Friday, March 22, 2013

In Fleming’s Footsteps

ON OCTOBER 5 1962, the first James Bond film, Dr No, had its world premiere in London – and the thriller would never be the same again. The Bond films would become the most successful film franchise of all time, and almost single-handedly led to the ‘spy-mania’ of the Sixties.

The Sydney Morning Herald, June 25 1961
As a result, nearly all discussion of Bond’s influence on the genre relates to the films. But long before Sean Connery, Terence Young or John Barry stepped onto the scene, James Bond was a by-word for excitement, glamour and adventure. Fleming was not merely a moderately successful writer whose work only became famous via screen adaptation: by any usual standards, his books were a wide-reaching cultural phenomenon (which is why the film rights were bought, of course). In Britain, Fleming’s novels were serialised as comic strips in the Daily Express from 1958 onwards, and the same year he became a talking point in the literary world when he was attacked as vulgar by the critic Bernard Bergonzi in the Twentieth Century and accused of being a purveyor of ‘sex, snobbery and sadism’ by Paul Johnson in the New Statesman

In its review of Goldfinger on March 26 1959, The Times noted that:

‘A new novel by Mr. Ian Fleming is becoming something of an event, since James Bond has now established himself at the head of his profession, a secret service agent who indeed plays for England but who has much in common with the highly sexed “private eye” on the other side of the Atlantic.’

A less frequently discussed indication of Fleming’s success is that, even before Dr No came to the screen, other thriller-writers were being influenced by Bond. Just over a month after Dr No’s premiere, on 12 November 1962, Len Deighton’s novel The IPCRESS File was published by Hodder & Stoughton. Although Deighton wrote the book before Dr No’s release, Bond was nevertheless uppermost in his mind, as Michael Spencer Howard revealed in his 1971 book on the publisher Jonathan Cape:

‘Having studied the James Bond phenomenon, Deighton had devised his own formula on which to base efficiently successful thrillers, and was determined to write five of them to prove it.’1

The IPCRESS File was an unexpected smash, and Deighton defected from Hodder to Jonathan Cape, who published the sequel, Horse Under Water, the following year. Deighton later said that this ‘enraged some people, who claimed I was now going to be trained as the successor to Ian Fleming, who Cape also published.’2 This was an understandable view, as Deighton was certainly inspired by Fleming’s work: The IPCRESS File even closes with a mention of SMERSH, an organisation that had featured in Fleming novels but which would not appear on film until From Russia, With Love in 1963 – the screenplay of which Deighton worked on.3

The mention of SMERSH can only plausibly be the influence of Fleming, because although the organisation existed in real life, it had had little in common with Fleming’s fantastic depiction of it, and its existence was barely known before the publication of Casino Royale. Deighton placed the organisation’s headquarters in Moscow at 19 Stanislavskaya Street, whereas Fleming had it at 13 Sretenska Ulitsa. Despite the authoritative-sounding specificity, neither was right, as the organisation had been disbanded and its responsibilities handed over to the Main Administration of Counter-Intelligence (GUKR) of the MGB in 1946.4


LEN DEIGHTON wasn’t the only thriller-writer to toy with the Bond formula prior to the films. The Mythmaker by Sarah Gainham, published in 1957, featured a young, handsome half-British, half-Hungarian agent called Christian Quest. Bond was half-Scottish and half-Swiss in Fleming’s novels, and the name is an obvious play on the tradition of gallant spies fighting for God and country. Gainham was the pseudonym of Rachel Terry, the wife of the Sunday Times correspondent and MI6 officer Anthony Terry, a close friend and colleague of Fleming who had helped him with the research for The Living Daylights. According to Andrew Lycett, Rosa Klebb was partly inspired by an anecdote Rachel Terry had told Fleming about a hideous female Russian agent who had operated in Vienna.5

Several moments in The Mythmaker, published the same year as From Russia, With Love, appear to have been inspired by Fleming’s work, especially Casino Royale. Quest is a handsome, young, but somewhat arrogant novice in both the spy game and matters of the heart:

‘In Kit’s many small loves his main preoccupation had been to protect himself from involvement without losing his pleasure. A vulgar concern which was not his choice but simply the accepted attitude to love of nearly all young men of his kind, and the very worst preparation possible for the feelings that now filled him. Not only was Deli a member of his own world and therefore not to be trifled with without serious consequences, but he found with a momentary fear that only traces remained of his habitual self-defence against emotion, he was defenceless against her simply because she was unarmed and brave. Yet he could not at once give up the essentially hostile posture which had hitherto been his real attitude to the women he had desired and who had desired him. This fear and this reservation showed in his eyes after the first flash of recognition, and in answer to them a familiar smile of ironical understanding came into Deli’s eyes. Kit looked away from her, shamed that he had betrayed a coarse caution in a moment that could never return, and spoilt it for both of them.

‘Let’s dance,’ said Deli, still with the ironical smile.’

The dialogue and Deli’s ironical smiles are reminiscent of Vesper Lynd’s in Casino Royale, but the passage as a whole also echoes Bond’s changing attitude to women in that novel:

‘With most women his manner was a mixture of taciturnity and passion. The lengthy approaches to a seduction bored him almost as much as the subsequent mess of disentanglement. He found something grisly in the inevitability of the pattern of each affair. The conventional parabola – sentiment, the touch of the hand, the kiss, the passionate kiss, the feel of the body, the climax in the bed, then more bed, then less bed, then the boredom, the tears and the final bitterness – was to him shameful and hypocritical. Even more he shunned the mise en scène for each of these acts in the play – the meeting at a party, the restaurant, the taxi, his flat, her flat, then the week-end by the sea, then the flats again, then the furtive alibis and the final angry farewell on some doorstep in the rain.

But with Vesper there could be none of this.’

Rachel Terry, alias Sarah Gainham
In the hint of Quest’s ‘real’ attitude to women – an ‘essentially hostile posture’ – he may also be a subtle portrait of Ian Fleming. Rachel Terry thought Fleming was ‘highly intelligent and accomplished’, but that his emotional age was ‘pre-puberty’.6 A couple of years after she wrote The Mythmaker, Fleming tried to seduce her on a trip to Berlin, when she had been estranged from her husband. She had been tempted, finding Fleming ‘tall, good-looking, highly presentable and with the slightly piratical air given by his broken nose’, but turned him down. In The Mythmaker, Quest is described as having a ‘narrow, aquiline handsome face with an arrogant but humorous expression, a mobile mouth and quick hazel eyes of unusual beauty’.

Quest travels to Vienna to find Otto Berger, a servant of Hitler’s thought to have escaped the Bunker in Berlin and hidden a cache of platinum and precious stones to be used to fund a neo-Nazi revival: the book ends with a chase through the Alps. In Fleming’s Moonraker (1954), the chief villain is Hugo Drax, revealed to have been a Nazi who survived the end of the war. Drax’s chief accomplice is called Krebs, the same name as Hitler’s last chief of staff in the Bunker.7


IN THE 1960s and 1970s, neo-Nazi revivals would become fertile ground for British thriller-writers. One lesser known example is The Testament of Caspar Schultz by Martin Fallon, published by Abelard-Schulman in Britain on May 18, 1962, nearly five months before the world premiere of Dr No. Fallon was an early pseudonym of Harry Patterson, a writer who would later become famous under another pseudonym: Jack Higgins.

While Gainham’s book was a literary thriller with a few nods to Fleming’s work, The Testament of Caspar Schultz is a full-bodied homage. In the first chapter, British secret agent Paul Chavasse is summoned in the early hours by telephone to see his superior, who works out of a building carrying the legend ‘Brown & Company – Importers & Exporters’ on a polished brass plate outside:
‘He went up the curving Regency staircase and passed along a thickly carpeted corridor. The only sound was a slight, persistent hum from the dynamo in the radio room…’
Chavasse briefly admires the Chief’s assistant, Jean Frazer, whose tweed skirt is of a ‘deceptively simple cut that moulded her rounded hips’, and lights up a cigarette: 

‘‘Now what’s all the fuss about? What’s the Chief got on his mind that’s so important it can’t wait until a respectable hour?’

She shrugged. ‘Why don’t you ask him yourself? He’s waiting for you inside.’
Chavasse cursed softly and got to his feet. ‘What does he think I’m made of – iron?’ Without waiting for a reply, he walked across to the far door, opened it and went in.
He frowned slightly. ‘Another job?’

She nodded. ‘I think it’s something pretty big.’

The room was half in shadow, the only light the shaded lamp which stood upon the desk by the window. The Chief was reading a sheaf of typewritten documents and he looked up quickly, a slight frown on his face.’
All of this reads very much like a version of the openings of several Fleming novels, such as this passage in Moonraker from 1955, in which James Bond enters a building in London in which Universal Export Co. is on a bronze list of occupants in the entrance hall and makes his way to the ninth floor:
As Bond turned to the left outside the lift and walked along the softly carpeted corridor to the green baize door that led to the offices of M. and his personal staff, the only sound he heard was a thin high-pitched whine that was so faint that you almost had to listen for it. 
Without knocking he pushed through the green door and walked into the last room but one along the passage.
Miss Moneypenny, M.s private secretary, looked up from her typewriter and smiled at him. They liked each other and she knew that Bond admired her looks. She was wearing the same model shirt as his own secretary, but with blue stripes. New uniform, Penny? said Bond. She laughed. Loelia and I share the same little woman, she said. We tossed and I got blue. 
A snort came through the open door of the adjoining room. The Chief of Staff, a man of about Bonds age, came out, a sardonic grin on his pale, overworked face.
Break it up, he said, M.s waiting. Lunch afterwards?
Fine, said Bond. He turned to the door beside Miss Moneypenny, walked through and shut it after him. Above it, a green light went on. Miss Moneypenny raised her eyebrows at the Chief of Staff. He shook his head.
I dont think its business, Penny, he said. Just sent for him out of the blue. He went back into his own room and got on with the days work.
When Bond came through the door, M. was sitting at his broad desk, lighting a pipe. He made a vague gesture with the lighted match towards the chair on the other side of the desk and Bond walked over and sat down. M. glanced at him sharply through the smoke and then threw the box of matches on to the empty expanse of red leather in front of him.
Stylistically, these are quite different: Fleming almost fetishised physical detail, whereas Higgins stripped them back to prioritise pace. However, the content is very similar, and the character of Chavasse is also like Bond in many respects: a handsome, ruthless, highly professional British secret agent who speaks several languages, is an expert at judo, and so on. The clearest indication that Higgins had Fleming in mind, however, is the following passage:

There are men like me working for every Great Power in the world. I’ve got more in common with my opposite number in SMERSH than I have with any normal citizen of my own country. If I’m told to do a thing, I get it done. I don’t ask questions. Men like me live by one code only – the job must come before anything else.’ He laughed harshly. ‘If I’d been born a few years earlier and a German, I’d probably have worked for the Gestapo.’’

Again, SMERSH was barely known before Fleming’s use of it in Casino Royale and subsequent novels, and in reality it had been a division of Soviet intelligence largely dedicated to interrogating suspected traitors. Like Fleming (and Deighton), Higgins treated it as though it were still operational, and a major Soviet intelligence organization.

Paul Chavasse is a half-British half-Breton secret agent. His mission in the novel is to find Caspar Schultz, a survivor of Hitler’s Bunker who has written a book naming the leaders of a neo-Nazi movement in Germany. In Higgins’ original draft, the testament’s author was Hitler’s private secretary Martin Bormann, but at his publishers insistence he changed this to the fictional Schultz.

Chavasse delivers his speech about SMERSH to an Israeli agent in a first-class sleeper compartment, in a scene that is highly reminiscent of Fleming’s From Russia, With Love (1958). In that book, SMERSH’s dossier on James Bond described him as ‘a dangerous professional terrorist and spy’, a neat alternate look at our hero. Higgins took this idea a step further. James Bond would never say of himself that he had more in common with a member of SMERSH than with British citizens, let alone that had he been born a German earlier he would probably have joined the Gestapo. Higgins was using Chavasse to play off and comment on Fleming’s creation. He’s an answer to a writer’s musings: Are all Germans and Russians bad? And: What would a real secret agent’s motivation be? Traditionally in thrillers of this kind, it is duty, either in the form of love of country or God or, sometimes, a woman. Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond started his career because he found peacetime dull, but he was nevertheless highly patriotic. For Chavasse, however, the job comes before anything else, and he recognises that he might have been attracted to the work whatever his nationality, and whatever the cause. This is an elaboration of a point made by Fleming in Casino Royale, in which Bond worries that Le Chiffe was right when he said Bond’s game of ‘Red Indians’ is over:

‘‘This country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date. Today we are fighting Communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.’’

The Testament of Caspar Schultz is a lean, sparsely written thriller, with one dominating theme: the conflict between conscience and the desire for adventure. At several points in the book, Chavasse is troubled by his own nature. He tells Israeli agent Anna Hartmann that he was recruited into intelligence work after bringing the relative of a friend out of Czechoslovakia:

‘‘I’d discovered things about myself that I never knew before. That I liked taking a calculated risk and pitting my wits against the opposition. On looking back on the Czechoslovakian business I realized that in some twisted kind of way I’d enjoyed it. Can you understand that?’

‘I’m not really sure,’ she said slowly. ‘Can anyone honestly say they enjoy staring death in the face each day?’

‘I don’t think of that side of it,’ he said, ‘any more than a Grand Prix motor racing driver does.’’

And he repeats what he told her colleague: ‘I’m a professional and work against professionals. Men like me obey one law only – the job must come first.’

While the use of this idea is rather heavy-handed in The Testament of Caspar Schultz, Higgins clearly felt it was important, developing it in five further novels featuring Chavasse. In The Keys of Hell (1965), for instance, on a mission in Albania, he says to another beautiful young woman he has fallen in love with:

‘‘If I’d been born in Germany twenty years earlier, I’d probably have ended up in the Gestapo. If I’d been born an Albanian, I might well have been a most efficient member of the Sigurmi. Who knows?’’

This concept eventually became one of the major themes of his work. In The Eagle Has Landed, published in 1975, Higgins did not simply have the hero remark how similar he is to a German – the heroes are German. Heroes and villains had in fact changed parts. In a 1987 interview, Higgins related how one publisher was not best pleased when he heard the premise of the book, telling him:

‘‘You can’t possibly expect the public to go for a book about a bunch of Krauts trying to kidnap Winston Churchill. You don’t have any heroes – these people are Nazis, for God’s sake!’’8

But the public did go for it. The Eagle Has Landed was Higgins’ breakthrough, and has sold over 50 million copies to date. Part of its appeal is precisely the friction of rooting for characters who were traditionally cast as antagonists. Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of The Jackal and Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle, two other landmark British thrillers of the post-war period, also featured highly professional yet curiously empathetic antagonists. Higgins’ other major success has been with the character Sean Dillon, a former IRA assassin who is periodically used by British intelligence.

In peacetime Britain, when the justification for what SMERSH would classify as terrorist action was less cut and dried than it had been during the war, there was a need for a new type of motivation for fictional secret agents. Higgins hit on the idea of an agent being driven not by traditional causes such as King, God or country, but by an addiction to the chase itself, a love of the profession. Chavasse’s other concern – the broader picture of human nature that allows him to empathise with the enemy and recognise himself in it – became a major theme of Higgins’ work. 

ANOTHER WRITER who was influenced by Fleming before the Bond films were made was Geoffrey Jenkins, a South African who had worked with Fleming at the Sunday Times in the ’40s. In his first novel, A Twist of Sand (1959), we are introduced to Geoffrey Peace, a former Royal Navy submarine captain now involved in distinctly shadier business. A flashback to the war gives us another echo of a Bond/M scene:

‘The Admiralty looked bleak and cold in the late London spring; chill it seemed to me after being used to the friendly bite of the Mediterranean sun. Bleaker still looked those eyes over the top of the desk. They reminded me somehow of Rockall, the lonely isle in the Atlantic – they only changed their shade of greyness, sometimes stormy, sometimes still, but always grey and bleak with the chill of the near Arctic.’

During the war, as Jenkins would have known, Fleming worked at the Admiralty, and M is described as having ‘frosty, damnably clear, grey eyes’ in For Your Eyes Only.

Jenkins’ next book was The Watering Place of Good Peace (1960). The hero, Ian Ogilvie, is a Scot who was crippled by a shark, also while in the Royal Navy. He joins an organisation constructing anti-shark barriers ‘a fast car, a pretty girl, and half a dozen drinks’ after his accident. The plot features opium smuggling and a villain called John Barrow who is using a submarine to find uranium. Ogilvie also swims through the wreck of a ship with a beautiful woman who is naked but for goggles and scuba gear. Many of Jenkins’ subsequent novels featured such tips of the hat to his former mentor. After Fleming’s death, Jenkins was commissioned to write a Bond novel, which he did – Per Fine Ounce – but it was never published.

Many thriller-writers have been influenced by Ian Fleming, but most have probably come to his work through the films. But Deighton, Gainham, Higgins and Jenkins were all influenced by him before the first Bond film was released. Fleming was an influential thriller-writer in his own right, and James Bond a character that inspired his peers even before his transition to the silver screen.

UPDATE: Edward Milward-Oliver, whose The Len Deighton Companion I cite above and who is currently working on a biography of Deighton, writes to say:

‘Regarding your speculation about Len Deighton’s reference to SMERSH, to the best of my knowledge, he didn’t read any of Fleming’s novels until producer Harry Saltzman asked him to write the screenplay for From Russia With Love after Saltzman purchased the film rights to The IPCRESS File in late 1962.
Len Deighton was certainly familiar with James Bond and Fleming without having read the novels. The books had substantial sales prior to the films, and of course they were serialised in the Daily Express where the influential design director was Len’s good friend and fellow RCA student Ray Hawkey. Deighton disliked the fantasy world of James Bond and certainly The IPCRESS File was born of his desire to write something more convincing. Michael Howard is quite correct in that respect. However Deighton was (and remains) a steadfast researcher, and would not have turned to Fleming’s novels as a source! My guess is that SMERSH was an acronym that lived on in publicly available accounts of the Russian security services well past its demise.
So I guess one could say Deighton was inspired by Ian Fleming without having read his novels, perhaps in a similar way as Adam Hall was inspired to create Quiller by reviews and discussion of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. According to Edward Milward-Oliver, Deighton started writing The IPCRESS File in September 1960. As far as I know, the only publicly available account of SMERSH at that time was Nicola Sinevirskys book, discussed here, which I believe was Ian Flemings main source of information about the organization. SMERSH was not the counter-intelligence unit of the KGB, as Deighton claimed in the novel (it was one of several), and had in fact been defunct for nearly 15 years. It had also featured in several Fleming novels and the Express serializations of From Russia, With Love and Goldfinger, and would have been known to thousands of readers as a result. It was barely known in the West before Fleming wrote about it. However, the difference in the addresses given for the organization suggests that, even if Len Deighton had seen the name mentioned in the papers or heard mention of it via James Bond, he researched the organization independently of its appearance in Fleming’s work.

1. Jonathan Cape, Publisher by Michael Spencer Howard (Penguin, 1971), p300.
2. The Len Deighton Companion by Edward Milward-Oliver (Grafton, 1987), p14.
3. ibid., p248. 
4. KGB: The Inside Story Of Its Foreign Operations From Lenin To Gorbachev by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky (Sceptre, 1991), pp350-1; and Nights Are Longest There: SMERSH From The Inside by A.I. Romanov (Hutchinson, 1972), p192.
5. Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett (Phoenix, 1996), p371.
6. ibid.
7. The Last Days of Hitler By Hugh Trevor-Roper, University of Chicago Press, 1987), p31.
8. Interviewed by Don Swaim on Book Beat, CBS Radio, January 16 1987. Available from:  

This article is part of 007 In Depth, a series of articles on Ian Fleming and James Bond.

Monday, March 11, 2013

How Nate Thayer plagiarizes

I wrote a post the other day, ‘Nate Thayer is a plagiarist’. Some felt my title was too bold. Some people don’t seem to be able to get their heads around the idea that plagiarism can be proven, and so instead you’re supposed to pull your punches and say it was ‘sloppy’, ‘lazy’, ‘mistakes look like they might have been made’, ‘parts are problematic’ and so on. Anything but use the ‘p’ word. I even had a professional journalist tell me on Twitter that I should have stated that what Thayer did was plagiarism, but not that he was a plagiarist!

If you plagiarize, you’re a plagiarist.

More seriously, Sara Morrison has claimed in the Columbia Journalism Review that I didn’t do my research when I stated that Thayer was a plagiarist, because I didn’t contact all his sources first.

Let’s ignore for a moment that she wrote that article without contacting all Thayer’s sources herself. I didnt need to speak to anyone to state he was a plagiarist: it was self-evident from the article in question, because it included the following: 

Missing attributions
Thayer had lifted several pieces of information directly from Mark Zeigler’s 2006 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune without citing him, for example from this passage:

‘President Clinton's administration began thawing relations in the late 1990s, and in October 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright became the first senior-level U.S. government official to visit Kim in North Korea.

Their talks lasted two days, and before leaving, Albright presented the 5-foot-3 Kim a gift – an authentic NBA basketball autographed by Michael Jordan.

Accompanying Albright on the trip was Bob Carlin, who recently retired after three decades as the chief North Korea analyst for the CIA and State Department.

“We were looking for something that was a little more meaningful than a bottle of scotch or a miniature Statue of Liberty or a Buffalo Bill book – something with more importance to him,” said Carlin, now a visiting scholar at Stanford University. “He may have been initially surprised by it, but you could tell he was pleased. I don't think he expected it. It was a very personal gesture, in a sense.

“It showed him we went through some effort to get the signature. They realized it wasn't just an ordinary ball.”’
And this is from Thayer’s article:

‘In October 2000, then Secretary of State Madeline Albright traveled to Pyongyang in the highest-level U.S. visit ever to the country. Albright, after two days of talks, presented the 5-foot-3 Kim Jong Il a gift – a NBA basketball autographed by Michael Jordan. Bob Carlin, who was with Albright on the Pyongyang trip and for three decades a top North Korea analyst for the CIA and State Department, said “We were looking for something that was a little more meaningful than a bottle of scotch or a miniature Statue of Liberty– something with more importance to him. You could tell he was pleased. I don’t think he expected it. It was a very personal gesture, in a sense. It showed him we went through some effort to get the signature. They realized it wasn’t just an ordinary ball.”’
The quote is now attributed to Mark Zeigler’s piece with the addition of the hyperlink to the word ‘said’. But the words before the quote don’t have any attribution at all, and are presented as written by Thayer. It’s the same seven pieces of information that are in Zeigler’s passage, in the same order, right before a quote that is (now) attributed to Zeigler. Some of this material out of quotes is very nearly verbatim. Zeigler wrote that Albright

presented the 5-foot-3 Kim a gift – an authentic NBA basketball autographed by Michael Jordan.
Thayer wrote that she

‘presented the 5-foot-3 Kim Jong Il a gift – a NBA basketball autographed by Michael Jordan.’

If you can’t see this is plagiarism, you shouldn’t be a journalist.

You don’t need to pick up the phone to see it.

Sloppy attributions
That ‘said’ hyperlink was not in the article when I first read it. Thayer has since explained that some citations in his article were  missing due to an oversight in the editing process. This attribution was added when he spotted this, but it’s barely worthy of that word. There is no mention of Zeigler, or his article’s title, publication, or when it was published. Thayer regards this as an acceptable attribution now. It isn’t. There were other examples of this problem in the piece.

Changed quotes 
The attribution to Zeigler’s piece was added, and Thayer claimed the article was fine. But look at the quote again: what happened to the part where Bob Carlin said ‘or a Buffalo Bill book’? It’s gone. No ellipses. Why? If he was quoting Carlin and meant to cite him all along, why did he remove some words from his quotes without any sign of doing so? If you change quotes, you indicate it very clearly, with ellipses, square brackets and other very familiar conventions. You don’t just change what someone said with no indication. I took this as a sign of someone who had a very cavalier approach to journalistic ethics.

So I didn’t need to call anyone to state Thayer was a plagiarist – there was ample proof of it. But I have now called a few people and as a result I have a better idea, not of whether he is a plagiarist – he is, of course – but of how he did it. And it’s quite remarkable.

Often when a newspaper runs a story, other newspapers become interested in it. A particularly unscrupulous journalistic habit is to call up someone who has given a great interview to another paper and, in effect, get them to say it all again to you. That way, you can run the story with the barest of attribution to the newspaper who got the story in the first place, or perhaps even not give them any credit at all.

Nate Thayer takes this technique into a new realm. He works fast. He is knowledgeable, can track down sources, can charm people, and can get original information. And he does. He has no need to plagiarize on top of it, but he does. When he is researching a story he reads previous stories on the same subject, as journalists all over the world do perfectly ethically. That is one way of finding some good people to interview. The idea is not that you then repeat the information, though, but write a fresh story, with new information. Thayer often gets new information from these sources. He tracks down people, interviews them over the phone and via email.

He did this in March 2012, when he was researching an article about political changes in North Korea for Asia Times. One of the people he interviewed was a septuagenarian expert on the region, Larry Niksch. Thayer emailed him several times and spoke to him on the phone. And that should have been enough.

But somehow it wasn’t. I’ve spoken to Larry Niksch, and he kindly went and looked up his email correspondence with Thayer. And he read me out an email in which Thayer said that he had read an interview with him in a Reuters article from December 2011, which contained the following passage:

‘“I would equate Ju with General Leslie Groves, who headed the U.S. Manhattan Project that produced atomic bombs during World War Two,” said Larry Niksch, who has tracked North Korea for the non-partisan U.S. Congressional Research Service for 43 years.
“Ju runs the day-to-day programs to develop missiles and probably nuclear weapons.”’
Thayer asked Niksch if this quote was accurate, and wrote ‘Would you object if I cite it?’ He added: ‘I won’t do so without your permission.’

Niksch reviewed the quote from the Reuters article. It was accurate. He had said all that to the Reuters reporter, Raju Gopalakrishnan. So Niksch emailed Thayer back and said yes, the quote was accurate, and yes, he gave his permission for him to use it.

Here is how it then appeared in Thayer’s article:

‘“I would equate Ju with General Leslie Groves, who headed the US Manhattan Project that produced atomic bombs during World War II,” said Larry Niksch, a senior associate with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Asian affairs specialist for 43 years with the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. “Ju runs the day-to-day programs to develop missiles and probably nuclear weapons,” he said in an e-mail this week.’
This is both plagiarism and fabrication. 

It’s plagiarism, because Thayer has lifted material from the Reuters piece without citing it as the source anywhere. And it’s fabrication because he has instead claimed it was said to him in an email that week. That’s not what happened. He asked Larry Niksch if the quotes were accurate and if he could cite them – that was very slyly worded, because there were two necessary citations here: one that it was Larry Niksch who had said these words, and the other that he had said them to Reuters. Instead of claiming Niksch had said this in an email to him that week, Thayer should have clearly stated that he had said it to Reuters earlier. He could have added ‘Niksch confirmed to me this was still his view’ or something like that. But the original source of the quote had to be cited.

Thayer thought he had covered his back by asking for Niksch’s permission to ‘cite’ this. But he didn’t say ‘Can I please re-use that quote and pretend you said it to me instead of the Reuters reporter?’ Because Niksch would have said no, of course. But that is what he did. Thayer had no reason at all to ask Niksch to use the quote. He could have had reason to ask if he had been misquoted by Reuters, but as Niksch confirmed the quote was accurate he was then free to use it, as long as he properly cited that it had been said to Reuters. He didn’t. He didn’t because that is why he asked Niksch about it in the first place – he was clearly looking for a way to filch the quote without citing Reuters, making it seem his own, and he got Niksch to unwittingly provide the ‘permission’ to do so. But even if Niksch had emailed back ‘Yes, Mr Thayer, you have my permission to pretend I said those sentences to you this week,’ Thayer shouldn’t have done. He knew the source for the quotes was Reuters. 

It’s an extraordinarily sneaky tactic, because it is pitched just right: Is this accurate, can I cite it, I naturally wouldn’t dream of doing so without your permission. Very few interviewees, if any, would respond to this by saying ‘It is accurate, so you can cite it, of course, but obviously cite that I said it to Reuters, rather than to you, as I haven’t. But I stand by the words.’ You’d really have to be a professional journalist to spot the trick, and even then you probably wouldn’t think of it.

So this is how Thayer plagiarizes. Instead of calling up people other journalists have interviewed and trying to get them to repeat the interview to him so he has an exclusive, he has created a whole new, and significantly worse, con: emailing interviewees quotes they have already given to other journalists and asking if he can ‘cite’ them, then claiming they said the words directly to him.

This is why many of the quotes supposedly obtained by him in the article of his I wrote about the other day are either extremely similar or even verbatim to quotes that his interviewees had said elsewhere previously. He had much the same conversation with Gene Schmiel, for instance, about his article in American Diplomacy. I think he ran around trying to contact everyone Mark Zeigler interviewed and stripping the juicy quotes he got from them of any credit to Zeigler, slyly obtaining the sources’ unwitting collusion in transforming them into his own supposedly original material.

There is a word for taking quotes obtained by other journalists, not properly attributing them, and passing them off as having been said to you. Plagiarism. Even if you get some fresh information out of those same sources on top of that, it’s still plagiarism. 

And tricking fellow journalists’ interviewees into helping you plagiarize? That must surely be a new low in this low, low field.