BBC pay author over stolen plot line

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The Independent Online
The BBC has paid compensation to an author who claimed the Corporation had plagiarised his book in an episode of the successful drama series Between the Lines. Lawyers for the BBC filed no court defence after being issued with a writ by Tony Collins, whose book, Open Verdict, chronicled 25 mysterious deaths among scientists in the defence research industry.

Mr Collins, who is understood to have received five-figure costs and damages, sent a dramatisation of his book to the BBC's head of drama in 1992. He says he received no reply but was astonished, two years later, when a Between the Lines episode, starring Neil Pearson and entitled The Lone Soldier, appeared with remarkable similarities to his work.

"I kept getting phone calls from friends and family who had seen it and wanted to congratulate me on getting it on television, " he said, "I had to tell them I hadn't been involved."

Mr Collins, 41, executive editor of Computer Weekly, broke the story of the mysterious deaths of six Marconi scientists in 1987. After the story spread through the media, he went on to list a further 19 strange deaths and "suicides".

The BBC programme was a fictional account of the same subject but, in an early rejection of his claim, the Corporation pointed out that the deaths had been extensively covered and were in the public domain. However, Mr Collins submitted almost nine pages of similar detail to his solicitors, Mishcon de Reya, who issued a writ alleging breach of copyright.

The BBC settled without defending the action and pro-mised to credit Mr Collins in repeats and sales of the series abroad. The series was produced in association with World Productions Ltd, which was not involved in the litigation.

Among the similarities, Mr Collins's book opened with the strange death of a Pakistani computer engineer - as did the programme. He showed how there was, unusually, a second post-mortem examination which found a puncture on the engineer's thigh, possibly caused by a hypodermic syringe - so did the programme. The book showed that the families of the dead men rejected official claims that they had been depressed and that many of them were about to leave their posts - so creating a potential security risk for the state if they left with knowledge of certain electronic guidance systems - as did the programme.

Some of the families asked the author to investigate the deaths. But despite amassing evidence of the involvement of MI5 and of a number of serious discrepancies in the official version about how many men had died, Mr Collins thought there was not enough evidence to prove involvement by the state. In the programme, the families asked a journalist to investigate - who reached the same conclusions as Mr Collins.

A former employee at GCHQ, the Government's eavesdropping station, had told Mr Collins that when he and other scientists left sensitive posts, they signed declarations that effectively said that they no longer knew what they had learned during their employment. Mr Collins wrote: "But what if he was not prepared to erase from his mind what he knew? What if he wanted to leave Britain for a country which was beyond the scope of the Official Secrets Act?"

In the programme a defence company employee says: "If I want to leave, I have to sign a form saying I no longer know the things that I know. Can you believe that? How can you delete your own thoughts?"

Mr Collins said, of his complaint, that he was delighted with the outcome. "More than anything, my agent, Toby Eady, said I had to persevere to prevent the BBC doing this to other authors," he said.

Asked whether the BBC accepted that Mr Collins's book had been plagiarised, a BBC spokesperson said: "You can draw your own conclusions from the fact that we settled."