A “FAKE journalist” has pleaded guilty to fraud after publishing articles copied from The Northern Echo.

Aaron Michael Jack, 27, of Eldon Street, Darlington, was running a website called the North East News Agency, which was found to consist of news stories copied from the Northern Echo and passed off as his own work.

On the site, each news story was followed by “A note from the Editor. Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of North East Alternative News and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories”.

In many cases the news stories were an identical word-for-word lift from the paper, including the photographs. In court, Jack said he had not received any donations.

Darlington Council's trading standards team started investigating in July 2019 after the website - as well as another, called www.woofwoofphotography.uk, were brought to its attention.

The website offers professional photographic services including wedding and prom portraits.

Investigations by Shaun Trevor, fair trading and financial investigations officer, found that some of the images used were the copyrighted works of professional photographers and used without their permission, and were passed off as Jack’s own work.

Mr Trevor said: “The use of these high quality photographs to advertise his website and photography services was clearly an attempt to mislead the public into using his services. Having seen examples of Aaron’s photographs it is likely that anyone purchasing his actual services would be very disappointed in the results.”

He pleaded guilty to fraud and to two charges of publishing images which he knew were infringing copies of copyright and was fined £50 for each of the three offences and ordered to pay costs of £572.28 plus a victim surcharge of £32, a total of £754.28.

The fraud offences occurred between July 2 and December 17 last year.

Northern Echo editor Karl Holbrook said: “In an age of fake news, it is so important that people know and trust where their news comes from.

“I congratulate Darlington Council for tackling this flagrant breach of that trust and clear attempt to pass of the hard work of trained Northern Echo journalists as their own.

“The news media faces so many threats right now and our staff have been working around the clock in difficult circumstances, often from their kitchen worktops and spare bedrooms during this pandemic, to keep the public informed. As a society, we need to protect the good work of journalists like ours and call out the actions of charlatans like this wherever we see it.”

Anyone with any information that can assist Trading Standards is urged to email tradingstandards@darlington.gov.uk or report it using the online reporting form (This can be anonymously) at www.darlington.gov.uk/ts-report-it