Six great media hoaxes
The story in Media Guardian here about how a film company successfully hoaxed the tabloids into running fake celebrity “news” – Amy Winehouse’s beehive goes up in flames, Girls Aloud’s Sarah Harding is a secret boffin who enjoys curling up with a good book on quantum physics of an evening, etc – has something of a “so what else is new?” tiredness about it.
I think any sentient human with at least one brain cell would know that most celebritat published in the redtops and in girlie magazines such as Chat, Closer and their ilk is the product of saddoes with no life but a lot of time and a rich fantasy life who ring newsdesks with “exclusives”. Hey, it’s called “citizen journalism”, right. And that which isn’t peddled by amateur grab-the-money-and-run merchants is the fevered imaginings of PRs with a client desperate for column inches or a journo facing a looming deadline.
Chris Atkins, the director of Starsuckers, the movie at the centre of it all, comes out with the usual bromides about how easy it is to make your story gullible and that the main thing is to feed the targets something they really want to believe. Which is what any fraudster and conman stretching back to Titus Oates and beyond could have told us. And that’s not counting all the bloggers, tweeters and chatterers on the net who perpetrate and perpetuate hoaxes and myths, whether for political or commercial gain or just plain ignorance. Journalists increasing reliance on these to provide “news”, as well as their investigative methods which rarely go beyond Google and Wikipedia, mean this kind of thing is increasing exponentially.
What struck me about the Guardian story was just how lame the “exclusives” were that Starsuckers fed to the journalists. After all, there have been some great whoppers that have been successfully fed to the media that not only emphasised how easy it is to do that, but also had a wider point to make about myth-making and mischief-making in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Among the best hoaxes and hoaxers from recent years that spring to mind:
1) Michael “Rocky” Ryan
One of the all-time great media hoaxers. He it was who persuaded the papers that there were sex ‘n’ drug orgies taking place on Everest, that devil worship was occurring among explorers in the Amazon jungle, that Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe was being allowed out of Broadmoor to go to the pub, and that Hitler was alive and well and living in Golders Green. He also had the Sun believing that Shergar was also alive and thriving in Jersey. He died aged 66 in 2008. RIP.
2) Alan Abel and Joe Skaggs
Although not working as a double act as such, these two American pranksters are usually mentioned in the same breath when it comes to pulling one over the US media. Some of their stunts are elaborate, calling for a cast of volunteers and much planning, but the results are usually worth it.
Amongst Abel’s best hoaxes to receive wide media coverage have been a “cathouse” [ie, brothel] for horny dogs, a long-running joke about “Omar’s School for Beggars”, which has fooled the BBC, setting up Euthanasia Cruises Ltd, in which suicidal participants could jump overboard after several days of partying, the famous “fainting audience” stunt on the Phil Donahue Show which led the host to clear the studio, and a two year campaign against breastfeeding because it was incestuous and could lead to “an oral addiction leading youngsters to smoke, drink and even becoming a homosexual.” He even got the New York Times to run his obituary 12 years early.
Skaggs’s successful efforts have included the Fat Squad, a posse of heavies paid for by the overweight to stop them eating, plans for a “cemetery theme park” and cult whose members eat cockroach hormones to fight acne and menstrual cramps (he even called the cult “Metamorphosis” but none of the reporters were up on their Kafka, apparently.
3) Simples photography the meerkat way
It started as a joke by staff at the Longleat Safari Park, but it wasn’t long before amazing photos were winging their way round the world of meerkats apparently taking photographs. And the world’s media duly reported it, including the BBC, the Guardian and the Telegraph. The superb photos had been taken by the meerkats on a Canon EOS 650 camera and only came to light when the digital memory card was looked at, it was reported. Only one problem with that, as was noticed by an alert technical writer at Amateur Photographer: the EOS 650 is an SLR camera and doesn’t have a memory drive.
4) Piers Morgan and The HoaX Factor
On May 1, 2004, the Daily Mirror caused its own Desert Storm of controversy by publishing photos it claimed depicted British troops torturing Iraqi prisoners. It had its undoubted intentions of stirring up anti-war fervour and boosting sales. Media pundits and politicians of all flavours rushed to proclaim gravely on What It All Meant and initially all but drowned out those sceptics who noted that, among other causes for doubt, the “abused” prisoners didn’t look all that abused, indeed, most had barely raised a sweat, that the British “soldiers” were not wearing the right uniforms and were driving vehicles that were not being used in Iraq and all in all, the pictures look oddly posed. It took two weeks for editor Piers Morgan to admit the photos were faked. He was duly sacked, but he still hasn’t gone away.
5) Bhopal – it’s us wot dunnit
The admission by “Jude Finisterra” of Dow Chemicals that the company now accepted full responsibility for the Bhopal tragedy 20 years earlier caused a worldwide media sensation when it was broadcast on the BBC in December 2004. The fact that the company, which had inherited the legal quagmire regarding the mass poisoning following its acquisition of Union Carbide, had agreed to pay $25bn compensation to victims and their families caused panic among investors, and Dow’s stock value to promptly plummet. So it wasn’t long before a Dow spokesman was on the line to the Beeb saying they’d never heard of “Jude Finisterra”. And nor should they have: he was in fact Andy Bichlbaum of the “anti-consumerist” activists the Yes Men. A Beeb hack had confused Dow Chemicals’ actual website, dow.com, with the Yes Men’s looky-likey spoof site, dowethics.com, and guess which one was approached to comment? That “Finisterra” translates as “end of the Earth” should have given the Beeb some indication of which particular furrow this “spokesman” was going to plough.
6) Wikipedia whimsy
When triple-Oscar winning composer Maurice Jarre died in March 2009, an alert scrolling across the breaking news box on Sky News got a particularly bright 22-year-old Irish sociology student thinking: what were the pitfalls in the media’s modern obsession with 24-hour rolling news coverage? Surely this hunger would lead them to feast hungrily on whatever titbit might be available. And wouldn’t the natural hunting ground for such titbits be the internet? Shane Fitzgerald quickly grabbed his laptop, went on to Wikipedia and added the following rather anodyne quote to Jarre’s entry: ““One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head and that only I can hear.” This minor addition, although taken off by Wikipedia’s unusually alert administrators, was on there long enough to be picked up and recycled by the world’s media, including, in the UK, the Guardian (one of the very few outlets to apologise and explain what had happened, by the way).