As it wakes up to a new era of tougher press regulation this morning, the British media has something else to worry about – the king of hoaxers Joey Skaggs is making a movie.
Worse, the film will include the duping of the media in what the veteran prankster describes as “a very complicated and elaborate performance”.
But surely this new stunt can’t be as embarrassing as the last time the New York hippie turned over the British media? That memory of how so many news organisations fell for Skaggs’s creation “The Lyin’ King” must make Eamonn Holmes squirm even now, 18 years later.
Skaggs had pitched up in London pretending to be Baba Wa Simba, the son of American missionaries who had been killed and eaten by lions in Kenya. But Simba had found a way to deal with his grief and “heal the animal within”, a philosophy he took to inner-city youth around the world by encouraging them to crawl around on all fours, growling and eating meat off the floor.
At least that was in the press release, which offered a “Last chance to see the real Lion King and experience empowerment through roaring”. Numerous high-profile news organisations fell for the prank and sent reporters down to the church hall which Skaggs had hired. Eamonn Holmes introduced GMTV’s report, in which a reporter enthusiastically crawled around, making guttural noises. Simba was invited into the studios of Sky News, where the presenters roared away and told viewers, “It really makes you feel good."
And now Skaggs will bring those humiliating moments to a new audience as part of a film documentary provisionally titled Art of the Prank. Among the other creations in Skaggs’s film archive are “Dr Josef Gregor” (inventor of a cockroach hormone that gave protection against radiation) and “Joe Bones” (head of a military trained $300-a-day Fat Squad for shadowing dieters and physically restraining them from eating junk food). The latter story fooled the New York Daily News and the Good Morning America TV show.
Another stunt involved Dr Joseph Chenango, a Native American surgeon and founder of “Hair Today”, who was advertising for “healthy scalps” to combat baldness.
In London for the Advertising Week Europe festival, Skaggs, 68, says he hopes his work leads people “to question authority and not to believe everything you see, read or listen to”. The film “will enable me to document my archive and to share it”.
Skaggs was rounding up flash mobs in 1968, when he mocked bourgeois voyeurism of alternative lifestyles by taking his own coach party of hippies out to suburban New York where they took photographs of locals on their lawns. He was hoaxing internet users as early as 1993 with a virtual reality prank called “Sexonics”. “They flamed me – they thought they were in a safe place where everything on the internet was true.”
The New Yorker says he admires Banksy for embodying a similar spirit. “He’s a talented artist with a message and he uses public places like I do.”
Since the 9/11 attacks Skaggs has had to reform his methods – in 1998 he had claimed to have discovered a “virus worse than ebola”.
And although he admits sadness at the resourcing problems of much of the modern news media, he has new targets – Facebook and Google. “If you were aware of how your privacy was being invaded you might be more cautious about the information you give out,” he says. “We need people who are more media literate.”
Joey Skaggs speaks at the Advertising Week Europe festival today at 1pm, Bafta, London.