The Leather Case

16 February 2013

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”.

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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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Show comments
  • Dani

    bloody good book, i have booked it

  • jo bloggs

    I have been observing this entire debacle from the wings for some months now, and there is a whole circle of snideness taking place. There are attacks and counter-attacks upon and from Julian Ruck. Graham Hurley is the latest to be Twitterlashed by authors who shall remain nameless and, quite frankly, ought to spend less time on social media and more time writing their manuscripts. It has turned into a little bitchy boys’ club and is doing nothing whatsoever for any author’s reputation. Allegations of plagiarism, cyber-bullying and jealousy should be conveyed through the proper channels, as gentlemen.

  • Stephen Leather

    Gosh, Nick, you do go on, don’t you? Just so you know, I never said anything disparaging about Steve Mosby’s wife. I’m sure she’s lovely. The Mrs Mosby I referred to in a Tweet was his mother and was in reference to people getting older (Mosby had dug up an old interview I’d given on the subject). The point I was making was that everyone got older. Nothing to do with his missus as he has insists on telling people. Also the ‘tick tock, tick tock’ Tweets are nothing to do with him and everything to do with the fact that I am on deadline for the new book. It’s a way of saying that I’m under time pressure. Which I am. Again, nothing to do with Mosby. I’m not sure why he even looks at my Tweets – I long ago gave up looking at anything he writes, he’s not even on my radar. Last year I did say that he was ugly but he is and that is surely fair comment? And yes, I did once mention how few books he sells and that he might be motivated by jealousy, but that is also fair comment, I think. If you were serious about doing a story about internet bullying you’d look at the comments he has been making about me over the past six months which go way beyond a discussion of ethical behaviour and look much more like a vindictive witch hunt. Generally I just ignore him. The only reason I am responding to you here is that I am a big fan of The Spectator and enjoy your articles in it. The Observer, not so much :-) Okay, I have to go back to work. The clock is ticking. Tick tock. Tick tock.

    • Steve Mosby

      Stephen – in direct response to an article I linked to, in which you talked about how the Thai bar girls you encountered weren’t as pretty as they used to be, you tweeted to me “Hopefully Mrs Mosby is improving with age, but somehow I doubt it. Tick tock, Steve. Tick tock.” We both know exactly what you meant. And I find it unlikely that you long ago gave up reading anything I write, seeing as you regularly tweet screenshots of conversations I (amongst others) have, and that you spent the end of last year systematically following everyone I do on Twitter, creeping several people out.

      But anyway – yes, I may well be ugly. I don’t know; I don’t care. I gave up worrying about insults like that when I was 12. And yes, I don’t sell many books (in the UK). Honestly, that’s all you’ve got, isn’t it? I am so enormously glad I’m not you. Hope you beat that deadline – I have no doubt you will.

      • Stephen Leather

        I did beat the deadline, Mosby, yes. I don’t know how many times I have to tell you but I wasn’t referring to your wife but to your mum, who is my age, pretty much. The point I was making is that everyone gets older. You then went all passive aggressive saying : “look what Leather is staying about my wife”. It wasn’t an attack on your wife and I think you know that. You are ugly, mate, inside and out, and it’s not just the acne. And yes, your books don’t sell well but that’s because they’re not very good and people aren’t buying them. Which is where your vindictive attacks spring from, I think. Jealousy, plain and simple.

  • Owen_Morgan

    Nick Cohen – again the hypocrite. What a surprise.

  • Eddie

    The world of publishing is utterly corrupt then. Well I never.
    There’s me thinking that writers giving glowing reviews of their friends’ books (or writers who share an agent/publisher) for reviews or book blurbs – and having the licking reciprocated – was all absolutely above-board and honorable…

    There’s me thinking that those judges at book awards who shortlist the work of their friends (or writers who share a publisher/agent) were all choosing the shortlisted books on quality alone!

    There’s me thinking that no publisher would ever dream of putting positive reviews of a book on Amazon under assumed names or asking a writer to get all their friends and family members to do so.

    Get real, please. The world of books is utterly dodgy anyway, especially when it comes to marketing them. (Terence Blacker writes well on this) Ditto for who gets a publishig contract in the first place (oh nepotism and croneyism, twin tyrants of our realm!). Ditto for who gets BBC commissions.

    So what if writers engage in shills and sock puppetry? All publishers, PR companies, marketeers and spinners do it anyway (and get rewarded hansomeley, and win marketing and PR awards).

    Same old same old.

    Leather is honest; most writers, agents and publishers are not – they all create their own reviews for themselves, in effect, anyway.

    And as for plagiarism… Well, the BBC are experts (I advise people never to send in scripts unless they are prepared to hear their ideas on radio on TV a year or two later, after the BBC have rejected their scripts of course, yet stripped them of flesh to make those special BBC plagiarism burgers…)

    • smileoftdecade

      “Leather is honest; most writers, agents and publishers are not – they all create their own reviews for themselves, in effect, anyway.” –

      honest? – mmm as honest as Jimmy Savile… creepy following of all Jeremy Duns followers is not something even the most desperate publishing house would do…
      .. is it, Stephen..?

  • Maria James

    You are ignoring the issue of the clandestine taping of phone calls by Jeremy Duns, upon which his allegations rested. So taping people without their knowledge is okay? –

    • Jeremy Duns

      Hello again, Stephen. I suggest you have a closer look at the PCC decision, and then at Clause 10 of its code, ‘Clandestine devices and subterfuge’. You’ll see a provision is made for cases in the public interest. I think it’s very clear that exposing a bestselling author for waging a bullying campaign against another writer for over a year was in the public interest. I needed to have proof beyond contemporaneous notes, because I suspected that as soon as I put the receiver down you would deny it and so would Steve Roach, worried about enraging you. That was exactly what happened, so it’s just as well I used this provision.

      Oh, and my first name only has one ‘r’ in it.

      • Stephen Leather

        Jeremy you silly little man, if you can prove that I have every ever, posted as Maria James I will happily pay you a million quid. Let’s be clear what happened here. You fed the story to Cohen because he’s an Oxford-educated mate and he could use the pages of the Observer to have a pop at me. You also gave him info from the tape you made when which is illegal. Funny – you me and Cohen all came from the north of England but you two went to Oxford and I didn’t. That makes you both feel superior to me, I know. But then you two have never had staff jobs on real newspapers while I was on Fleet Street in its heyday and have worked on some of the best newspapers in the world. That’s what drives you Jeremy – jealousy. You’ve never worked on a decent newspaper and your books don’t sell.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Are the felow’s books any good? I’ve never heard of him.

  • Justin Horton

    This is all good stuff. However, if you want a prodigious plagiarist, and indeed a sock-puppeteer to boot, one very good place to look would be the Spectator’s own chess correspondent.

  • Evelyn Stice

    Ugh, bullies. I have a very short “do not buy” list, and Leather is now on it.

  • edlancey

    I’ve never even heard of Leather but after this I certainly won’t be illegally downloading any of his books…

  • Louise

    Lack of patriotism seems to be the in thing around these parts.

  • Tony Kennick

    Sounds like this is exactly the sort of sock puppetry and astroturfing that falls under the Directive on Unfair Business-to-Consumer Commercial Practices.

  • Tim Holmes
    • Michael Ezra

      Undeservedly so.

    • Whyshouldihavetoregister

      Must be a bloody good book, then.

    • Daniel Maris

      LOL I gave his last posting a bad review. And for a fearless foe of censorship, he does a lot of censoring. Not just me but a whole load of people.

    • Peter Jackson

      What? In his own words?

  • humeanbeing

    Without proof, that is a clear libel.

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