By Beijing Cream
Let’s talk about journalism and the Olympics. No, not the complete indifference given to China’s 96 Paralympics gold medals, but a more familiar problem: plagiarism. A former senior journalist at the Global Times is probably still wondering what the hell hit her, after being caught lifting material and inventing quotes – including a fake interview with London mayor Boris Johnson – during last month’s Games.
The sorry saga began with the decision to send GT staffer Zhao Ran – who was in charge of the paper’s “sports desk” – to London to cover the Olympics exclusively for the paper. Despite once having actual, English-speaking (and eager) Londoners on their Beijing staff, as well as at least one Chinese-British freelancer on hand in the British capital, it was felt that Zhao’s qualifications – she’s in her mid-20s and spent two years studying something in the UK – made her ideal for the job.
And lo, the decision duly backfired in embarrassing fashion. On July 27, Tania Branigan of the Guardian filed this:
Chinese sports officials have played down their medal chances in London, despite topping the table at the last Games in Beijing.
China is fielding a streamlined London team with 396 athletes, including 29 gold medallists from the Beijing Games in 2008. The 171 men and 225 women are to compete in 212 disciplines in 23 sports.
“It won’t be a Beijing do-over for us,” said Xiao Tian, the deputy chef de mission of the Chinese Olympic delegation. “We face unprecedented difficulties in catching up with the gold haul of Beijing without home advantage.”
Later the same day, Zhao Ran wrote (by a loose definition of the word, but good enough for GT to edit, post and, last we saw, still have on its website):
China’s sports officials downplayed expectations of Team China’s performance at the upcoming London Olympic Games, as the country’s sports fan worry China might not be able to again lead the gold medal tally.
China is fielding a streamlined London team with 396 athletes, including 29 gold medalists from the Beijing Games in 2008. The 171 men and 225 women are to compete in 212 disciplines in 23 sports.
“It won’t be a Beijing do-over for us. We face unprecedented difficulties in catching up with the gold haul of Beijing without home advantage,” Xiao Tian, deputy chef de mission of the Chinese Olympic delegation, told a press briefing.
The article included an interview with a “sports reporter from The Salt Lake Tribune” and another reporter called simply “Kamesh,” who was said to work at The Hindu. (Did she mean Ananth Krishnan? Who knows.)
In another article from August 5 – entitled, ironically enough, “Games of Errors” – Zhao tackled a variety of organizational mistakes that supposedly marred the early stages of the Games, and interviewed, for some reason, “25-year-old Indian undergraduate student Jaime Gornsztejn.” The decidedly non-Asian sounding name is shared by a middle-aged financier living in London.
In other articles such as “Game Time” – which, if you search for it using the words “Zhao Ran” on the GT website, now brings up a list of recent unrelated news articles but can still actually be found here – Zhao took an alternative approach to basic details like facts and quotes.
Here, for example, is Joseph Bailey, a 31-year-old “Internet novelist” who says of the Games: “I get up, have breakfast and chat with friends online as usual. The only difference for me is that I can collect more stories for my writing… I can handle the inconvenience; everything will be back on track after three weeks.” Indeed! But readers eager to reap the fruits of Bailey’s Olympics anecdote-gathering may have to wait a little longer. Or a lot longer. So far as anyone knows, “Joseph Bailey” does not exist — try searching the Internet for this “Internet writer.”
Other dubious interviews include a supermarket employee called “David Beard” and “Susan Whipple,” the latter a London resident who felt moved to remark “Although we don’t have tickets to the events, we do feel it’s more interesting to watch the games in London to feel the Games in the air.”
None of this might have been queried had not Zhao upped the stakes by “speaking” to idiosyncratic London mayor Boris Johnson. “The Tube has performed pretty well so far, buses are running more or less to time and people are hospitable,” Johnson told the Global Times. The same remarks appear word for word in a column Johnson wrote for The Telegraph on July 29. In the GT article, Zhao claimed that Johnson made the comments “during an exclusive interview” – so exclusive, in fact, that it appears even Johnson himself was not involved.
The rambling Johnson is famous for his embodiment of a Colonel Blimp persona, a style that’s distinctive for its bumbling pomp. In the raw draft of the article that went to the GT copyeditor’s desk, Johnson is quoted as saying, “It is true that some people want to make a killing during the Games and we do receive a few criminal reports for steal and robber, but that’s normal and during the past four years, the criminal rate was declined continuously.” Not exactly Boris’s voice. This partly mangled phrase was nevertheless polished and duly published:
“It’s true that there have been a few cases of theft, but that’s normal,” said Johnson. “The crime rate has actually dropped significantly over the last four years,” he noted.
Though such matters are hardly a scandal to the GT management, the charade finally became impossible to ignore after the reporter submitted another piece, lifted almost entirely from an article in the London Evening Standard about, of all things, Olympic pin collecting, albeit with the bits from the Evening Standard piece placed – in quotation marks – in the mouths of supposed “interviewees,” including “Belgian collector Jamie McGill.” An keen-eyed foreign editor spotted the haphazard veering between language styles, which finally led to a scouring of Zhou’s previous pieces.
After a certain amount of hemming and hawing – the original plan was to hit her with a suspension of salary for one month – the Global Times editors did the right thing and canned Zhou… but not before pinning the offending pieces to a board in the office, hanging their staff member out to dry like a thief in a medieval gibbet. (We sent an email last night to GT’s “officer for communications and cooperation” for comment and will update if we receive a reply. See update below.)
Her apparent protests that “I expected foreign editors to improve my pieces” cut little ice with a pissed-off management (another reporter was fined at the same time for ripping off large chunks of an Economic Observer piece without due acknowledgement; in regards to that incident, GT previously emailed us, “The Global Times takes plagiarism in any form very seriously. Every editorial staff member has been informed on many different occasions of our citation rules against plagiarism”).
As mentioned, plagiarism is as rife in Chinese papers as opinion pieces by wingnut academics. This is mostly thanks to the complete lack of attention given to this sin at most universities, where even senior professors think nothing of putting together papers stolen from colleagues or compiled by teams of graduate students from Wikipedia and Google Translate.
This isn’t the first time GT has had plagiarism problems, either; one US “commentator” was discovered to be translating articles from US papers into Chinese, sending them to the paper, then having them translated back into English. That’s one of the chief recourses of Chinese journalists with a little foreign-language savvy, since it usually avoids the easy Google search that’s caught so many other plagiarists. One supposes it’s a good thing that the newspaper’s management is, at last, taking this problem seriously and adopting a “zero-tolerance” policy – though don’t expect a coherent and cohesive strategy for eliminating plagiarism to emerge anytime soon.
Update, 7:16 pm: Global Times just replied via email: “The Global Times enforces a strict zero-tolerance policy toward plagiarism. The editorial board decided to immediately terminate Zhao Ran’s employment contract after she was found plagiarizing in some of her stories. We do thank you for your continuous efforts in making the Global Times more competitive in the market. And we believe with readers like you the Global Times can always do better.”