Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies and Internet Satire

Much has been made lately of the fact that a group of film makers were able to persuade several British tabloids to publish a number of fake stories about celebrities. Over a two week period The Mirror, The Sun, The Daily Star and Daily Express had all run completely fabricated stories about the likes of Avril Lavigne, Russell Brand and Amy Winehouse, pitched to them by the makers of the film Starsuckers, posing as members of the public. Some of the stories were subsequently picked up by other media outlets and reproduced, as fact, around the world. For those of us who have spent the last few years writing satire on the web, the only reaction to the news that much of the world's media is happy to print patently fake news stories without ever checking their origin, was to collectively shrug our shoulders and ask 'So what?' There's hardly a satire website out there that hasn't had at least one of its stories picked up by a 'legitimate' news source and reported as if it were factual.

Speaking personally, I've had numerous TV researchers contact me trying to arrange interviews with various fictional characters from stories I've run in The Sleaze. I've twice been invited onto TV discussion programmes, once with stalker-to-the-stars Cynthia Flitter from Diary of a Stalker, and once with Maurice Gink, the purveyor of home-made sex machines from Suburban Sex Machines. Lest anyone think that such requests only come from low-rent independent production companies turning out low-budget tabloid-type 'documentaries' for cable and satellite channels, I was also invited onto a BBC local radio station to discuss the 'Canonisation for Cash' scandal related in Saints Alive.

But should we be pleased that we've succeeded in taking in the supposed professionals? Should we be celebrating our victory in seemingly having achieved one of our aims as satirists, namely exposing the stupidity and fallibility of the mainstream media? Whilst I should probably feel flattered that my writing skills are apparently such that they can convince supposedly intelligent media industry insiders that even the most ludicrous stories are true, I strongly suspect that my 'success' is due less to my abilities as a satirist, and more down to a general lowering of journalistic standards. Can we really have reached the stage where carrying out a Google search for a couple of key words vaguely related to the subject matter of the story you are working on, is what passes for research? Are the critical faculties of researchers and journalists so poor that the fact that a story appears on a website entitled The Sleaze doesn't start alarm bells ringing?

Of course, the established media would doubtless point out that most of the fake stories in question concern celebrities and fall into the category of gossip rather than news stories. They are carried in the entertainment pages where surely, they would argue, readers would understand that everything should be taken with a pinch of salt - it's only a bit of fun, for goodness sake! Which is fine, except that they label themselves as 'news' publications, meaning that readers have a right to expect that the same standards of validation should apply to all of their content. Indeed, one thing that writing satire on the web has taught me is that a frighteningly large number of readers accept what they read at face value - so long as it appears in a vaguely professional looking format - on the assumption that those presenting it to them must have ensured its veracity before publication. If the mainstream media want to enter the fake news business in competition with us, all well and good. But they should at least have the decency to follow our lead and rebrand themselves as 'satire' publications, then at least we'll have a level playing field when it comes to selling lies to the public!

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