Last year I wrote an unpatriotic column for the Observer. I said that while American literary and journalistic frauds tended to be simple men, who lied and plagiarised to boast their reputations and earnings, British frauds were as a rule darker and nastier.
The first piece of evidence was Johann Hari – whose exposure caused the greatest scandal my small world of “broadsheet” journalism had seen in years. Hari did not confine himself to making up quotes and facts to enhance his career. Night after night, he went on Wikipedia and defamed his many enemies under a variety of pseudonyms – I should declare an interest and state that I am proud to say that I was one of them. It wasn’t enough for Hari to con his way up the greasy pole. He had to drag down real and imagined rivals as well.
My case was supported by the brazen boasting of Stephen Leather at last year’s Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. Leather told the audience
As soon as my book is out I’m on Facebook and Twitter several times a day talking about it. I’ll go on to several forums, the well-known forums, and post there under my name and under various other names and various other characters. You build up this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself”
I am the last person who could damn writers for trying to plug their work. After a close examination of my own attempts to get you to buy You Can’t Read This Book, I admitted that there were working girls at King’s Cross with more dignity than an author with a book to sell. But using fake identities is a premeditated attempt to deceive readers. Leather was posing as an impartial observer or impressed customer to dupe the reading public.
‘Leather was not ashamed,’ I noted. ‘He crowed like a prize cock and expected his fellow crime writers to applaud his cunning.’
So far, Leather looked like an ordinary huckster in the style of Jayson Blair, the plagiarist and fantasist, who conned the New York Times. He was trying to make a quick buck, and he was not too choosy about how he did it. His unselfconscious bragging aside, the most bizarre aspect of the affair appeared to be that Leather was not a desperate unknown struggling to attract attention. He was the second bestselling British author on Kindle worldwide in 2011 and had no need to play low tricks.
But, as so often with British frauds, the story did not end there. I talked to the remarkable Jeremy Duns, a British thriller writer who acts as a literary detective in his spare time. No one is better at scouring the Web to find evidence of plagiarism. Duns told me that he had discovered that in true Hari style, Leather blackened the names of those who crossed him. After checking his evidence and contacting everyone concerned for a comment, I wrote up Duns’ findings
When he wanted to fake an identity, Leather picked on Steve Roach, a minor writer who had made disobliging remarks about one of his books. Leather created Twitter “sockpuppet” accounts in the names of @Writerroach and @TheSteveRoach. Roach described on an Amazon forum how one account had “16,000 followers all reading ‘my’ tweets about how much ‘I’ loved SL’s books”. He was nervous. He told Duns in a taped conversation that Leather was “very powerful” and not a man to be crossed. Roach emailed Leather and begged to be left alone. Pleased that his cyber bullying campaign had worked, Leather graciously gave Roach control of the @Writerroach account he had created, to Roach’s “great relief”.
After the Observer published, Leather went to the Press Complaints Commission to say that I had no right to call him a conman. He could hardly maintain that he had not set up “sock puppet” accounts to plug his books – such is his cynicism and the cynicism of the publishing culture he moves in, he had admitted as much in Harrogate. So he went for the accusations about Steve Roach. He attached a letter from Roach denying that Leather had cyber-bullied him, and the long, long process of adjudicating a contested article began.
Jeremy Duns and I were able to show from taped interviews, screen grabs and caches how Leather operated. You can read the full details here, but in short Roach was an unknown writer and Leather was doing everything he could to keep him that way. He wrote damning reviews of Roach’s books online. Meanwhile, “Roach’s” supposed Twitter accounts were promoting Leather’s work.
At one point Roach wrote a book about Leather. When someone reviewed it on Amazon saying it was a stupid book that gave a one-sided view of a pathetic argument, Roach replied, on January 12, 2012.
‘It is indeed a stupid book, but a necessary one. This ‘pathetic’ argument is actually an attempt by one of the UK’s top authors to wreck my own writing career.’ Roach went on to say that he wrote the book as a ‘last ditch attempt to get SL off my back’, and that if Leather agreed to leave him alone he would remove the book from Amazon.
As his faintly pathetic outburst suggested, the worn down Roach was ready to beg for Leather’s forgiveness. He told him that he had ‘outsmarted him at every level.’ Leather accepted his apology, and Roach was relieved and grateful, as I had said he was in the original piece. The generous Mr Leather then handed Roach control of the Twitter account he had established in Roach’s name. What a gentleman he is to be sure.
Roach was hardly alone. Steve Mosby, a far superior writer, and one we all should read if this review is a reliable guide, upset Leather after the Harrogate book fair. Needless to add attacks on real and fake Twitter accounts Jeremy Duns could show Leather controlled started.
It wasn’t too long before it became more personal. Comments about my book sales, about me being ugly, and so on. I don’t really mind the personal stuff. I view all of it as a bit pathetic. But I suppose the worst of it right now is the comments about my wife. Every few days, Leather uses one of his accounts to tweet “Tick tock” over and over, which is a reference to an earlier message he sent me about whether my wife was “improving with age”. Again, it’s pathetic. But it’s also misogynistic, and more than a little creepy.
Most of the time, it was obvious Leather was behind them, especially after he owned up to the fake Twitter accounts. For the most part, I found it laughable. I understand that, and have some sympathy with Roach, but I really don’t feel bullied. I think he wants people to feel bullied, but, for the most part, I feel like a little kid is ringing my doorbell and running away. It’s irritating, but little more than that.
So there you have it, one of Britain’s leading thriller authors behaving like the type of nasty boy who pulls the wings off flies.
As I said at the start, I experienced Hari personally and saw how the Independent covered up for him. When I phoned Leather’s publishers last year, they would not answer questions. Instead, they set up another of their authors to be their spokeswoman. The poor woman knew nothing of the facts of the case. She would have been severely embarrassed if I had quoted her, and then presented evidence that showed her to be naïve at best and a corporate stooge at worst. As I admired her writing, I left her out of it. So yes, I believe there is something particularly rotten and cynical in British culture, and I stand by that view.
In fairness, I should add, however, that Steve Mosby has a less complicated explanation.
‘I think it’s fairly simple: Leather’s a bully. We’ve all met them; that’s all he is. He wants to behave how he likes, and he doesn’t enjoy it when people tell him that he shouldn’t. When people do, he gets affronted and attempts to shut them up – and then, when he can’t, he engages in childishly insulting behaviour to maintain some inner sense of superiority. It’s a male ego thing – he just doesn’t like to be challenged.’
PS For the record here is the Press Complaints Commission adjudication, which I was given last week. It ruled that
The complainant said the article inaccurately alleged that he had engaged in a “cyber bullying campaign” against Mr Steve Roach, which caused Mr Roach to be “nervous”. The complainant provided a copy of a letter he had received from Mr Roach in which he said that his “spat” with the complainant was “no big deal”; that “at no point did Leather use the Amazon review system to blast my books”; that the columnist was “wrong to say that he [the complainant] attacked me under the cloak of anonymity”; and that he did not consider the complainant a “cyber-bully”. The newspaper in correspondence provided evidence from an Amazon thread which suggested that Mr Roach felt the complainant was bullying him at the time. Mr Roach said, “Actually, Mr Leather, … you changed your review from 1 star. You also deleted reviews of books that you figured out were unavailable, but left 1 star ratings of books that you yourself have said you would never read and I don’t believe you have read. You also called me a cockroach on your blog. You also ignored numerous attempts to end the blog”. The newspaper said Mr Roach even wrote a book about the complainant’s attempts to “wreck” his writing career, describing the book as a “last ditch attempt to get SL [the complainant] off my back”. With this in mind, the Commission did not consider that readers would have been significantly misled by the columnist’s assertion that the complainant had engaged in a “cyber bullying campaign”, or that he had caused Mr Roach to be “nervous”. It could not establish a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) in relation to this point.
With respect to the allegation that the complainant attacked “rivals” from “behind a cloak of anonymity”, the Commission noted that the complainant did not appear to dispute the quotation attributed to him in the article in which he said that he posted on forums “under my name and under various other names and various other characters”. The newspaper had provided screengrabs of Twitter accounts which the complainant subsequently revealed to belong to him in which he described the writers Steve Mosby and Luca Veste as being “two sad men with too much time on their hands”. In view of this evidence, the Commission considered that the columnist was entitled to report that he had made comments from behind a “cloak of anonymity”. There was no breach of Clause 1.
The complainant did not consider that anything in the newspaper’s email substantiated the claims made by the columnist that he was a “conman” and a “hustler”. The Commission noted that the complainant did not appear to dispute that he had gone on to “several forums… and post[ed] there under [his] name and various other characters”. In view of this, the Commission was satisfied that readers would be aware of the context in which the words were used, and would also recognise that these terms represented the columnist’s own views of the complainant’s conduct. It could not establish a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code.
As far as I understand it the PPC adjudication means that, even in Britain, even after the all the work of Lord Justice Leveson and Hacked Off, I can still call a conman and a huckster a conman and huckster.
Much obliged I’m sure.
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