Media & PR

Can you remember the stories about newspapers using fake journalist names?

For reasons possibly connected with this, I am trying to track down some old news stories about how newspapers used to use the names of fake journalists.

My memory tells me there were a series of reports by Raymond Snoddy for Channel 4’s Hard News TV series in the late 1980s in which he rung up newspapers and asked to speak to various journalists by name, getting rather surprised and evasive responses. The reason? That although the names were taken from bylines in the newspaper, they were fake names – used when wire copy was being reproduced.

My memory tells me that, but my researches so far have failed to find more on this, and it may be a bit of the memory is wrong. (Perhaps it was another TV series?)

Anyway, can anyone remember more about this story or that practice of using fake names more generally?

Thank you!

UPDATE: Thank you again readers – lots of really helpful responses via Twitter, email, comments and more.

UPDATE 2: The answers now feature in my book, Bad News.

4 responses to “Can you remember the stories about newspapers using fake journalist names?”

  1. I know the Mail used to use false names. One example was the by-line for at least one of the fake Ryder BL letters stories published in the late 70s.
    I remember this because at about the same time I was involved in an industrial tribunal case. The Mail photographer could see that the union member, not the rep, was distressed and in tears and was trying to take photos of him. Fair enough, although it was pretty cheap and bullying.
    However, to get a better shot he pushed the member back, which was technically a criminal assault. At which point the barrister and the union rep intervened and threatened to bounce the photographer’s camera gear down the road if he persisted.
    Later I received a call from a Mail reporter threatening to report me to the Law Society, the barrister to the Bar Council and I can’t remember what they were threatening for the Union Rep. I asked for the photographer’s name which was refused. I asked if it was the name on the Ryder letters stories which had already been admitted to be fictitious. “No, why do you say that?” “I thought you used that for all your fictitious stories”. Choking sound from the Mail end.
    Don’t suppose it’s much help, but the Mail’s use of the fictitious by-line was reported, possibly by the Guardian. It was probably ’78 or 79, possibly a year either side of that.

  2. Most journalists use other by-line names at some stage. Many for the reason you give; not wishing to be seen by colleagues as lifting agency copy without adding anything new.

    Mostly, though, they were used for writing pieces for other newspapers; that was popular among Sunday hacks with good stories that didn’t quite make that edition, and wouldn’t live for another week.

    Or for writing something that might upset good contacts. I once wrote a longish article for that kind of reason when I was on the Observer. As deputy business editor it was part of my job to ensure freelancers were paid.

    When the accounts clerk came round on Tuesday morning, he wanted the address of my non-de-plume. Honesty won out, and I confessed. But it did make me think, and look at unknown by-lines with fresh suspicion ……..

  3. It was common practice by me when working for magazines. I had several different names depending on the target market…also to prevent too many articles in one edition being under the same name..

  4. can’t help your quest Mark, but I do recall when submitting essays at college, that if you made your argument around ‘I think’ or ‘in my opinion’ it had no traction, (even if an exam question asked ‘give your opinion’). However, if you dreamt up a fictitious professor, a speech or a book to quote then it went down far better, and suggested you were widely read and had done your research.. trouble is that a search on the internet can now expose any such falsehood, I guess.

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