes page 290 of this report by Democratic Audit UK. Jones' implication is clear: this data is from 2012. But if you look at page 290 of that study, it reads:

The hyperlink in blue should stand out for any researcher, for several reasons. The first is the date in brackets: 2006. So straight away you can see this isn't even up-to-date information for 2012, but something dating back nearly a decade. How useful can it be to apply now? Mightn't a more up-to-date figure be more meaningful than this? Following on from that, if you do use this information, it is misleading to say 'According to a 2012 study'. They've simply mentioned it. What if they had been discussing data from 1932? Would it still be acceptable to present it as 'According to a 2012 study' with no indication of the year the data actually applies to? Of course not. It isn't here, either.

And why use this study at all? The source is right there, in a hyperlink. If you click it, you come through to Mara Faccio's study. And now several problems present themselves. The first is the date at the top of it: July 13, 2004. This means Democratic Audit have been sloppy, because they've misattributed it to 2006 when the research was in fact published in 2004. It might be a small error, but this sort of Chinese whispers is precisely why researchers look at primary sources.

And when you look at Faccio's study, all sorts of problems present themselves. The column in the table that shows the 46 percent figure for the UK has the heading '% of top 50 firms connected with a minister or MP, or a close relationship'. Faccio's definition of 'MP' includes members of the House of Lords. What does she mean by 'connected with' a minister or MP?

'I say a company is connected with a politician if one of the company’s large shareholders or top directors is: (1) a member of parliament, (2) a minister or the head of state, or (3) is closely related to a top official.'

Her definition of a large shareholder is anyone controlling at least 10% of a company's voting stock, and this is referred to as simply 'shareholder' elsewhere in her study. So her definitions are already broadening this out hugely. How does she define 'top official', and what does she mean by 'a close relationship'?

'Connections in this case occur when a large shareholder or a top director is: a friend of a minister or MP; a former minister; currently a politician, but has left the business after 1997; a foreign politician; or is a person known to be associated with a political party.'

This is extremely broad indeed. Even if you remove the 92% howler in Jones' book, what we're left with is not that 'according to a 2012 study', 46% of the UK's top 50 companies had a British parliamentarian as either a director or shareholder. It's more like: according to a 2004 study, 23 of the top 50 companies in the UK had a director or significant stakeholder who was either a British parliamentarian, someone closely related to a top official, someone connected to any of the above by friendship, or someone known to be associated with a political party. And even that isn't quite as broad as Faccio has it.

It's a pretty useless statistic, I think. But what is telling here is that Jones clearly hasn't consulted the primary source, which was hardly difficult to find: it's hyperlinked in the study he cites. Even more telling is how he reacted when I pointed this out to him on Twitter. He said a lot of sensible stuff. He tweeted 'I take accuracy very seriously and will immediately correct any errors made in good faith' and 'I take stats and accuracy very seriously so welcome any corrections'. Excellent.

And superficially it seems he did in fact do this. He said the 92% figure had already been corrected in the book, and when I pointed out it was in my ebook, which I'd downloaded that morning, he replied 'glad you've told me that - it's been corrected for print, I didn't know that it hasn't for ebook, so thanks'. And he wrote a blogpost seemingly correcting the error. I say seemingly, because all he's done is called it a typo and corrected the 92% to 46%. I repeatedly pointed out these other problems to him, and asked him if he had read Faccio's 2004 study, which is where the data comes from. He didn't reply to that question. So he didn't bother to look at the source when he wrote the book. And when it was pointed out to him, he still didn't bother.

Or perhaps it's even worse than that. He did bother, but just doesn't want to admit that the information is out of date. That sounds like quite a charge, but look at how he has worded the 'correction' on his blog.

'In my chapter on ‘The Westminster Cartel’, I quote from research about the links between MPs and the corporate world discussed in the 2012 Democratic Audit report.'

Discussed. Yes, it's discussed. But when is the data from? 2004. He doesn't mention this. He also writes:

'Also, here’s a graph (I like graphs) to put it in perspective:'

And pastes in the table from the 2012 report. I like graphs and tables, too, if they're accurate. But if he'd bothered to read Faccio's report - which, surely, by now, having had this pointed out, would be the thing to do - he'd have realised that Democratic Audit's table is wrong. The column heading is '% top 50 firms connected with a minister or MP'. But Faccio's definition of this was much broader, and her table for the same percentage figure included the words 'or a close relationship'. Democratic Audit's report says Faccio 'found that 46 per cent of the top 50 publicly traded firms had a British MP as a director or shareholder'. This simply isn't what she found. So their use of sources is very sloppy. As is Jones'. He included Democratic Audit's table as if that in itself showed how even without his 'typo' his argument held, but he didn't mention that the data is from 2004, includes peers, top officials, friends of all of those, people associated with political parties and so on. He still hasn't looked at the primary source. 

Neither is this the only problem in Jones' book. My emailer, Henry, pointed out other problems with his research - he seems to believe the only social security spending that goes to unemployed people is the Jobseeker's Allowance - and I'd already asked Jones about a quote in the book, to which he gave a very unsatisfactory answer. So? None of this is going to change the universe. Ebola's on the loose. Putin is persecuting minorities and invading places. Islamist extremists are beheading aid workers. Why do I care? Well, I care about more than one thing, and care about them in different ways. If you want to throw out whataboutery or thatmuchology, do, but it's not a great counter-argument to the points I'm discussing.

Neither is attacking me for pointing this out. Someone on Twitter asked me yesterday why I'm 'so keen to defend state and corporate power' against Jones. I'm not. This isn't politically motivated.  I broadly agree with much of Jones' politics and have enjoyed several of his pieces. Neither do I have any personal animosity towards him - I don't know him. This is about journalistic ethics. I also take accuracy seriously, and integrity. I think it's quite possible that the connection between political and corporate interests in the UK is too cosy - but I'd like that argument to rest on solid ground. And as Jones seems not to know the very basics of how to research information, how much of his book can I trust? Worse, as he still hasn't understood the errors and looked into it properly once it's been pointed out, how can I take that he's making his arguments in good faith? It's bad enough he didn't research this properly for the book, but much worse not to bother once it's been brought to his attention. Is his omission of the primary source, 2004 and all the other provisos in his 'correction' because he's lazy - or because he doesn't want to admit that his entire argument using this source is incredibly weak and in fact should probably be withdrawn entirely?

This morning, I received another email from Henry. I asked him if I could reproduce it here, and he agreed, so here it is, with a couple of typos cleaned up (actual ones, not Owen Jones-style ones):

'Hi Jeremy,

I can't help but keep looking into Owen's book. If you're all done with this story, and I would totally understand if you were, then please just let me know and I won't email you about it anymore. But I found another outrageous example that really illustrates Owen's inability to do proper research. If you don't want to know, just stop reading here, because this is a bit long, but it's also a very clear cut-case of what might be some of the sloppiest research I've seen in a major book. I also noticed that his book has been on the Sunday Times bestsellers chart for three or four weeks now, which just makes this all the more frustrating. If you're interested, read on, if not, stop here and just let me know you're walking away. I can always try sending this to someone else and see if they can take it up. I saw that it got some coverage at after your tweets and I can send it to them if you're not interested and they might run it. And if you want to use my first name to let people know that I'm the one that's become a bit fixated on this and it's not just you, feel free. Please just don't post my email address or full name.

Okay, here goes. I have the ebook version of his book and decided to just check sources that are available online. I picked Chapter 9, "Scrounging off the State" because I figured there would be lots of stats thrown around in there. I went to the source page for that chapter to look for online sources. The first online source I didn't check because it looked straightforward enough and was just a quote, not a stat. The next online source listed was the sixth cited source for the chapter and had quite a few figures being cited in the text. Here's what I found:

From Chapter 9 - Scrounging off the State

Here’s Owen Jones:

'Perhaps nothing encapsulates state-subsidized capitalism like the UK arms industry. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) has examined the subsidies showered on the sector on an annual basis. These include £16 million for the Defence Export Services Organisation, which acts as an official salesman for the industry; £24 million for defence attachés and embassy staff to promote military exports; and £670 million on research and development. The CAAT found that, in total, arms exports received a government subsidy worth £890 million each year, or £13,000 per export job.'

The source for these stats:

Firstly, the Defence Export Services Organisation doesn’t exist anymore! It was scrapped by Gordon Brown in 2007! 7 years ago! And yet he’s presenting it as if they’re still pulling in 16 mil a year. Notice he refers to them in the present tense.

Here’s The Guardian and the Telegraph on the closure back in '07:

And here is CAAT on where the 16m figure is from: 'DESO's forecasted net operating cost for 2003-2004 is £16m.' So it was a forecasted figure from 2003-2004 anyway. Not that it matters since DESO don’t even exist anymore. But why such old figures? His source for this whole paragraph, the CAAT factsheet, was written in 2004 and has never been updated. So all of these numbers, not the just ones for DESO, are at least a decade old, some of them older and some of them just made up, as I'll explain. Not that you’d know this from how he’s presented the information in his book.

Secondly, that “£24 million for defence attachés and embassy staff to promote military exports”? CAAT basically just made that figure up. If you read their out-of-date factsheet they admit to using estimates and “guesswork” where there are no official figures available. And their “guesswork” is godawful from a research perspective.

Here’s how CAAT very clearly explains in that factsheet (the one Owen read and cited!) how they arrived at their guesstimate of £24m:

'A 1989 National Audit Office survey estimated that forty percent of a defence attaché's time was spend promoting military exports. As post Cold War oversupply in the arms market has led to a buyers' market, and because the number of markets has increased, it seems highly unlikely that this element of the defence attaché's role has decreased. The cost of defence attachés for 2002-2003 has been given as £37.1m giving an export subsidy of £15m. There is far less relevant information available for embassies as a whole. It has been reported that the former UK Ambassador to Iran in the 1970s spent the 'vast majority' of his time trying to sell weapons to the Shah. While that may have been a one-off situation, it seems likely that a significant proportion of the effort of embassies in, say, Saudi Arabia and Oman is spent promoting UK equipment. The situation will be different for different countries, but an average of a token 1% is used to represent the role of embassies. FCO diplomatic spending plans for 2003-4 are £869m. Hence, CAAT allocates a subsidy of £9m.'

Do you see all the glaring, ridiculous problems with how they arrived at their guess of 24 mil? They’re basically just making things up. I mean, I don’t even know how Owen could look at this and think it was in any way reliable. HOW CAN THIS BE HIS SOURCE?! It boggles the mind.

Okay, now that “£670 million on research and development.” Another guesstimate. Here’s how they explain it:

'That there is a research & development (R&D) subsidy is acknowledged by the Government in that it charges a Commercial Exploitation Levy in an attempt to recoup some of the costs. The CEL brought in £17.5m in 1999-2000 (the most recent figure available, though the CEL was greater than this in most previous years), less than 0.5% of the value of military exports. Attempts by government over past decades to implement a more realistic levy (up to 30% of the selling price) have been watered down to 'what the market will bear', or what the companies will pay. In order to provide an estimate of R&D subsidy, CAAT simply applies the proportion of UK military equipment that is exported, approximately a third, to R&D spending. In 2001-2, R&D spending was £2,057million and so the amount that could be allocated to exports is £686m. This, minus the CEL of £17.5m gives a subsidy of around £670m.'

So that "£890 million each year" in government subsidy to the arms export business? It's all cobbled together from 10-year-old data or older, shaky estimates and numbers that are just pulled from the sky, basically. And it includes a government organisation that hasn't existed for seven years.

If you read the whole factsheet, which I did and I assume Owen did, it’s very clear that this information can’t be presented in any way as being accurate or up-to-date. And yet that’s exactly what Owen Jones does, presents it as accurate and up-to-date. Is he playing games or is he really just incapable of understanding how proper research is supposed to be conducted? This isn't from his personal blog where one could say, "who cares, what's the difference?" it's in a Sunday Times bestseller published by Penguin and being promoted all over the country and on television.

If you read this paragraph he wrote in his book and didn’t bother to check his source, you would believe that these were accurate figures that represented the current situation. But they’re all figures from a decade ago and older and much of them have just been made up by this group that he’s citing, all of which is plainly obvious when you read the source. I just don't understand how this could fly.'

Henry also asked me to emphasise that he isn't taking on Jones' argument that the arms industry is subsidised by the state. 'I'm just pointing out that his research is awful. And that the numbers just can't be verified the way he's claiming they are.'


1 Comment

Why does plagiarism matter?

You'd think that wasn't a question anyone would need to answer, especially in the field of journalism. But it does, because lots of people ask it. Or minimise it and shrug it off.

Some people seem to see plagiarism as simply cases you can look at and judge whether or not strings of text are verbatim. If people happen to know the author in question, or share their political views, sexuality, race or religion, it sometimes seems as if nothing short of dozens of examples of word-for-word lifted passages counts as plagiarism.

But that isn't what plagiarism is, and plagiarists rarely do that, anyway. Plagiarism is simply taking other people's words and ideas and passing them off as your own. Attributing your sources is very easy to do. Hyperlinking makes it even easier. People are taught this at school: if you want to take five sentences from, say, Wikipedia, that is shoddy enough, but you have to at least put the material in quotes or state clearly you got it from there. If you don't, you're rightly in trouble in school and you should be even more so as a professional journalist.

But why? Ideas are all floating in the wind in our post-modern world... blah blah.

No. Stop that hippy-dippy bullshit.

Ideas are people's work. They are researched, developed and crafted. Sources will also often need to be traced by others so they can figure out how stories have changed over time and weigh their reliability.

The reason plagiarism matters is because it is about the working methods of a writer, and if their ideas are stolen that is a problem. In the case of journalists, they rely heavily on readers' trust. I'm reading your interview with someone, but I wasn't in the room when it happened. So if you lie about what that person said, it is very hard for me to know. If you sensationalise, embellish or fabricate incidents out of whole cloth, as a reader I can't easily check. So I have to trust that you are being honest and scrupulous, and that when you report what people say in quotes that means they actually said those words, and that when you say something happened, you haven't embellished or invented.

So if I find you are so lazy and sloppy and uncaring about your work that you take material from elsewhere and act like you found it and wrote it yourself, you have hidden something very basic from me, your reader. And my trust in your ability to do all the other work of reporting evaporates.

So in all cases of plagiarism, it is not so much a question of counting: 'Oh, but that is simply a couple of examples. They made a mistake, big deal.' As soon as it is clear that this is not a coincidence, but a pattern in the writer's method, it doesn't matter if it is four examples or 804. If there is a pattern, that is plagiarism, and it is also very likely to be elsewhere in their work anyway. A newspaper or magazine or TV channel confronted with or finding several examples of plagiarism in a writer's work should immediately investigate all their work, and once they have done that fully and carefully explain what happened to their audience and either add disclaimers or remove the material as is appropriate.

Because if a writer is prepared to deceive their readers about how they came across their material - even if and perhaps especially if those facts are widely available - you can't really trust them to have told you the truth as best they can in their interviews, their experiences and in the rest of their work. That is why plagiarism matters.

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Sometimes someone will notice something on Twitter and comment on it. 'Jesus, have you seen this? Horrible.'

'Wow,' someone will reply. 'That is unpleasant.'

'I agree,' says someone else. 'Not nice at all.'

Soon lots of people agree that this thing is awful - usually because it is - and it becomes a 'Twitterstorm'. This is a brilliant satire of that process. The tweet there that resonates most for me at the moment is the fake tweet by 'Reasonable Clive':

'The @PricehoundUK thing looks bad, but maybe we should wait for the full story to come out before grabbing the pitchforks.'

This always happens. People certainly can jump to conclusions and grab pitchforks, but people are also attracted to a backlash, and a backlash to the backlash, and so on. They're contrarian. Sometimes they have skin in the game, too.

A variation of Reasonable Clive's tweet that I've seen a lot lately is something I'll call 'Thatmuchology'. The tweet - sometimes stretched to a blog article or even a newspaper column - usually goes something like this:

'I guess I just don't see why it's such a big deal.'

'What is so terrible about this? Someone tell me because I'm just not seeing it.'

'From what I skimread, I don't think that shows anything and fwiw big deal anyway. Happens all the time. #justsaying.'

Or this variation I've just seen:

'I'm not sure taking the piss is exactly a crime (thoughtcrime or otherwise).'

That tweet refers to yesterday's revelation that Daily Telegraph columnist Dr Brooke Magnanti has spent a year using a fake identity on Twitter to spout bile and spread venom about other journalists, most of them female, and to big up her own work. The viciousness of the account is staggering to behold. Or, alternatively, she was just taking the piss and let's shrug it off.

This rhetorical device, is, of course, a straw man. Nobody is saying Brooke Magnanti committed a crime, or a throughtcrime. And people rarely specify precisely how big a deal they think something is. If someone is mildly upset about something, you can always dismiss it by pretending they are unjustifiably furious about it.

'God, someone just trod on my toe and it really hurt - bastards!'

'Hmm. I guess I just don't understand why this is such a big deal to you. There are other things going on and this happens the whole time.'

By exaggerating how significant people find something, you can then pretend it is completely insignificant - and usually you can also not bother to argue why you think it unimportant enough to dismiss in this way. You can just adopt a world-weary, jaded tone and claim the outrage is over the top. But perhaps people are at the right level of being pissed off.

This happened a lot with Johann Hari's plagiarism, with Stephen Leather and Mo Ansar's sockpuppeting, and it's happening at the moment with Fareed Zakaria's plagiarism. It will continue to happen with Brooke Magnanti.

It's a crap rhetorical device. Not that crap. Just crap enough for me to write this in a futile attempt to persuade people to not employ it. Now feel free to be mystified as to why I'm so angry* about this.

*Mildly irritated.