Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Christian Ward and Plagiarism

Plagiarism is wrong, I’m in no doubt about that. It is intellectual and (sometimes) emotional theft. It is wrong, but it is not anything like as wrong as, say, murder, rape, or even the fact that up to half of the food bought in Europe and the USA ends up in rubbish bins – that really is worthy of scandal.

Christian Ward’s plagiarism of poems by Helen Mort, Tim Dooley, Paisley Rekdal, Janice Soderling, and others (does anyone seriously think there won’t be others?) has been shared so many times on Facebook and so much has been said about it – much of it virulent and hysterical, in my opinion – that I feel unsure about saying more. It is good that the facts came out and that people’s original authorship has been recognised. Of course, for those directly involved, it is an important issue, and for publishers, Magazine editors, competition organisers and review editors etc, it may affect the reception of any future works by Mr Ward. That remains to be seen. Actions do have consequences.

But, if this had happened only a few years ago in a world before Facebook, the reaction would have been confined to a relatively small number of people, who might have thought CW an idiot and might have told him so, but it wouldn’t have gone any further. Plagiarism has been carried out by well known poets before, some who are still publishing poems today. Most folk have no idea that these poets have been guilty of plagiarism. But the reach of today’s social media has meant that news spreads instantly to a very large mob of people, and mobs, even (especially?) virtual mobs, tend to dispense instant justice in unfortunate ways. That certainly is what has happened over the last week.   

It is true that Christian Ward’s statements have not exactly helped his cause. He ought simply to have admitted his guilt over the poems he’s been accused of plagiarising and indeed brought others to light too. However, it’s easy enough for me to say that in the relative calm of my office here in Edinburgh. I don’t imagine that CW’s mind will be in fully rational mode. It’s hard to think straight when under considerable stress and you’re starring in the (national) press for all the wrong reasons. People who say it’s “great publicity” for him are living in a different planet. It is better publicity for those plagiarised, but I’d also bet that none of them are exactly thrilled about it and would much rather they’d been allowed to get on with writing poems without having their names and photos splattered all over the newspapers and social media sites.

I think it’s now time to end this social media circus performance for the sake of all concerned. We know what happened, we know it’s plagiarism (not a “mistake” or “accident”), the victims have had their say (which is certainly fair), so let’s move on to something more fruitful. Have I just added to the list of circus acts by writing this? I suppose I may have, but I post it in the spirit of an epilogue on the last page of a novel; the kind of epilogue that banishes the need for a sequel.

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