Op-Ed: Can you trust the BBC? You dog-gone can
Sometimes real life really is stranger than fiction, but though we can all be fooled by shaggy dog stories, deliberate fakery is a different matter, as the “Panorama”/Primark affair demonstrates.
The BBC’s Breakfast news programme
this morning gave prominent coverage to two recent complaints against the channel for misleading reporting.
The first complaint dated from 2008; Primark is a company that has built its reputation on the ethical production of retail goods as much as value for money, so when it was accused by the Panorama
programme of using child labour in India, it was not amused. This resulted in a lengthy investigation, the fruits of which have only just been delivered. Earlier this week, the Corporation broadcasted an apology concerning some of the footage which appears to have been brazenly faked by one unscrupulous documentary maker. Primark felt so strongly about this slur on its good name that it not only produced a short rebuttal video but set up a website
to expose the lie.
published a lengthy article
by a former Panorama
editor which excoriated the programme. This is cant hypocrisy for a newspaper that two years ago recruited a known mischief-maker with a long track record of fabricating lies against his political enemies to write an obituary then refused to correct an absolutely blatant lie
it until it was referred to the Press Complaints Commission
The second complaint concerned a story that was reported
by Digital Journal
, that of a dog that was sentenced to death by a rabbinical court in Israel; if that sounds like a shaggy dog story – pun intended – it’s because it is (and the author updated the story to reflect the media hoax).
But why did it have to be a Jewish court? Not only did the story go viral, but it prompted one member of the Nazi Stormfront website to post a photograph of his beloved Führer feeding a deer with the comment
“And they call Germans and Hitler monsters when Hitler was against animal testing and other forms of cruelty to animals.” Yes, why perform unethical medical experiments on animals when you can use people instead?
The truth about the stoning was somewhat different; a dog somehow wandered into a court waiting room, and according to one report
– which still may not be true – a group of rabbis ordered/told/asked some local children to throw stones at it to drive it away. The most likely explanation is that was taken away by the city authorities. As to the reason for its allegedly being stoned to death, because it was believed to be the reincarnation of a disgruntled lawyer, well, many people will sympathise with that.
This is the sort of story that is the stuff of urban legend, a foaf – friend of a friend. The American folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand has spent a lifetime collecting them, and has written a whole series of books about them from
The Vanishing Hitchhiker
to the Encyclopedia Of Urban Legends
. Someone who has followed in his footsteps is Patricia A. Turner whose book I Heard it Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture
covers the same ground from a specifically black perspective. And no, it is not true that the soft drink Tropical Fantasy contains an ingredient that makes black men sterile, or that the Marlborough cigarette company is owned by the Ku Klux Klan.
Aside from malice and human gullibility, there are two main reasons false news stories are so common; the first is the nature of the medium.
Two hundred years ago, for all practical purposes news could travel no faster than a horse or runner, and two-way communications across the ocean took literally months, which is one reason American independence had to happen. Nowadays, news can be transmitted across the world in seconds by anyone with access to the Internet, which in practice means most of us, one website alone, Facebook, has half a billion members. Once the genie is out of the bottle it takes on a life of its own fuelled by conspiracy mongers
, people who are too trusting of what they read or see, or are simply too busy to check their facts.
Another not so obvious reason is that the truth very often is
stranger than fiction, as recent events in soapland
In his book The Mexican Pet
, the aforementioned Jan Harold Brunvand reports the case of the dead baby on a plane that had been stuffed with cocaine. This had no basis in fact, but years later a mentally disturbed British civil servant, Caroline Beale, was arrested while trying to board a plane in New York; she had concealed a dead newborn baby under her clothing, a story that becomes all the more remarkable when one considers that no one seemed to realise this slightly built woman was pregnant when she arrived in the States. Likewise, the facts of what became known as the 1935 Australian shark arm murder
When one considers all the above, it is hardly surprising that even with rigorous fact checking, the odd totally bogus story will inevitably slip through. It may have taken the BBC nearly three years, but they did apologise for and retract the Primark story. Not unnaturally, the shaggy dog story from Israel was retracted considerably faster, though ten or a hundred years from now – if Man still exists
– it will probably still be going the rounds.