Knick Knack Paddy Hack
Paul Clerkin and Mick Cunningham explain how their crazy-ass website p45.net suckered the media
MOST newspapers have a tradition of attempting to dupe their readers on April Fools Day with a far-fetched ‘news story’ buried at the bottom of an ordinary news page. Oh how the hacks laugh when the phones start hopping with anxious callers wondering if David Beckham really will be conducting a coaching session in the Phoenix Park next Saturday or whether David Norris is set to marry an Irish-American poetess. It’s a day when the news professionals poke fun at the rigorous scrutiny and fact-checking they allegedly apply to ‘real’ news stories. The only problem with all this nonsense is that the Irish media jokers are becoming the duped with embarrassing frequency.
Last July the Irish Independent was tricked into running a front-page story claiming that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was demanding the return of Caravaggio's painting "The Taking Of Christ" from the National Gallery in Dublin. Several other newspapers and radio stations carried the same report which was a complete hoax. A story about ‘Liam Lawlor: The Movie’ starring Anthony Hopkins and Colin Farrell (young Liam) also earned plenty of column inches and airtime. As did the “exclusive” about how anti-terrorist police in Springfield, Illinois arrested an Irish brother and sister for speaking Irish. "FBI agents became suspicious of the pair when they noticed them speaking in English, but also in a 'code' language not recognised to be of Eastern or European origin" one tabloid helpfully explained. Another clever fabrication about Dublin Chamber of Commerce demanding the introduction of fast and slow lanes for pedestrians because “pedestrian congestion is estimated to cost city centre businesses E100million per annum” was treated as a serious business story in some quarters. The list of the media outlets embarrassed by the above spoofs includes The Irish Mirror, RTE, Newstalk106, The Register.co.uk, and some respectable online news services. In some newsrooms, it now appears as if it is April Fools Day every day.
The hoaxes detailed all had their origins on the P45.net website. What started as a casual discussion thread on P45.net, entitled titled 'Let's start an urban legend', gathered such momentum that in the space of one slow news day last summer we were able to plant three stories in three different national publications.
Initially, we were thinking along the lines of a predictable kind of UL; the type that always involves anonymous people in anonymous places, a myth that is structured like a joke or an anecdote. But what people started coming up with instead were a lot more specific: fake media stories, written like genuine news stories in conventional ‘journalese’.
As the stories were released into the wild, most P45ers had the general impression that they would take weeks or even months to go around the block and come back again. In fact it was a matter of hours or even minutes. People on the boards were also surprised at how the mainstream media picked up on the hoaxes and ran them with very little changes. What was most disturbing was not just how willing the mainstream media were to run with complete hoaxes, but how some embellished and even claimed ownership of the stories. In the case of the terrorist arrests in Springfield, Illinois, for example, the Daily Mirror decided to develop the story and added quotes from the mythical pair as if they had interviewed them. Even more incredible were the reports of people from Cobh admitting to knowing the arrested duo.
While planting our stories, we discovered just how much the various print and broadcast media feed off each other. Such is the constant push for new material on radio stations, many programs don’t bother to check emails that are sent into the presenter. These emails are then read out as fact. The original Springfield legend made the radio and breaking news sites within an hour or two. Radio is an easy nut to crack, and once a story made the radio that was often the only proof needed for the print media, especially the tabloids where reporters are rostered to listen to news bulletins and rewrite stories they hear on air. Generally speaking, though, the print media is usually harder to deceive in one-on-one spoof combat. They tend to check facts as they have a longer time to prepare their story. Tabloids love human interest stories, especially anything which sounds out of the ordinary. Of course anyone can have a story about a dog saving lives but getting arrested by the FBI on suspicion of being a terrorist? Now that’s real news. That story - like the Berlusconi yarn - hinged on news editors wanting to believe the essence of the spoof. They wanted to believe that Americans were stupid, so the arrest of the couple was proof of that. With Berlusconi, the story seemed so in keeping with his recent outbursts against the Germans that it was natural to assume that he was now gunning for the Irish. But where was the fact checking? We were caught out on RTE radio by a researcher who decided to search Google.com with “Berlusconi Caravaggio and Ireland” and turned up the P45rant.com thread. This could have been done by any reporter in any newspaper. Given the deluge of press releases that flow daily into newsrooms, lapses in judgment are inevitable but what has happened to the skepticism that is supposed to be an essential trait for reporters and their world weary editors?
The demise of the traditional training system may partly explain why credulity and gullibility levels in the media are on the increase. In the past you served your time on a regional paper where a wrong name in a court case or a wrongly attributed sending-off in a GAA match report could prompt mayhem. The material you dealt with may often have been mundane and parochial but at least you learned the hard way that facts are sacrosanct for news reporting. This career path could only engender a healthy dose of cynicism and caution compared to the current system where a lot of reporters graduate to the national media newsdesks straight from journalism college. Newsrooms were never a place for the sensitive soul but in some papers and radio stations they now resemble nothing more than production lines where young reporters are bullied into producing six or seven stories in a shift. Or worse, are forced by editors who should know better to write a story to a pre-ordained headline or angle even if the facts don’t add up. So long as the hoax doesn’t result in an expensive visit to the Four Courts, who really cares seems to be the prevailing attitude in some papers and radio stations.
If nothing else, though, our escapades over the summer proved just how porous the checks for veracity are in newspapers and broadcast organisations. If we can place stories in the national media with very little effort, you have to ask how difficult it would be for someone with more malevolent intentions to conduct a smear campaign with the strategic planting of hoax news stories?
Incidentally, several weeks after the Irish Independent ran the Berlusconi story, they apologised to the Italian government. Perhaps tellingly, no apology was offered to their readers.
Paul Clerkin and Mick Cunningham http://www.p45.net