Peter Gleeson Leaves News Corp Following Plagiarism Scandal

In Australia, long-time conservative commentator Peter Gleeson has left News Corp following a series of plagiarism allegations

As we reported earlier this month, Gleeson’s downfall began in late October when he published a piece entitled Power and Palaszczuk in the Courier-Mail  The piece was an unflattering 12-page “special investigation” into the government of Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and her government.

However, shortly after publication, another UK journalist, Josh Bavas, noticed that several paragraphs of one of the articles were copied verbatim from his earlier work without any citation.

The Courier-Mail quickly appended a stern editor’s note to the piece and Gleeson himself wrote an apology letter, where he said that the plagiarism was not a “deliberate act.”

However, others began to look deeper into his work. The Guardian found that more than 21 paragraphs from another article came directly from an unattributed fact sheet published by the Queensland Parliament. 

ABC’s Media Watch also investigated and found sill more copying in the piece, including large sections taken from a different journalist.

When notified of the new allegations, News Corp said that Gleeson was on “personal leave” and that they would have conversations about his future at an “appropriate time.”

Apparently, that time was now, as News Corp has announced that Gleeson has left the company. In a statement announcing the decision (direct link is not working as of this writing), the Courier-Mail said that, “This follows recent examples of material first written by others appearing in articles published under Mr Gleeson’s byline.”

Gleeson, for his part, apologized for breaching News Corp’s code of conduct and said he was grateful for the opportunities he was granted during his 34-year career.

While this brings an end to his time at News Corp, it is unclear if this will be the end of Gleeson himself as a journalist. Also, it’s an excellent opportunity to look at how the Courier-Mail, and through extension News Corp, handled the scandal.

How News Corp Handled the Scandal

When looking at News Corp’s handling of the scandal, it’s easy to see both positives and negatives.

On one hand, when the plagiarism became apparent, they reacted quickly and appended a stern editor’s note to the initial work involved. Likewise, Gleeson did not publish another column after the initial allegations. 

Though they originally said he was on “personal leave’, it’s equally likely that it was not by Gleeson’s choice. 

Furthermore, even though it took nearly a month to get to the final decision and the phrasing of the decision makes it seem like Gleeson left voluntarily, that may be part of the complexities of terminating someone like Gleeson, who likely has a unique contract for his work.

In short, it’s likely they responded as quickly and as decisively as they could have given the circumstances. Though a junior reporter would have been fired almost immediately without any ceremony or delay, Gleeson’s situation is likely very different.

But that’s not to say that it was handled perfectly.

The biggest issue by far is that, as far as we can tell, there has been no deeper investigation into Gleeson’s work.

For example, when Buzzfeed fired Benny Johnson in 2014, they reviewed some 500 of his posts and found 41 additional instances of unattributed work. Wired did a similar investigation of Jonah Leher, even though Lehrer was not employed at the publication when his scandal came to light. 

While a full accounting of Gleeson’s 34-year history likely isn’t practical, an examination of a sample of his recent works certainly is. It may not help us see and understand every instance of plagiarism Gleeon has committed, but it may help us understand if this has been endemic through his career or just a more recent issue.

That, however, doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. Sadly, that might actually be important because, as we’ve seen before, a plagiarism scandal isn’t necessarily the end for a journalist like Gleeson.

What’s Next for Gleeson 

On one hand, this might seem to be an inglorious end for Gleeson’s career. He has spent 34 years working with News Corp and those days are now over. In many ways, Gleeson’s career has been tied to the company he just parted ways with.

But while he may just ride off into the sunset, he wouldn’t be the first such journalist to rebound after such a scandal.

In the first post about Gleeson, we talked about Benny Johnson. Johnson was fired from BuzzFeed over widespread plagiarism in his work but quickly found new jobs at both the National Review Online and the Independent Journalism Review, two conservative publications.

The similarities between the two are obvious. Both are highly sought after columnists for their political views, both have their own audience that will follow them and that makes them appealing to any publication trying to attract that audience and willing to ignore their troubled past.

The main difference between them is that, at the time of his scandal, Johnson was at the beginning of his career where Gleeson is over three decades into his. 

Still, Johnson does paint a path for Gleeson to make a return. Simply put, there are no doubt other publications that would benefit from his name and audience. If any of them are willing to overlook his most recent transgressions, then Gleeson may find himself employed again.

This, to be clear, is grossly unfair. Any regular reporter would almost certainly be fired and would either have to start at the very bottom or just find a new career. But Gleeson, much like Benny Johnson, Fareed Zakaria and so forth are more celebrities than they are journalists.

That celebrity, unfortunately, can be a get out of jail free card for a variety of wrongdoings, plagiarism included.

Bottom Line

While we can’t know what’s actually next for Gleeson, the fact that there is even a reasonable discussion about his future points to the inequity of ethical standards in journalism.

It’s easy to talk about how no one is above those standards, but cases like Gleeson’s show how untrue that statement is in practicality. Even if Gleeson never writes again, his case was handled delicately, and he was given an opportunity to make as graceful of an exit as possible.

Publications have a long history of espousing a strong stance on ethics and enforcing them accordingly when it is easy. However, the moment things become difficult or strong reaction risks hiring their own bottom line, things change.

This is a practical reality in journalism today. Someone with prominence and their own audience may not be able to completely rewrite the rules of journalism ethics, but they definitely avoid the harshest punishments from them.

That, unfortunately, is unlikely to change any time soon. 

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