Archive for the ‘hoaxes’ Category

So, farewell then, Johann Harvey…I mean HARI

January 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Johann Hari: The Non-Return

I guess I’m kinda sad that Johann “Harvey” Hari will not be returning to “The Independent” (dread term, as its former, most well-respected columnist Wallace Arnold would say). I was looking forward, perhaps over-gleefully, to seeing exactly what the Great Plagiarist would come up with that would in any way atone for his previous frauds to his loyal followers. Equally, I wanted to see how the Independent (“It once was. Are you still?”) would once again weasel its way around the fact they let him get away with these frauds for so long: indeed, would promote him way above his journalistic capability – which many seasoned journalists had called into question before the balloon finally went up – his intellectual honesty or  his educational ability (Tim Worstall was calling him out on his inept economic analysis long before his plagiarism came to light).

But, having returned from his New York journalism re-education camp…sorry, I mean retraining course…(hang on, he never had journalism training in the first place, so how does that work?) he has decided to cop out. Fleet Street Blues puts it kindly: “Fair play to him for falling on his sword…”  Well, far enough, except that it was a sword he fashioned himself from the ploughshare used by more honest, less ambitious and glory-seeking journalists than he.

Is there a lesson to be learnt from the Johann Hari affair? Yes, there is, and it is, in the portentous tones of Laurence Rees, it’s “A Warning From History”. The rise of Hari roughly coincides with that of Tony Blair and New Labour, and it’s difficult not to recall Peter Oborne’s verdict on the relationship between truth vs falsehood during that regime, in The Rise of Political Lying:

It is not unreasonable to speculate that the prime minister has a strong tendency to fall victim to a common conceptual muddle: the failure to understand the distinction between truth versus falsehood and truth versus error. Tony Blair, and many colleagues, consistently seem to feel that they are lucky enough to have been granted a privileged access to the moral truth. This state of grace produces two marvellous consequences. It means that whatever New Labour ministers say or write, however misleading or inaccurate, is in a larger sense true. Likewise whatever their opponents say or write, whether or not strictly speaking accurate, is in the most profound sense false.

Hari’s apologists (Polly Dutt-Pauker, Caitlin Moran etc) have all tended to forgive the Blessed Hari’s venial sins – misrepresentation, plagiarism, making up direct quotes – because he represented a Cardinal virtue: a “moral” truth, though not one supported by anything so mundane as facts, reality or common sense. It’s as though he and they have taken the example of Evelyn Waugh’s Shumble, Whelper, Pigge and Corker in Scoop and learnt exactly the wrong lesson. But then right-wing satire is always a bit too subtle for the lefties’ more clod-hopping tastes.

So Hari is off to write a book

on a subject I believe is important and requires urgent action. To be done properly it needs international travel and …in depth focus…”

Hmmm. “The Ethics of Journalism – An International Study”, perhaps? The Plagiarist’s Progress, perchance, following our hero from the City of Destruction (a rather ungenerous way to describe the Independent, but I wouldn’t know; I’ve never worked there), up Hill Lucre, to the House Beautiful and  down into the Slough of Despond and the Valley of Humiliation? A novel called…oooh, I don’t know, something along the lines of  “The Fabulist” perhaps, about a reporter on a respected national publication who throws it all away by making stuff up? Oh, that’s already been done (and had the Hollywood treatment, too).

Maybe it’s a biography of Polly Dutt-Pauker he’s thinking of doing. Now that would require in depth focus – and international travel, of course (and Tuscany is so beautiful this time of the year, too).

Good luck, Johann, whatever you do. Just stay away from journalism, all right?

And now you’re out of the way, you snivelling little creep, it’s time to go after bigger buggers. Time to turn up the screws on Simon Kelner. Stay tuned, fact fans.

All of a-Twitter: Henry Kissinger and Bart Simpson

March 4, 2011 Leave a comment


Henry Kissinger and Bart Simpson

Henry & Bart: Together in the twittersphere

What do Henry Kissinger and Bart Simspon have in common?


I thought this as I read Fleet Street Blues’ intriguing story about this Independent article by Christina Patterson.

In this Viewspaper article about Said Gaddafi’s appearance on Libyan State TV, Patterson ponders the likely reaction of Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair, Prince Andrew and divers other great and good who have sucked up to Mad Dog & Son, but then says:

But Henry Kissinger, or at least someone calling himself Henry Kissinger, tweeted that Saif Gaddafi was his godson and that he believed him “to be sincere”.

Well, at least she, or perhaps, as FSB suspects, a sharp-eyed sub, hedged the bets somewhat by adding that “at least someone calling himself Henry Kissinger”. But once that reasonable doubt is raised, Patterson then goes on mostly ignoring it:

As the speech went on, and Twitter was aflutter with the kind of comments you wouldn’t want to hear about your godson, the ersatz Kissinger’s pride switched to loyalty. “Those,” he said, “saying Saif Gaddafi is under the influence tonight are completely out of order. He had a problem once,” he added, “and dealt with it.”

As FSB rightly notes, the whole three-par reference to “Henry Kissinger” has “the slightest whiff of a last-minute save by the subs.” Indeed, the “at least someone calling himself Henry Kissinger” and that “ersatz” sit oddly in the sentences in which they appear. As FSB asks:

“Why else insert two random, not particularly tongue-in-cheek comments from a tongue-in-cheek spoof twitter account into an otherwise serious paragraph on reaction from world leaders?”

That the Henry K twitterer is a spoof is pretty conclusively proved by FSB, though my suspicions were immediately raised in Patterson’s original article by the sentence: “Those,” he said, “saying Saif Gaddafi is under the influence tonight are completely out of order.” (Emphasis mine.)

Now I’ve hopped around the world a bit and I would say the phrase “completely out of order” is a UK English idiom. OK, you do hear it in some Commonwealth countries, but they’re usually the ones where UK imports such as EastEnders and Coronation Street are popular, Al Pacino in the final scene in Scent of a Woman notwithstanding (there, I would argue, it is used in a strictly legalistic sense, rather than the more general way it is in the UK).

It’s not the kind of phrase I would expect to trip lightly off the tongue of a Harvard-educated German-born American Jewish Nobel Peace Prize winner. But I could be wrong, and perhaps he uses the phrase all the time, along with “Leave it owwwwt!” and “You want some, then?!”

But what this whole storm in a Twitter cup highlights is something I alluded to my posting about the Guardian’s live blog on the Christchurch earthquake: irrelevant, baffling tweets that instead of merely being a means of gathering and conveying news (ie, just another journalists’ tool to do their job) become the news itself. Marshall McLuhan eat your tweet out.

Within the 140-letter limit of a tweet, you may have the sparkle of a lead: what you seldom have is the hard gem of actual news. The more excitable tabloids and sleb magazines (as well as the more excitable political commentators working in the hothouse of Westminster – yes, you, Guido) may get all fired up by the more wayward tweets of their particular prime suspects (B-grade movie stars, pop stars you’ve never heard of, publicity seeking politicos, drunken sportsmen etc), but really, just how much nuance can you squeeze into a tweet. Not even Stephen Fry is really in the running for the Oscar Wilde Cup for Pithy Aphorisms.

So what’s all this got to do with Bart Simpson? Well, by amazing coincidence, this article, The Day Twitter Gave Birth to Bart Simpson, appeared on Splitsider this week. It’s the fascinating story of how a random tweet on February 23 that “Today is Bart Simpson’s 32nd birthday” created a Twitter meme (a “tweme”, anyone?) that went around the Twittersphere, helped on its way by, among others, Rolling Stone, Netflix and the Chicago Tribune.

Like a snowball rolling downhill, the meme gathered more and more weight and acceleration, but was, of course, totally erroneous, as any Simpsonologist could tell you. Well, the birthday of a cartoon character who doesn’t actually age is hardly of major import, but Denise Du Vunay’s article is a fascinating insight on how erroneous information gathers its own irresistible momentum until it has the dubious weight of consensus and before you know, everyone’s citing it as established fact.

That’s hardly new: bad ideas and false information have been doing that for millennia. It’s just that with networking tools such as Twitter, Facebook and whatever the next step is that’s surely evolving as we speak, it now happens a hell of a lot faster.

The best defence against ending up with an egg-face interaction a la Patterson is to maintain that essential journalistic skill: healthy scepticism. A sense of humour helps too. God knows I’m aware in today’s under-staffed over-worked news rooms it’s easy just to throw in Twitter comments because they seem to come from someone relevant, but they should rarely be used to hold up a whole story, unless they’re part of a rolling news story such as the Mumbai attack or one of those revolutions that are so popular in some part of the world these days.

Otherwise, they’re best used as a starting point that requires more digging, in much the same way as an anonymous tip-off or those interesting comments from a man down the pub.

After all, while false tweets about Bart and Henry may be harmless and even funny, one day you might be responsible for reporting one that, with its propagation, actually does harm and is not that funny at all.





Scary mountains

July 14, 2010 Leave a comment

From the startlingly talented David McCandless at the informationisbeautiful website comes this eye-catching visualisation of media scare stories 2000-2009.

graph of media scare stories(Click here for enlarged version)

The “No. of Stories” shown in the “Intensity” Y axis come from Google News, which I suppose is as good a source for counting as any. (Well, at least it’s a single, consistent source and he hasn’t tried to pull off any Michael Mann hockeystick-style “tricks” by counting half from Google and deriving the rest from Yamal tree rings, or whatever.)

The four highest peaks are, from left, the Y2K bug, the Sars quarantine in China, bird flu and (Dr Donald-duck-son’s greatest hit) swine flu. I would suspect that if the graph had started a little earlier – 1997, say – the Y2K scare would show a higher scare rating.

The thing to note is that all these media scares had no foundation in truth whatsoever. A fact emphasised by the way they all drop away at times of real scares: September 2001 and July 2005.

H/T Matt Ridley

Six great media hoaxes

October 14, 2009 2 comments

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.

Read more…