expediency and “professional” journalism

Done some hiking once? Convinced your editors you’re an authority on all things outdoor? But targeting a longer piece than you can be arsed to fill with your own work? Welcome to the Red Armada Publishing online resources: a rich source of content to plunder.

Last week some unfortunate assumed-to-be-inexperienced expat guy fell off the Stairway to Heaven scramble in Wadi Ghalilah and died from his injuries. Rather than observe a respectful silence, the UAE newspapers gleefully rushed out a plethora of why-oh-why stories, sanctimoniously exploring every possible angle of the incident.

Amongst these I unluckily stumbled over this The National article, written by John Henzell, in which I was astonished to find that I was quoted:

Part of the problem also is the way Stairway to Heaven is usually described as a hike rather than a climb. One reference, in a magazine article about adventures on the Arabian Peninsula, went as far as describing it as “more a hiker’s joy, an 8-12 hour hike”. Toby Foord-Kelcey, author of a rock-climbing guidebook to the region and one of the top climbers until he emigrated to Canada, says Stairway to Heaven has received a disproportionate amount of attention, mostly from the inexperienced. “For non-climbers the ‘stairway’ part of the route gives a taste of big-cliff exposure, but for experienced climbers it’s just a moderate scramble, if a long one,” Mr Foord-Kelcey says.

Leaving aside that I am not a “top climber” and that you cannot “emigrate” to a country of which you are a citizen, I was unamused by his use of the verb “says” twice, implying that he had actually spoken with me. He had not. In fact, he had made no effort to contact me in any way. As to the actual quote, I eventually realised that it had been lifted from an OutdoorUAE magazine article I had written, about new routing in Wadi Ghalilah, which OutdoorUAE also have uploaded on their website.

Here’s the full original paragraph:

The road into Wadi Ghalilah sidesteps a giant cement factory flanked by correspondingly vast and apocalyptic quarry workings. There’s nothing to indicate that the UAE’s most dramatic mountain scenery lies beyond. In some other countries you would find a national park entrance at a similar location but in the UAE the extractive industries rule unchallenged. Perhaps one day that will change. A few kilometers beyond the quarries the wadi opens up into a broad basin ringed with large cliffs up to 1000m high. From this point most visitors heads towards one destination: the infamous “Stairway to Heaven” hike. For non-climbers the “stairway” part of the route gives a taste of big cliff exposure, but for experienced climbers it’s just a moderate scramble, if a long one. More substantial challenges abound.

Note use of the word “infamous” to describe the Stairway. I certainly wasn’t downplaying its riskiness, but through selected out-of-context quoting, the journalist has implied the opposite. As to the other text attributed to me, it’s pure fiction.

I contacted John Henzell and received this patronising non-apology:

I get it that it’d be better to contact you but the nature of the turnaround on a piece like that in a daily newspaper makes that difficult.

And as regards the lifted text:

Fwiw, plagiarism involves claiming someone else’s work as your own. That’s not the case here. Did you write this? Yes. Did you do so in a public forum? Yes.

So, as I understand it, John regards anything he can copy’n'paste from the internet as fair game. A brief search through The National site rapidly uncovered other examples. Here’s some stuff about the Dibba border issues, padded out with some verbiage on DWS. Genuine “top climber” Neil Gresham has been ripped off here:

Neil Gresham, one of Britain’s top climbers and a deep water soloing pioneer, was one of those lured to Oman by the tales of the sea cliffs. In April last year, he was part of a group that based themselves on a dhow for several days and added more than 60 new routes. At the time, Covo del Diablo in Majorca, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, was considered to be the world’s best deep water soloing cliff. “So did we find the mythical DWS crag in Oman to beat Covo del Diablo? I would say not,” he wrote in the British magazine Climber a year ago. “But would we recommend it for DWS? Yes, definitely! The majority of the rock might be loose but there is still enough quality solid stuff to last the keenest climber a decade or two.” In season and with a dhow full of like-minded friends, he added, “an amazing time is guaranteed”.

It is a reasonable assumption that this has been sourced from this blog post of mine, where I showed a screenshot excerpt from Neil’s article in Climber magazine.

In the same The National piece we also find this:

An aphorism told by UAE-based rock climbers is that, when the international boundaries in this corner of Arabia were formalised in the 1960s as the British prepared to end the Trucial States protectorate, all the rock climbers were on the Omani side of the negotiating table because the best climbing areas have all tended to be just outside the UAE’s borders.

Actually it is not an “aphorism”, it is a slightly-reworded copy of something written by Damian Cook, in his old article on UAE climbing from On the Edge magazine, of which there is a scan here. Sadly as Damian is dead – perhaps John knows that? – he doesn’t have an opportunity to complain.

If you are thinking “whatever, theft is rampant in the modern media” keep in mind that people like me don’t have to maintain free content websites; this kind of disrespect is strong incentive to give up. I also think “professional” journalists should uphold higher standards if they want to justify drawing a wage; otherwise they should get proper jobs and blog in their spare time like the rest of us.

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