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The 'our 'lawyers' warning on Robert Black funeral exclusive was tabloidy. But it was also blunt and effective.

By Paul Connolly

Published 12/02/2016

Exclusive: Murderer Robert Black
Exclusive: Murderer Robert Black

A common question from readers is: "Where do stories come from?" The bland answer to that is, of course, from a whole range of sources. When told that one of these sources is follow-ups from other media, often the next question is: "How do we know which ones these are?"

This is actually a more intelligent question than it might appear on the surface, because it goes to the heart of the sometimes thorny question of attribution.

The issue raised its head after last week's story about the funeral of child killer Robert Black.

Regular readers might remember how the Department of Justice imposed a news blackout on Black's funeral - without explaining why. But the Belfast Telegraph managed to obtain details of the service at Roselawn and was there to watch his cremation.

Publication of the report was somewhat controversial, with some readers believing it was too tabloid in style and intrusive in content for the Belfast Telegraph. I strongly disagreed, and indeed so did many other readers - the majority, as far as I can make out.

In short, I think it was an excellent exclusive about an evil coward who is believed to have killed as many as 16 young girls and which raised legitimate matters of public interest.

Perhaps more controversial, though, was the tagline appended on the material that stated: 'Copyright INM: Our lawyers are watching'. Now, this is a tabloid device that was common in the old Fleet Street. Some people remarked they were surprised to see it being used in the Belfast Telegraph (part of Independent News & Media or INM).

I do confess my first reaction was "huh?" On reflection, however, I can see why the Telegraph used the device. In our digitally connected world copyright theft and plagiarism is absolutely endemic. I regularly see - and, indeed, challenge - the wholesale lifting of Belfast Telegraph videos, which is surprisingly easy to do if you know the dark arts of 'ripping' online clips.

'Our lawyers are watching' might seem - is - rather tabloidy, but at least it is understandable to the legions of untrained bloggers and barely trained interns who shamelessly steal other people's content for recycling online without even the slightest attribution. It is also a strong reminder to commercial rivals.

Readers may be unaware of the extent of the problem, but the lifting of material has long been an issue in journalism. Rivalry, usually between tabloids, led to the development of the 'our lawyers' device as a way of trying to stop wholesale lifting of copy without attribution.

Copyright can be a tricky area. In journalism it is entirely legitimate to follow up on a story but not to lift one, though it does happen. Interestingly, this is not dealt with in the Editors' Code.

Good practice dictates that the source - in the case of this story, the Belfast Telegraph - is attributed. This usually takes the form of "according to the Belfast Telegraph" or "was quoted as telling the Belfast Telegraph". Lifting content isn't just bad journalism, it also transfers risk to the person lifting it if the original content is wrong or dodgy. Any judge would rightly take a dim view of a defendant who lifted material without checking or giving attribution.

So, while story-lifting was bad in the past, wholesale content-lifting can be endemic today. Responsible media will and should attribute and follow up stories, not lift them.

The 'our 'lawyers' warning was tabloidy. But it was also blunt and effective.

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