Fuel to the fire

Chris Atkins, the independent film maker who played a number of news hoaxes to help raise awareness about churnalism, writes a guest post describing what he did and how he did it

It was just under a month ago when the Media Standards Trust challenged me to raise awareness of churn in the press, to help promote a new public interest online service they were launching – churnalism.com. This wonderful new website would expose news churned from press releases. After a year banging on about this in the dark, I needed very little persuading when they knocked on my door. I could also see that they were going to have an uphill struggle making the public aware of the site, as the very same media institutions that are responsible for regurgitating all this PR were hardly going to turn around and embrace something that will expose the practice. But if I could get some fake stories out there based on unchecked press releases, it might give the website launch the news hook it needed.

My 2009 film Starsuckers took an angry swipe at most of the media establishment, and particularly targeted newspapers that ran stories without checking facts. Since then I’ve screened the film at dozens of cinemas, universities and schools, and I always get asked what could we do to change the desperate state of our media institutions. My stock three answers are:

1)    Fire every TV commissioner everywhere immediately.
2)    Abolish the PCC.
3)    Create a rule that whenever journalists source their stories from a press release, they have to declare it in the byline. As “advertorials” must disclose that’s what they are, the same should apply if the article is based on PR.

The last one usually elicits a loud gasp from any hacks or PRs in the audience. Press releases becoming news is a dirty secret in news media that neither side wants the poor public who pay their salaries becoming aware of.

So the challenge I set myself was simple but daunting: see if I could get some fake press releases printed in the run up to Valentine’s Day, which is traditionally a free-for-all for getting press releases into news. From experience of hoaxing the press in Starsuckers, I knew that the key to this was quantity. Despite your best efforts, you never know what stories will be picked up and what will be ignored, so to maximise our chances we had to do this on an industrial scale. It was also important to give them a very thin veneer of credibility, which would collapse after some very basic digging.

The first thing was to build some websites. A lot of websites. Fortunately I’m a closet geek, and I know quite a lot of other geeks who are always looking for an opportunity to bring down the Matrix. So I made a quick call to Disturb Media and they agreed to knock up a site that would look like a bog standard PR company. Without any prodding from me, the Disturb guys decided to make the logo for the fake PR co. by heavily pixelating Rupert Murdoch’s face, which made me laugh anyway. Slight problem was that this new PR co. could not pretend to have any real clients, as it would have been a big legal no-no to pretend that we worked for Tesco and RBS. So instead we just put up some pretentious waffle about ‘global culture and technology gaining momentum in cyberspace’ on the PR co. website. Two whole hours later, and the new company was online.

But the dummy press releases needed to push a product, so we also needed another bunch of fake companies with websites which would hire our PR co. to get coverage. More geeks came forward and within a few days we had set up a series of websites, ready and waiting to fool Fleet Street’s finest. I had a chat with my long-suffering lawyer, Razi at Simons Muirhead and Burton, who confirmed that as long as we didn’t libel anyone we were on pretty safe ground. “What if the Daily Mail try to sue as they’ve printed a load of nonsense based on what I’ve fed them?”, I asked. “Bring it on”, was the response.

The first attempt died on its arse. We created a fake legal advisory service – whatever that is – that then issued a press release with the results of a made up survey, showing the day after Valentine’s is the busiest day of the year for divorce lawyers, as couples decide to throw in the towel. We wrote it up for londonlegals.com, and I spent a fairly mind-numbing morning emailing it out to every national newspaper. We then called up the newsdesks asking to see if they had got it, using those crucial few seconds to ‘sell in’ the story. PRs will tell you that the trick is to get the individual email of whoever is on the newsdesk, rather than having it go through the funnel of the generic desk email. It was clear after a few dozen phone calls that we were not the only PRs trying to get our Valentine’s releases printed, and I soon felt like a double glazing salesman as newsdesk after newsdesk put the phone down on me. I also felt very sorry for the hacks whose unfortunate job it is to sit on the desk being harassed by PRs, and me, all day.

Our divorce story was picked up by precisely no-one. A quick look at Google explained why – there were stacks of other very similar churned stories doing the rounds. Perhaps if our legal company actually existed, and maybe if our new PR co. had bought some journalists a damn fine lunch, we might have been in business. So we had to up our game, and it seemed that the best way to do it was with a story with some more… pizzazz.

So we decided to start selling in our next release on the male version of the vajazzle – the penazzle. My mate Dan knocked up a website for Male Beauty Direct in a couple of hours using mrsite.com. We sent out a release that said decorating the male nether regions with diamanté diamonds was becoming the next big thing. This time Dan did the pitching, and as this was much more unusual than a boring legal survey, it seemed to grab the attention of lots of the newsdesks. Unexpectedly, shortly after he spoke to Harry Wallop at the Telegraph we suddenly saw a lot of commotion about the penazzle on Twitter. It seemed that Harry had been on the receiving end of hundreds of bullshit Valentine’s press releases and ours had pushed him over the edge. He tweeted: ‘OMG. A Valentine’s press release too far: “Beauty craze sweeps the nation: the male version of the Vajazzle – the Penazzle”‘, which led to dozens of his 7,000 followers demanding to know what the hell the penazzle was. Shortly afterwards Harry was named the number one journalist to follow on Twitter and declared ‘it’s the penazzle tweets that did it’.

It was fascinating to see how even negative coverage like Harry’s helped our profile, as when Dan continued to sell through the story he was able to point out that the Penazzle was all over Twitter, which helped arouse newsdesks’ interest further. Dan was delighted when by the end of the day, The Sun confirmed they would definitely run with the story. The next morning we dashed to the newsagents to see that, sure enough, on page 12 was an article headlined ‘Nobbies Dazzlers’. The text nicely mentioned malebeautydirect.com, and a quick reference to the churn engine showed that 45% of the copy was lifted directly from my press release. It was both a powerful and terrifying feeling, knowing that I could bash out some gibberish text and hours later have it appear verbatim in Britain’s largest selling newspaper.

Thanks to this splash, and Harry Wallop’s tweeting, the penazzle craze went on to get a nice mention in Suzanne Moore’s column in The Guardian that Saturday, as well as in the Sunday Mirror’s Celebs on Sunday. The story has now gone full circle, and I understand that following the reveal of our news stunt and the launch of churnalism.com, The Sun have said they are doing a feature on the penazzle, and are asking Harry and The Guardian’s head of media, Dan Sabbagh, to model one.

Our resolve strengthened, we set about plugging my greatest invention so far – the chastity garter. This completely fabricated device sits on a lady’s thigh, and sends out a text message to her partner if she is getting aroused. I learnt from my urban fox hunting stunt that you can get the papers to print literally any babbling nonsense you want, as long as it fits into an ongoing narrative. I had recently heard a journalist complain bitterly that every day the entire staff at his publication was being sent emails demanding stories about gypsies, following the overwhelming success of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. So I decided to hang my story on the gypsies, and declared in the title of the press release that the chastity garter was popular among the traveller community, and Premiership footballers for good measure. I couldn’t help also inserting that the garter had been on Dragons’ Den last year, and I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to Evan Davis for besmirching his quality show.

We set about selling in the garter story, and found it a real uphill battle. The Daily Mail newsdesk listened impatiently to the story, and snorted “Gypsies!?” at us – and then promptly hung up. The Daily Star turned us down, saying “it sounds pretty disgusting” which is something of an honour from the paper which endorsed the EDL that same week. At the end of the day it seemed that, despite having photos of the gorgeous Sinhead pouting in the garter, this wasn’t going to fly. As a last throw of the dice I called up a Midlands-based news agency. I’d heard that it might be easier to get copy churned via newswires, and after pitching the release to the editor he seemed delighted to pump out my press release on the wires. In fact he was so hot for the story he even asked for exclusive rights to interview the fictional couple who created the garter for potential magazine interviews.

Now that the text had the legitimacy of a news agency, the story flew right back down to London to the same newsdesks who had turned the story down before. Ironically it was the two papers who had rejected it most strongly, the Mail and the Star, who both leapt on it with most gusto once it appeared on the wire. The story first went up on the Daily Mail website, with 40% of the copy lifted from the release. It got a full page in the Daily Star the next day, and thanks to the Mail web story – the most-read UK newspaper site – it flew round the world. The regurgitated copy appeared in the news in Malta, Germany, Croatia, Serbia, Florida, India (a lot), Pakistan, Israel and on several US sites. What really made my day was the Ron Burgundy-esque US TV news report that happily read out my press release to God knows how many Americans over their morning coffee.

The lesson from the garter story was that newdesks rightly view press releases with impatience and suspicion, whereas if we sent the same copy to a news agency they’d copy it onto the newswires, where it will be received with open arms by the desks. By the time I finished this marathon hoax, I had news agencies calling our fake PR co. up, hassling us for more of our wonderful stories.

For my next tale I decided to hijack the media tsunami surrounding The King’s Speech, which if you haven’t heard is a film about a man who’s cured of a stammer. Stories about this film have regularly challenged the Middle East uprisings for space in our national press, so I cooked up a yarn that would feed into hacks’ desperation to put yet another photo of Colin Firth on their sites. Having run out of geeks, I designed what is probably the worst website in the world for a Midlands-based speech therapist. I then wrote a press release about a fantastical tale of a man who had a chronic stammer, but on seeing the movie decided he wanted to be cured so he could propose to his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day without stammering. So he hired the services of Sue Booth, whose unorthodox methods included making him punch a toy monkey and make him shout over a vacuum cleaner. I decided it was time to change tactics, and posed as a ‘freelance journalist’ who was tipping off the newspapers, and for good measure sent it onto the ever eager newswires as well. Any PRs out there take note: you get a much kinder reception on the newdesks if you call in pretending to be a fellow hack with a juicy lead than if you are up front about being a PR. The ruse worked, and the copy appeared in the Star and the Metro along with the requisite photo of Colin Firth.

So we had our 3 stories – the penazzle, the chastity garter and the k-k-k-King’s speech. A worthy haul with a handful of Fleet Street’s big guns scalped. I went to Paul Lewis at The Guardian, best known for his excellent crowdsourced reporting on the G20 Ian Tomlinson story. Thankfully The Guardian are big enough to run a story like this, despite it attacking the press. Everything was teed up and I set about editing a video covering our exploits.

Then I woke up in the middle of the night with Larry, the new Downing Street cat, in my head. This was a narrative to end all narratives, and I knew from my fox hunting escapade that the press go berserk for anything about animals; as an old newsman once said to me, “Dogs can’t sue.” Larry had come to Downing Street from Battersea Dogs and Cats home, but I remembered reading that he had arrived at Battersea as a stray. Despite us running full pelt to do The Guardian reveal, I couldn’t let the cat story go. I also remembered Martin Moore had said that churnalism could be from anywhere – press releases, websites, even Facebook groups…

So I asked my sister in law (who has about 11 cats at the last count) to trawl the internet looking for a picture of a similar moggy to Larry. I then posted this on a cat forum under a pseudonym, saying that this was a photo of the Downing Street cat who previously belonged to my aunt. Over 40 posts appeared pointing out all the different tiny markings between my cat and Larry. I took the photo and these terrifyingly pedantic cat comments round to my neighbour Charlie, who works as a visual effects artist on Doctor Who. Within hours he had photoshopped my internet cat to look identical to Larry. I then set up a Facebook group under the guise of ‘Tim Sutcliffe’ who was demanding that ‘Jo’ the cat be returned to his dear Aunt Marge. I sent out a covert email to my mates, basically begging them to add all their mates to the group. Facebook scarily lets you do this, so within hours several hundred friends of friends had unwittingly been signed up to the campaign. About two hours later the Daily Mail caught wind of it (I didn’t tip them off – promise!) and ‘Tim Sutcliffe’ received the following menacing message:

Dear Tim,

I work as a journalist for the Daily Mail website and we are going to run a story about the campaign to get Jo back.

I am intending to write the story using what you have already put on the group’s page including the details and updates from both yourself and your Aunt.

Additionally, we are also intending to take the pictures from the campaign page of the cat and your aunt.

Please reply as soon as possible. If I do not hear anything I will write the story based on what is already here.

Best Regards,

[A reporter]

Daily Mail online

In other words, ‘we’re going to take everything and use it however we want no matter what you say, even if you don’t say anything at all’ – nice. In under an hour the story appeared on the Mail’s website and started winging its way around the globe as the fictional garter had done. ‘Tim’ was then bombarded with messages from the Mirror, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Breakfast and ITV Daybreak, none of which we answered. To be fair they were all looking for corroboration as well as exclusives, and none of these outlets ran the story.

Except for BBC Radio 5 Live.

Literally an hour before The Guardian were about to break their reveal online, we were treated to the hilarious musings of Gabby Logan and her team on the story, in a prominent slot just before the news. Later, Paul Lewis’s excellent article appeared on the Guardian website, alongside my video telling the story of the stunt. And foolishly we thought that would kill the cat story dead.

But the dead cat story bounced. We hadn’t factored in the British media’s love of pet stories, even after the story had been revealed as a hoax on the front of a national newspaper website. The story took up the whole of page 3 of the Daily Mail’s first edition the following day, and I awoke to a message for ‘Tim’ from BBC Radio Norfolk. As the reveal had already been on the Guardian website for 12 hours, I couldn’t resist calling them up in character to rant about ‘my aunt’s’ cat, especially as Norfolk is the home of Alan Partridge. The clip is on YouTube if you want to hear me claiming Auntie Marge will go on hunger strike unless her cat is returned.

As I write this post, the cat story is still being regurgitated on various news sites, and God knows how far it would have travelled if The Guardian hadn’t burst the bubble mid-hoax. But my ego aside, the most important thing is that the MST have got some excellent coverage for Churnalism.com, which is already being used to shame news organisations left right and centre. And I know that if I fail as a film maker, I can always get a job selling garters.