Pranks for the memories

Whenever a media organisation is duped by a hoax story, there is barely-concealed Schadenfreude on the part of its rivals. Yet it happens quite often. John Byrne reports on some of the more stellar pranks that have come down the wire

1. The Taking of CHRIST

Perhaps the Irish Independent fact-checking team was on holiday. Nobody checked whether there was any truth in the claim, splashed on the front of the Irish Independent on 31 July 2003, that the Italian Prime Minister had demanded the return of Caravaggio's 'The Taking of Christ', one of the main attractions in the National Gallery.

Allegedly, Berlusconi had a shortlist of great Italian works that he wanted returned to their homeland, and "one that I would very much like to see returned is Caravaggio's 'The Taking of Christ'".

Unfortunately, the whole thing was made up by internet conmen. Imagine their joy when they sent the biggest-selling broadsheet paper in Ireland into a front-page rage.

"The Taking of Christ – no Silvio, you can't have it back", blasted one headline. The editorial also berated the Italian Prime Minister. "Mr Berlusconi is a xenophobic clown who rose in the world by abusing his power as a media tycoon… even in the rapacious world of the 21st century his greed is astounding."

An apology to the Italian government was run in the Independent a short time later.

2. Bhopal and the BBC

Earlier this year, a "Jude Finisterra" from Dow Chemicals made a statement on BBC television: his company was taking full responsibility for the deaths of thousands of people who had been killed or harmed by the Bhopal explosion in India in the mid 1980s. A multi-million dollar fund was to be set-up for victims, he said. As a result of the declaration, $2bn was wiped from the company's share value.

In 1984, 7,000 people were killed when a Dow's pesticide factory (then owned by Union Carbide) in the city of Bhopal, India leaked huge amounts of cyanide gas.

Around 15,000 more died in the following years and around 100,000 others are still suffering from chronic and debilitating illnesses.

Union Carbide denied it was their fault, although in 1989, they paid $470 million in a settlement with the Indian government. The victims of the catastrophe are still campaigning for justice and proper compensation.

But "Jude Finisterra" was an imposter, part of a group of American hoaxers called "The Yes Men". "The BBC was not our target. Dow was," he later told The Guardian. The BBC retracted the initial report and said it had been the victim of an "elaborate deception".

3. the Galloway libel trial

In April 2003, a Daily Telegraph reporter was rooting around in the rubble of the destroyed Iraqi foreign ministry when he found some orange boxes marked "Britain". In them, he was to find documents which would lead to a sensational story: Galloping George Galloway, the anti-war Labour MP, was in the pay of Saddam Hussein, getting £375,000 to convince the world that the dictator was a great guy and that Iraq should not be invaded.

"Galloway in Saddam's pay, say secret Iraqi documents" said the Telegraph.

"Labour MP 'received at least £375,000 a year'; Cash came from oil-for-food programme." Their editorial was headed "Saddam's little helper", and in it: "There is a word for taking money from enemy regimes: treason."

Sadly, in the rush to get the scoop out, no effort was made to establish if the allegations in the documents were true, which they were not.

"The Daily Telegraph did not and would not perform a detailed investigation into their contents. Newspapers have neither the power nor the resources to carry out such an investigation in a war torn country" The Telegraph's lawyer said in the subsequent libel trial, as part of their attempt to use the "Reynolds defence" of qualified privilege.

The paper lost and Galloway got £150,000 plus costs.

4. The Zinoviev letter

In October 1924, a letter, supposedly from the head of Comintern, Grigori Zinoviev, was published by The Daily Mail. It appeared during the re-election campaign of Britain's first Labour Party government and urged members of the British Communist party to organise a revolt within the British army. The letter was fake, but the damage was done: it contributed to the downfall of that government, as it implied the the Labour Party were failing to deal with the threat of communism.

5. The Monaghan/ Iraq connection

"They say that truth is the first casualty of war," said respected UK news portal "Apparently not always. Common sense seems to have sustained a sucking chest wound in Gulf War II with the news that the New York Monaghan Association decided against carrying its traditional banner in the New York St Patrick's Day parade."

The reason was, apparently, that the outline map of Monaghan bears an uncanny resemblance to an outline map of Iraq, and this was upsetting New Yorkers.

"Association PRO John McKenna explains: 'We had been receiving some jeers and comments as we assembled for the parade in New York and we couldn't understand why. Until someone from the Louth Association pointed out the similarity.'"

But the whole incident was a fabrication, thought-up on Irish website and sent around to news organisations for fun. An embarrassed register had to detail the next day how they had been conned. "So great was our collective St Patrick's Day hangover that we'd failed to notice our maps of County Monaghan and Iraq were reversed, and were suggesting that allied forces bomb a defenceless and genteel corner of the Emerald Isle."

6. conman fakes his own death

Professional hoaxer Alan Abel famously launched the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals on US television in 1959.

For the next three years, he convinced news organisations and many members of the American public that he was sincere in his efforts to see all animals covered up by using slogans such as: "A nude horse is a rude horse". Scandalised Americans offered him donations for his society until he was eventually found out, but not before he had appeared on NBC News with Walter Chronkite.

He even managed to convince the New York Times that he was dead in 1980,which ran an obituary of him.p

This feature was written after the editor of this magazine wrote a column for The Irish Times based on a document about Lord Goldsmith's advice to the British government on the legality of the Iraq invasion. The document turned out to be a fake