The Peter Gleeson Plagiarism Scandal

In Australia late last month, the Courier-Mail published a 12-page “Special Investigation” by Peter Gleeson entitled Power and Palaszczuk, an unflattering look at the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and her government.

However, shortly after publication, another journalist, Josh Bavas, took to Twitter to ask why the article copied four paragraphs from a piece that he wrote two years prior.

The Courier Mail quickly added an editor’s note to the article, which acknowledged that four paragraphs were not the author’s work and that their code of conduct states that “plagiarism is theft”.

A few days later, Gleeson then published an apology (link to direct source was not available), where he said that the plagiarism “was not a deliberate act by me to use another persons’ work and present it as my own.”

First came allegations from The Guardian, which found that an article as part of his Gleeso Confidential column had copied more than 21 paragraphs from a fact sheet published by the Queensland Parliament. That amounted to approximately 62% of the entire column. 

After that, ABC’s Media Watch investigated the case further and found that Gleeson had also copied even larger parts of his Power and Palaszczuk from another Courier Mail piece written by a different journalist seven years earlier.

When notified of these two new instances, New Corp said that Gleeson is on “personal leave’ and that conversations about his future would be held at an “appropriate time.”

In the meantime, the Queensland Premier office has filed a complaint with the Australian Press Council, saying that Gleeson’s coverage violated six of the council’s eight principles, including the admitted plagiarism, which the complaint says, “no penalty or punishment for those responsible has been revealed.”

For those in the United States, this case has a familiar ring to it, as we’ve seen similar cases where a reporter was allowed to continue working, despite repeated incidents of plagiarism and other ethical violations.

A Familiar Story

Those who remember the story of Benny Johnson will likely notice similarities between the two cases. 

Johnson was fired from Buzzfeed in 2014 after plagiarism was found in 41 of the 500 words they examined following an initial plagiarism scandal. However, he was quickly hired by the National Review Online and then later the Independent Journalism Review. 

There, he was again accused of plagiarism but was eventually lost that job as well after the publication was forced to retract a conspiracy-filled story about President Barack Obama that he was warned was factually inaccurate.

However, that wasn’t the end of his career either. He was hired by the Daily Caller and later by Turning Point USA, where he continues to work today.

Gleeson, much like Johnson, is a journalist who is popular for his outspoken political beliefs. He comes with a built-in audience that publications find it difficult to turn away, even if there are multiple ethical issues with both of their reporting.

This, very likely, speaks as to why no action has been taken against Gleeson. As others have noted, less popular and less connected journalists would likely have been fired or at least reprimanded already, based on the evidence presented.

While News Corp could use this time to conduct a full investigation, something they absolutely should do, it’s worth noting that other journalists, including Fareed Zakaria, were publicly suspended during that investigation. Instead, Gleeson is allowed to take “personal time”, indicating that this was Gleeson’s choice and not a mandate from his employer.

That weak response has many concerned that News Corp is simply going to wait for the scandal to blow over and bring Gleeson back without any significant reprimand. 

What Needs to Happen Now

What needs to happen now is simple. News Corp and The Courier-Mail need to launch a full investigation, both in the Gleeson’s work and in their own policies and procedures.

Simply put, this kind of plagiarism is not accidental. One does not copy and paste whole paragraphs from another source without any attribution or indication of quoting accidentally. 

The kindest interpretation of this kind of plagiarism is that Gleeson copied and pasted the text with the intent of rewriting it and forgot to. However, even that is a gross mishandling of another person’s content. 

Journalists, much like students, should practice cleanroom writing techniques, and owe it to their sources and their audience to ensure that citation is always provided. 

Simply put, this goes well beyond what can be explained as an accident and into territory that, if the plagiarism truly was unintentional, was incredibly reckless and likely comes from a misunderstanding of what constitutes original writing

More to the point, The Courier-Mail needs to analyze their processes and figure out why these issues were not caught before publication. Though there are types of plagiarism that automated tools can and will struggle to catch, this was wholesale copying from publicly-available sources, including their own archives.

If they are performing plagiarism checks, this should have been fairly easy to catch. If they are not performing such checks, now would be a good time to implement them into the editing process.

Bottom Line

What happens next to Gleeson is going to be very telling. Gleeson is a very popular journalist, and many readers care more about his political beliefs than any accusations of plagiarism.

While there’s no doubt that, like Benny Johnson, he will find an audience regardless of his scandals, the bigger question is what, if anything, with News Corp and The Courier-Mail do with him.

This is an opportunity for the publication to stand by their stated principles and take firm, transparent action against Gleeson. This would include conducting a full investigation into his work, examining their own processes, and taking whatever action is needed.

However, it’s also an opportunity to try and sweep these serious issues aside and move forward. Whatever happens will be more telling about the publication than about Gleeson.

In the end, the question is this, “How do you handle a reporter who was caught plagiarizing when the plagiarism isn’t relevant to the reason he’s popular?”

As we’ve discussed many times before, political plagiarism scandals are rarely about the plagiarism itself. The people who like Gleeson will continue to like him, plagiarism issues be dammed. The question instead is whether The Courier-Mail will continue to stand with him, or make him take his audience elsewhere.