Financial Times reporter Mark Di Stefano allegedly spied on Zoom meetings at rival newspapers the Independent and the Evening Standard to get scoops on staff cuts and furloughs due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report from the UK’s Independent. And Di Stefano he did a comedically bad job of covering his tracks.
Di Stefano reportedly logged in to a Zoom meeting being held by the Independent last week using his Financial Times email address, causing his name to appear for everyone else on the call, though his own video camera was disabled. Di Stefano logged out after “16 seconds,” according to the Independent, but a few minutes later, another login was recorded that was connected to Di Stefano’s phone number. That user stayed on the call until the end of the meeting, according to journalists in the Zoom meeting.
How do we know it was probably Di Stefano? It’s not like he made his knowledge of the call’s contents secret. After the call, he tweeted about the changes at the two news outlets on April 23, including the fact that ad revenue is down between 30 and 50 per cent. The FT reporter also tweeted that the Independent’s website had just experienced its biggest traffic month ever.
Independent chief executive Zach Leonard on Zoom call says there's been an "extreme reaction" in digital ad markets: "We are seeing hundreds of thousands of pounds washing away"
Staff told they also just had biggest month of traffic ever.
— Mark Di Stefano (@MarkDiStef) April 23, 2020
Di Stefano’s tweets were apparently going out before some people at the two news outlets even knew what was going on at their own workplaces, according to the Independent.
The Independent and Evening Standard are both located in the same building in west London and are owned by billionaire Evgeny Lebedev, who is reportedly taking advantage of the British government’s furlough scheme for private industry. Workers at both news outlets will also be taking a 20 per cent pay cut if they make over £37,500 per year, roughly $US47,000 ($72,718) in U.S. currency.
While Di Stefano is a media reporter who obviously needs to gain access to privileged information for his work, it’s not clear whether listening in on a Zoom call you weren’t invited to would be considered ethically sound, even if there was no password to enter. Back in the early 20th century, literal breaking and entering was often glamorized as part of the beat reporter’s job, especially in movies. But things get a lot more murky these days when the newspaper’s office doors are digital.
“We respect freedom of speech and understand the challenges of news gathering, but the Independent considers the presence of a third-party journalist in a staff briefing to be entirely inappropriate and an unwarranted intrusion into our employees’ privacy,” Independent editor, Christian Broughton, told the Guardian in a statement on Monday. “Our spokesperson had a full statement prepared for the press. Any interested reporters only needed to call and ask.”
And while it’s true to say that the Independent probably would have commented on information like its participation in the UK furlough program, it almost certainly wouldn’t have disclosed information like the fact that ad revenue is down between 30 and 50 per cent. That’s precisely the kind of insider information that media reporters are looking for, especially during the covid-19 pandemic when virtually every industry is suffering. We all know there’s pain out there. But knowing revenue is down by as much as half tells you how much pain. (That’s a lot of pain, by the way.)
The digital-only Evening Standard also issued a statement to the Guardian calling the alleged Zoom intrusion “unacceptable” and demanding an apology from the Financial Times.
Di Stefano caught plenty of flak from Twitter users over the past two days, making fun of his less-than-perfect deception on Zoom, with plenty of Simpsons references—like the time that Mr. Burns put on a bad mustache to appear as “Mr. Snrub.”
Di Stefano, who joined the Financial Times in January after working at BuzzFeed, has reportedly been suspended over his Zoom shenanigans. He did not immediately respond to an email and a Twitter DM sent early Tuesday.
Di Stefano, a prolific Twitter user with over 100,000 followers, hasn’t tweeted since Saturday, April 25. We’ll update this post if we hear back.