Fakers and Dacres
'Can a budgie talk?'
The photographer with me shrugged.
Apparently they could also swear. We'd been told the budgie we were going to see could curse in five languages, including 'bollocks' in Afrikaans.
But when we got there the budgie only whistled and tweeted. Its owner played us tapes, allegedly of it talking. It sounded like more tweets and whistles. The story was, well, bollocks.
I still wrote it up. The next day it appeared in The Sun and The Daily Star. They knew it wasn't true, but it was too good a tale to pass up - a swearing budgie. Sounds great! Lob it in.
Which, of course, was Kelvin Mackenzie's editing technique when he was The Sun editor. As he told the Leveson Inquiry, 'if it sounded right, it was probably right, and therefore we should lob it in.' On his watch, The Sun traded freely in scam stories, or, to add to the already straining workload of two heavily-employed, now almost meaningless words, 'fake news.'
Fabricated news has always been with us. But under the likes of Mackenzie it became a staple in some corners of our national press. It still is. Yet last week we learned from Tory MP Damian Collins, chair of the Culture Select committee, that their ongoing inquiry into fake news wouldn't consider examples of press fabrication. If you wanted to complain about that then go to IPSO, he said, ignoring that much fake news which goes viral on social media originates in our press, and that IPSO is a hopeless regulator in hoc to the papers upon whom it sits in judgement.
Sometimes fake news was harmless, funny fakery like swearing budgies. But then other times it was damaging, hateful fiction - The Truth about Hillsborough that was anything but, or false allegations made against Elton John based on nothing more than Mackenzie's appalling bigotry, which cost his paper a fortune in the courts and him ultimately his job (Rupert doesn't mind if you offend an entire, grieving community, but he does if you cost him cold, hard cash...).
It's always been thus. As a cub reporter I worked for a press agency in the north (from where the budgie story above comes), and I can name a handful of stories we wrote that were plain fiction, and countless others we knew of which were written by others. Most of them were harmless, and were often blessed by the subject, who was seeking to sell or plug something or other.
I sensed a potential classic of the genre recently. Chris Ostwald opened a shop in Muswell Hill selling English memorabilia and called it Really British. He then claimed local residents were boycotting and rubbishing it because it was deemed racist. The tabloids frothed with fury. Political Correctness gone mad! Can't a bloke flog a teddy bear dressed as a Beefeater without triggering lefty snowflakes?
But peer closely and there were no quotes, no evidence of these accusations. Just the words of Chris, who had just opened a shop and was no stranger to publicity. And, as it turns out, was only happy to pose for a photo wearing and holding half his goods, in front of shelves full of yet more of his goods, with a wacky 'Look at me face! Buy my gear!' face which did not suggest a man who had been pilloried and picked on by the local liberals.
That wasn't a harmless story. It fitted the agenda of many newspapers, and the myth of Britishness besieged and under threat. And it's in that genre where newspaper fake news has had the greatest impact.
The most famous example is Brussels banning bendy bananas. Legend has it Boris Johnson made that one up, but it's been repeated in so many news stories that some poor sap on Question Time cited it as real grounds for her belief we should exit the EU.
Another even more insidious and harmful example was The Sun's infamous front page about asylum seekers eating swans in 2003. It involved animal cruelty - always believed to sell papers - as well as the chance for some crude racial stereotyping and to demonise the other.
In contrast to The Sun hacks who dreamt it up, Serbian journalist Nic Medic dug deep and discovered the story was wholly untrue. The Sun were unable to provide any evidence at all to back their story up. The PCC – before it was rebadged as IPSO – agreed it was totally unfounded and faced with this shocking instance of fake news, which had already entered public lore, took the brave and principled step of demanding they remedy this front page piece of fakery by... publishing a 'clarification' on page 41.
I can already hear people saying this kind of fake story is old news. Things have changed, post Leveson. Yet The Sun recently printed a damaging false allegation which implied a train crash had had been caused by the driver fasting for Ramadan, a story which gained great traction on social media.
Meanwhile, last December The Daily Mail (who once had to pay significant damages to a refugee for falsely accusing him of eating hamburgers during a hunger strike) had to apologise to a Muslim family for a piece which claimed US security had been right to stop them travelling to Disneyland because they were extremists with links to Al Qaeda. Katie Hopkins called them liars. The paper had to admit the family weren't weren't extremists, had no links to Al Qaeda at all, weren't liars and reportedly paid them £150,000 damages.
But this was almost a year after the story had gone around the world. The family might not have got on a plane, but the story false story smearing them had and it travelled fast.
There are numerous other examples, historic and recent. Yet, it seems, the Culture Select Committee won't hear evidence of it, even if these stories carry far more weight, and have far more impact, than stories conjured in dark corners of the web. Many also newspapers have websites, which have an insatiable hunger for titillating, clickworthy stories, true or not.
I doubt fake news will ever be stamped out. Some stories are too good for some to care whether they're true and the 'lob it in' ethos will always be there. But a serious inquiry into how fabricated news can mislead the public would examine all sources.
And perhaps then it might judge that the best solution is an independent regulator whose kitemark or badge, or whatever you want to call it, marked out those websites and newspapers which care about accuracy to differentiate themselves from the fakers and Dacres.