Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Media Literacy
Submitted by Mark Borkowski:
Starsuckers celebrity hoax dupes tabloids
by Paul Lewis
14 October 2009
From ‘flamey’ Amy Winehouse to Russell Brand the banker, documentary team’s fake celebrity stories fooled editors
The plan to subvert the pages of some of Fleet Street’s bestselling newspapers was hatched in a windowless office in east London. For months, a team of documentary makers had sat in the Brick Lane film studio they called “the cell”, trawling through tabloid clippings in search of stories they could prove were untrue.
They decided to concoct an experiment to test their theory that tabloid editors sometimes publish celebrity stories with scant regard for the truth.
“We consumed a lot of coffee thinking about it,” said Chris Atkins, the director of the forthcoming film Starsuckers. “How can we do this intelligently? How can we prove our point? But how can we make it funny?”
Atkins and his producers decided the answer was to pose as members of the public and offer completely fictitious stories to the tabloid press about well-known figures. Their first call, on 18 March, concerned a fictional sighting of the Canadian singer Avril Lavigne asleep at the nightclub Bungalow 8.
The story appeared in the following day’s Daily Mirror under the headline: “Avril Lavigne a lightweight at London clubbing”. “After knocking back cocktails, the singer was found slumped across her table, snoring,” the story noted. “Lightweight!”
Within a fortnight, almost every daily tabloid newspaper in the UK had published one of the Starsuckers team’s bogus stories about the likes of Amy Winehouse, Pixie Geldof and Guy Ritchie. At times, the fake stories were reproduced by media outlets across the world, where they were presented to millions of readers as fact.
The Lavigne story was not run in the Daily Express, the Sun or the Daily Star, all of which had been called about it by the documentary team. But over the next fortnight, all four newspapers would be duped into publishing fabricated stories.
Starsuckers presents the experiment with fake stories as evidence that media organisations cannot be trusted to tell the truth.
That claim is likely to be contested by the newspaper industry when the film officially previews at the London film festival later this month. The editors the documentary team targeted may complain they were victims of the same kind of skulduggery the director will be claiming is rife in their newsrooms.
Atkins defended the ethics of his project, which he said was guided by a strict set of moral and legal ground rules.
He received no money for the fabricated news, for example, although he claims to have received promises of up to £600 payments.
His team researched the whereabouts of celebrities to ensure their invented stories had some credibility. But they said they were careful not to fabricate evidence to support their claims, or offer any corroboration.
They argue that the fabricated snippets of gossip were improbable enough to ensure tabloid editors had ample reason to check their veracity by calling the celebrity or their agent.
Using aliases such as “Gigi” and “Neve O’Looney” that, Atkins claims, should have rung alarm bells, the filmmakers called the “Got a story?” telephone numbers advertised in newspapers.
After one such call, the Daily Express ran a diary story about the comedian Russell Brand at the G20 protests in London. Quoting fabricated remarks from the Starsuckers caller on 3 April, the paper said Brand had “sheepishly confessed that when he was a little boy he once wanted to be a banker when he grew up and even had a toy Fisher-Price cash register”.
The following day, a fabricated story appeared in the Mirror’s gossip column about Pixie Geldof, the socialite daughter of Bob Geldof. Paraphrasing the hoax Starsuckers caller, the newspaper stated: “We’re told: ‘Pixie joked she didn’t know why her boobs had got bigger, then she pulled out a pick ‘n’ mix pack from her bra.’ Sweet.”
Atkins said he was most surprised to see the speed with which fabricated stories reappeared in other media outlets, apparently with no attempt at corroboration.
A story about singer Amy Winehouse’s hair catching fire from a faulty fuse spread across the world after it was printed in the Mirror on 21 March under the headline “Amy Winehouse in hair fire drama”. The Starsuckers researcher gave the newspaper fictional details of the story, which she said she had “heard” from an unnamed friend who was at the singer’s house.
“Fuses blew as Wino jammed with mates at the house in north London – and sparks lit up her beehive,” the Mirror reported. “We always knew you were a hothead, Amy.”
Two days later, the same story appeared in the Daily Star, which had also received a Starsuckers call, with an embellishment about how a friend of the singer “ended up punching flamey Amy’s head to put out the blaze”. It reappeared on several celebrity gossip websites, a New York Post blog and, eventually, the pages of the Times of India – the widest-circulation English-language newspaper in the world.
Similarly, a fabricated story about the film director Guy Ritchie receiving a black eye after “juggling clumsily with cutlery after one drink too many while dining with pals at Mayfair restaurant Scotts” was published in the Sun on 24 March and, days later, recycled in the Scunthorpe Telegraph.Atkins said the team’s greatest success was a fictional account about Sarah Harding, of the pop group Girls Aloud, published in the Sun’s flagship gossip section, Bizzare, on 2 April.
A Starsuckers researcher called the Sun pretending to be “Karys”, the wife of a removal man who had recently helped the singer move home. The reporter was told Harding owned a number of books on quantum physics and a telescope. “Maybe she’s really into astronomy or something, I dunno,” she said.
The Sun’s story, headlined “Sarah’s a real boffin”, claimed Harding was a “secret stargazer” who reads “mind-boggling books about astronomy and quantum physics”. It also contained a quote from “a source”, which, the Atkins team insists, did not come from them.
“There’s a lot more going on under that blonde barnet than Sarah’s given credit for,” the Sun’s source said. “She’s a smart cookie and does read an awful lot.”
Within hours, news of Harding’s apparent penchant for astronomy had spread across the internet, from the online site of Cosmopolitan magazine to Ankara, where the news was reported in Turkish Weekly.
Atkins said that not all the hoax stories succeeded, and that, on several occasions, invented snippets of gossip appeared in some newspapers but not others.
One, a far-fetched account about a plan by anticapitalist protesters to dump a tonne of sugar outside the private residence of Lord Alan Sugar, the millionaire businessman and presenter of the BBC show The Apprentice, was never printed, despite calls to the Daily Mail, Mirror and Sun.
The Daily Star, Daily Express, Daily Mirror and Sun declined the opportunity to comment on their publication of hoax stories.
Atkins defended his project, saying the onus was on the newspaper to corroborate what it publishes. “Had those fake stories been fact-checked by the newspapers before they were printed, they would have realised – I think within minutes – that they were about to publish complete and utter babble.”