A British-owned news agency accused by Buzzfeed of faking news stories has published a 126-page response denying the claims.
The agency, Vienna-based Central European News, has also questioned why Buzzfeed has focused its energy on attacking a 'rival' news provider. And a question has been tabled today in the Austrian parliament about the issue.
The article described CEN as "one of the Western media’s primary sources of tantalising and attention-grabbing stories". And it said that these stories are "often inaccurate or downright false".
Buzzfeed accused CEN of "exaggeration, embellishment and outright fabrication" and claimed that 11 CEN stories "proved to be completely false or to be based on images that did not match stories".
Before the article was published, CEN said it had already lost a significant amount of business as a result of letters sent by Buzzfeed to many of its biggest clients. CEN stories appear frequently in UK tabloid newspapers and their websites.
The book accepts that several stories put out by CEN later turned out to be false.
CEN covers serious news in addition to the 'viral' style content which Buzzfeed focused on.
Leidig says he has previously worked with The Sunday Times on an investigation into human trafficking and that after former deputy editor of Insight Heidi Blake arrived at Buzzfeed earlier this year he pitched her a story alleging political corruption involving Microsoft. The pitch received no response.
The CEN book says the Buzzfeed investigation "has forced the agency to drop those items".
"Furthermore, this not only concerns trafficking and political corruption, but also a probe into arms smuggling, an exclusive on a trade embargo being circumvented, a report on the funding for extremists, and abuse in children’s homes that were all months of work and were due to be published this year.
"They are all effectively dead projects, and instead CEN’s time and resources need to be devoted to answering the Buzzfeed allegations – despite the unwelcome spotlight on agency reporters."
Leidig's pitch about Microsoft detailed allegations that a member of Austria's parliament was paid to derail Google's acquisition of "Double Click" in 2007 and that Microsoft was linked to the case.
Austrian MP Hans-Joerg Jenewein said in a question to the Austrian parliament: "Is the Ministry aware that the news agency Central European News (CEN), operating an office in Vienna, was accused by Buzzfeed of falsifying its reports after Buzzfeed found out that CEN was about to publish a report on the political connections between Kurt Gartlehner and Microsoft?"
In April, Buzzfeed admitted that it had deleted negative articles about Microsoft, Pepsi and Axe bodyspray after concerns raised by its commercial staff. Buzzfeed has also admitted deleting two articles which were critical of products from advertisers Hasbro and Unilever – only to later reinstate them.
Here is what CEN has to say about some of the allegedly fake stories:
The lonely cabbage walkers of China
On 2 May 2014 CEN published a story stating that people had been walking cabbages on a lead in China as a way to get out and meet people. The story was carried on news websites including Huffington Post, Metro and Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed says the story was later "debunked" because the pictured cabbage walkers were part of art installation.
CEN says the piece started as a picture story provided by its Beijing desk. It says it could find no mention of an artisitic project and based the loneliness angle on local Chinese-language reports.
'Pretty in Pink Kitten Dies from Toxic Shock'
This CEN story alleged that a Russian woman named Elena Lenina had dyed her kitten pink causing its death from blood poisoning.
Buzzfeed said: "As Gawker’s Antiviral site pointed out, the story was false. The kitten was not dead. Lenina was in fact simply posting pictures of her – very much alive – kitten on social media."
CEN said the story was widely reported in local Russian media before it was put out by them – with the "according to local media" caveat.
CEN then published a further story saying: "Russian author Lena Lenina has accused animal-rights activists of organising against her by claiming that the pink cat they said she had poisoned is actually alive and well."
The CEN book says: "Buzzfeed, in its eagerness to look for negative news about CEN, might have wanted to believe that the story was made up, and wanted to take what she said on face value, but in what was provided from Elena Lenina, there was actually no evidence to back up her claims that the kitten had survived."
Schoolboys Porn Tape Lands Teacher in Trouble
This story reported that a female Argentinean teacher who had sex with a 16-year-old pupil was facing the sack after the boy secretly videod the encounter.
The story was widely carried on news websites around the world.
According to Buzzfeed: "There was just one problem: It wasn’t true.
"As Buzzfeed News has previously reported, the story had already been debunked by a local paper in Argentina a full two weeks before the English-language press picked it up. The video didn’t show an underage boy. Although the woman in the video was a teacher, she was from Corrientes, rather than Santiago del Estero, as had been claimed in the incorrect articles. She probably wasn’t even called Lucita Sandoval."
CEN's response: "With regards to the video being ‘debunked’ from local newspaper Nuevo Diario in Argentina, the only reason why the newspaper claims the story was a fake is because a reader said a video with a similar woman but a different name was found on a porn website and this video had been uploaded months earlier.
"It is true that some local papers speculated that it might be fake – but ironically with no more weight to their arguments than from those who were still claiming that it was true…
"So in essence the CEN story was a faithful report of the events that were originally all over Spanish media."
Bed and Bawd
This told the story of a 19-year-old girl who was "funding an epic trip across China by offering to bed a different man in every city she stops in".
CEN said: "CEN was apparently one of the first to report the original story in English and made it go viral… when CEN discovered it had been a very well-orchestrated con that had also fooled most mainstream Chinese media, CEN sent out not just one but two updates."
Sashimi Fan Infected With Parasites
This story showed the X-ray of a man whose body had been infected with tapeworms after eating too much sashimi. It was carried by numerous websites, including Buzzfeed, after being put out by CEN.
"Soon after the story made the rounds, it was investigated by the debunking site Snopes, which found that the x-ray photos of the alleged victim were 'similar to those included in a 2014 case report published by the British Medical Journal that dealt with a man who contracted a rare case of disseminated cysticercosis through the consumption of uncooked pork (with no mention of raw fish)'".
"The CEN story originated from a radiologist’s social media post, offering the news and pictures. The images which belonged to the hospital were offered for free as early as September 19, 2014 – from where they were very widely used throughout Chinese media.
"Chinese media and doctors still say the pictures are genuine, but without any medical proof to the contrary Buzzfeed is content to say that the pictures are
No Kidding – Baby Goat Has Two heads
This was a picture-based story about a baby goat born in China with two heads.
"At the request of Buzzfeed News, Dr Neal Krawetz, the creator of the FotoForensics photo analysis platform, which is used by law enforcement and others to examine digital images, analysed the image.
"Krawetz found that the two men, the hand in the bottom left, and the two goat heads each show up as 'distinct regions under a variety of analysis methods'. He said the evidence was 'conclusive' that it had been digitally enhanced."
"First of all the story was widely reported on Chinese media and was covered to such an extent that there was little doubt that it was true…To back up the truth of the CEN and the Xinhua story, there is even a video…while the faking of pictures might be a possibility, the faking of a video is another story altogether. Not only is it extremely unlikely, in this particular case it would be pointless. Far more likely, as CEN said all along, is that the story is correct."
Naked sunbather hanging out of window causes car pile-up
This CEN story was widely covered in the UK media and the agency and was false (although few publications appear to have corrected it).
The story was followed up by CEN after appearing in Austrian daily Heute provided by a reader.
"Unfortunately, it later became clear that Heute had not done any checking at all, the story was completely made up and the Austrian paper deleted its version and replaced it with an updated version in which they admitted they had been had been conned.
"As a result of this slip up, it became standard practice at the agency for all content coming into the system fresh to be checked using image search to make sure it was original."
Russian man saved from bear attack by Justin Bieber ringtone
"The original story about the bear attack, which was published in Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda, said nothing about a Bieber ringtone. Instead, it reported that the man’s phone had a setting that caused it to speak the current time. That’s what actually scared off the bear."
Leidig told Press Gazette that the agency's correspondent phoned up a local police source to ask about the ring-tone and was told that it was a Justin Bieber track. He now admits that this aspect of the story was probably incorrect (possibly because the police source was joking).
Buzzfeed has claimed CEN made up quotes to go with stories about a Singapore underwear thief forced to walk around a block of flats with bras hanging from his neck, a boy who was castrated by his aunt and an Indian man who allegedly had his penis cut off by a crowd after trying to rape a girl.
Buzzfeed claims the quotes provided are too "perfect", Anglicised and not found anywhere other than the CEN versions of these stories.
"The common thread through all of the above as mentioned is the suspicion from the Buzzfeed authors which includes the UK investigations unit and the head of their Canada operation that if something written cannot be found on the internet, then it must have been made up. It strongly implies that the way the Buzzfeed newsroom works is to do exactly that, recycle material endlessly from the internet.
"However that is not the way journalism works. Articles from reliable online publications can always be a starting point for any report, but for a news agency to be able to have any credibility, it needs to develop those stories…
"All CEN content is originally gathered in a foreign language, because the agency normally doesn’t work in English-speaking countries, and this therefore needs to be translated into English. How that information is structured in English depends very much on the person doing the translation, and if they happen to be somebody who writes in a very colloquial way then you will end up with a quote that sounds like it was from someone in a London street. It does not mean the quote is incorrect, it is simply the way that the journalist chose to present what was said."
Leidig said: "So at the end of the day with at least four staff and months of work, Buzzfeed have managed to prove that two stories were not correct as originally published but were correct at the time of CEN publishing them (the Chinese backpacker and the naked sunbather), and that they had already been published by other media so CEN did not make them up.
"And they also found that a third story had an incorrect photo [a Macedonian man who cut his penis off]. Everything else it alleges is mere hearsay and speculation without a single hard fact to back it up.
"Out of 8,000 stories supplied [to Buzzfeed as a subscriber to CEN] over the course of the year, internet research, the hiring of experts to analyse CEN photographs and using staff all over the world to look at CEN content, and even recycling alleged debunkings by other media watchers, Buzzfeed publishes a story alleging that CEN, a rival in the provision of viral news, is the King of Bullshit News.
“BuzzFeed clearly have an agenda. With so little being done now in the way of investigative journalism, it is a tragedy that BuzzFeed – that agreed to pay CEN $50 for a package of words, pictures and video, then asked for a reduction to $35, and then did not pay even that – should use so much manpower and time on an investigation into a rival where they had no leaked documents, no insider, no official probe or victim. It was a from-scratch look into the way we worked that to my mind could only have been motivated by another agenda."
Buzzfeed admits to using around a dozen CEN stories when it was a subscriber to the agency's feed. CEN says it has identified another six.
CEN says Buzzfeed has also covered hundreds more CEN stories "that CEN would argue are its copyright, because they were found in obscure local media in a foreign language or from other sources, and CEN worked on them to check them, to find the answers to the questions that an international audience are going to want, and then to pass them on to clients who published them. In many cases these were then taken by BuzzFeed who put nothing back into the communal pot, but had the clicks in return.
"In total CEN has enriched the Buzzfeed news with hundreds of stories, to date, they have paid for two."
"The book that we are told CEN has now written in response should in our view be treated with be same suspicion as the rest of the agency's output. BuzzFeed is strongly committed to the highest standards of responsible journalism and we are proud that our reporting on CEN has put right inaccuracies in its output over many years."
For a new Buzzfeed story this week the site interviewed three Polish people at the centre of a CEN story about a sleigh crash involving a Father Christmas and helper who were said to be facing drink-driving charges.
The story was later found to be inaccurate by the PCC.
The CEN book, including the full previously unpublished Microsoft corruption story, has been tabled as part of Hans-Joerg Jenewein's question.
He said: "This is certainly a subject that clearly involves an Austrian MP and an Austrian-based news agency and therefore is very relevant. It is a question about honest politics and about getting to the bottom of what happened here."