Wednesday 20 September 2017

Spaghetti doesn't grow on trees, you know...

April Fool's Day has faded in an era of fake news
Spoof: BBC's 1957 documentary showing spaghetti being harvested from trees
Spoof: BBC's 1957 documentary showing spaghetti being harvested from trees

Damian Corless

For generations, this day was traditionally the busiest of the year for the switchboard operators of Dublin Zoo, as they've fielded endless calls seeking a Mr Albert Ross, Miss Anne Tellope or Mr C Lyons. Some years back, Belfast Zoo felt so pestered that they published data showing that crank calls slump when April Fool's Day falls outside of office working days.

That hallowed ritual, according to Dublin Zoo, "is no longer an issue". And while the zoo staff are no doubt delighted, it's also a sad sign that April Fool's Day is not what it used to be. The world has moved on at breakneck speed. We've entered an age of so-called 'Fake News', 'Alternative Facts' and information overload that makes it harder by the day to tell truth from spoof. Overwhelmed, at times it hard to even bother trying.

As recently as the 1990s, people awoke on April 1 looking forward to the challenge of detecting the bogus stories planted in the media. Commonly concocted by beery journos, the hoaxes were sparsely rationed and, properly hatched, the best could send the country haywire.

Joe Duffy showed how when he broke the joyous news that troubled Croatia had withdrawn from the Euro '96 football finals, making way for Big Jack's Ireland to take part. In a flash hordes swamped the FAI's switch for tickets. Mass euphoria quickly turned to mass outrage.

In 1997 weatherman Brendan McWilliams invited the public to hit the local hills and mountains for the rare spectacle of watching the Ozone Hole passing directly overhead. Many did, to scour the skies for an invisible hole, and the next day the Met Éireann man was Public Enemy No 1. One unhappy camper fumed: "I am livid."

He was not so livid as Taoiseach Seán Lemass in April 1965 when a newspaper ran an editorial headed 'Staggering'. It berated Lemass for saying he would ban drink by enforcing US-style Prohibition here. Fianna Fáil were popularly known as "the publican party" and their leader went ballistic, saying the paper had "passed under the control of a group of Crypto-Reds" bent on destroying Ireland. He assured worried boozers: "Fianna Fáil liberated the licencing laws and that is our policy."

But the democratisation of the media has put April Fool's Day on the endangered list. Who's going to give a second glance to a plausible yarn about the passing ozone hole, when we're swamped 24/7 with stuff like Donald Trump's latest big idea to make firearms compulsory, or Kim Kardashian's plans to give birth to the first moon-baby?

Before the IT revolution, nearly all the biggest and best pranks were generated by media professionals. Now the tables have been turned with amateur hoaxers targeting the 'real' media with fake stories, and not just on one special day of the year but 365. One outlet left with a very eggy face was the Oirish edition of a British tabloid which reprinted an internet spoof claiming that US authorities arrested an Irish sister and brother as terrorists after overhearing them speak as Gaeilge. Blissfully unaware that it had been had, the paper followed up on its bogus report by making up an "exclusive interview" with the two non-existent siblings.

A great spoof from 15 years back reported "Eircom pledges cheap-rate calls for Irish speakers". Back then it was clearly daft if you thought about it. Today, readers would just take it for granted. While the daddy of all pranks remains the BBC's 1957 documentary showing spaghetti being harvested from trees, it was run close by an elaborate 1977 seven-page Guardian travel supplement on the joys of San Seriffe, a group of tropical islands in the shape of a semi-colon. A map of San Seriffe (a typeface) showed every feature was named in printers' jargon. The PR blurb praised how democracy had been "in part successful", while photos celebrated "the many beaches from which terrorism has been virtually eliminated".

They don't make 'em like that anymore.

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