12th Dec 2012

On Media Hoaxes

Those two Australian radio DJs, impersonating the Queen and Prince of Wales in their prank call to the hospital where pregnant Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, was being treated for morning sickness, have created a lot of fuss in the last few days.

Prime Minister Cameron has had his say too, no doubt overjoyed with another tale of media malice – especially one in which he can’t be implicated. What with all these allegations about Jimmy Saville, and then DLT, and then ex-Radio Norfolk’s Michael Souter, and then Stuart Hall, it feels awfully like letting-politicians-off-the-hook season.

The death of the nurse who fell victim to the prank call was sad, and made for an obviously newsworthy story, but directing vitriol towards the radio pranksters is unfair and unhelpful. The fact is that media pranks, hoaxes and practical jokes of all kinds have been enacted for many years now, both for entertainment and journalistic purposes, and this latest case borders on the trivial compared to past instances. Indeed, the initial story would have faded quickly from the media/public conscious had the subsequent suicide not taken place.

If legal action is to be taken against Sydney broadcaster 2Day FM and its two DJs, then, those filing the lawsuit would do well to find a precedent they could draw on. They would also be wise not to consider some of the more extraordinary and wider-scale hoaxes that did not – to my knowledge – lead to legal claims.

Most dramatic of all was the famous Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938. Hadley Cantril’s seminal study of the public and press reaction to Welles’s broadcast, as discussed in my Key Themes book, revealed that a small – but still significant – proportion of the American public actually believed that they were listening to a real news bulletin, not a radio play, and that New York and other US cities were being invaded by Martians. Some listeners even packed up their bags and left their homes unlocked in the rush to escape! (Though where they were escaping to remains something of a mystery.) Imagine if a similar hoax bulletin was broadcast on the radio or television today? There would be litigation left, right and centre!

Other well-known hoaxes that grabbed the media/public attention include the Hitler Diaries of 1983, widely reported as authentic but which turned out to be phony; the fake photos of British soldiers supposedly torturing an Iraqi in 2004, published in the Mirror and costing Piers Morgan his job; the Balloon Boy case, in which half the Coloradoan emergency services attempted to rescue an airborne baby boy that his parents said had accidently become attached to a large balloon (the boy was later found hidden in the attic of the family home); and perhaps most bizarrely, the BBC’s Ghostwatch mockumentary of 1992, in which presenter Sarah Greene’s life appeared to be threatened by a poltergeist who dragged her under the stairs of an ostensibly haunted house! (I remember watching the show as it went out live, and being just a little bit concerned, but only a little…  I still don’t believe in ghosts… I think.)

Many more hoaxes – the Sachsgate scandal, the Great Moon hoax of 1835 and so on – could be mentioned here, but the point is, these stories are mostly harmless, often quite amusing, and historically very interesting. There’s nothing like a good prank to reveal the true character of humanity. It would be a shame if laws and ethics tsars – and a very sad case today - spoilt these essentially fun, and revelationary, outcomes.

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