Pied Piper of Mischief leads the red tops on a merry dance
Chris Atkins tells Paul Bignell of his disciples' desire to continue planting fake stories
Sunday 15 August 2010
Film director Chris Atkins appears to have a death wish – having already taken on the collective might of tabloid newspapers, PR guru Max Clifford and Bob Geldof.
Atkins was the brains behind Starsuckers, a documentary which held the British tabloid press up to ridicule last year, in part by offering fake stories to the red-tops, many of which ended up in print. "The tabs hate me," he says. "After the news about my film broke, a friend warned me if I'm seen in pubs near Wapping, I'm likely to get my head kicked-in. They also sent some hacks to doorstep me. Pity they went to the wrong house."
As a filmmaker, he was nominated for a Bafta in 2008 for his debut, Taking Liberties, which attacked the Blair government for eroding our freedom. More recently, he faked an urban fox hunting video, duping most national newspapers and the BBC, which he says led to him receiving threats and a £2,000 reward being offered for his unmasking.
After Starsuckers was released, the Oxford graduate produced a website to accompany the film. One section offered a "how to" guide to anyone who wanted to earn a bit of cash by selling fake stories. It apparently inspired the appearance of a number of recent stories in the press which were, simply, confections. If, for example, you thought that Girls Aloud's Sarah Harding held a late-night séance, or that singer Pixie Lott broadened her mind by reading Descartes before going on stage, more fool you.
The stories, published in the Daily Star, but also replicated by other papers and websites, were the work of a handful of students, inspired by the Pied Piper of Mischief. "I kind of forgot all about the 'fake stories' because we were being sued by the News of the World and Bob Geldof was trying to shut us down," said Atkins from his home in east London. "They faded into the background because we were fighting all these other battles. Then, about five months later, I got the first email from one of the students, saying 'I've read your guide, I'm going to do this'."
One of those emails said "if you look in tomorrow's Daily Star you should see a nice wee story about Nicola Roberts [another Girls Aloud member] trying to pee in a urinal while drunk at a party. We got paid £150 for it so thank you very much for the idea." However, the Daily Star ran a retraction the day following publication after Roberts's PR team complained.
Atkins also received two more emails from members of the public saying they were going to do the same. "It was basically all young people who were just skint, had watched the movie and decided they could do that."
Another story made it into the Daily Star, about Lott's rider demands, which included colouring crayons, A3 paper and, more bizarrely, a globe and French philosopher René Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy.
Surely the tabloids should have picked up on the Chris Morris-esque absurdity of the story? "You have to be canny when deciding what to write," he says. "The tabloids are looking for an unusual twist. If you provide them with that twist, they're more likely to run the story and they're more likely to give you money.
"This brings the issue down to a basic paradox: the less true the story is, the more likely they are to run it and therefore the more money you're going to get, so the more likely you are to make things up."
But does he believe he can change the way the tabloids operate?
"The idea with this was if enough people phone up The Sun, for example, and say 'I saw Pixie Lott levitating across the Thames' and the journalists say 'hang on, is this one of these hoaxes?' then we've kind of done them a favour if they stop printing nonsense because of this."
But he says there is a bigger point: "We all know Gordon Smart will be the next editor of The Sun, because Dominic Mohan ran the Bizarre Column and now he's running The Sun. Andy Coulson and Piers Morgan similarly ran the Bizarre column – and look where they are. I wouldn't mind if they just carried on writing nonsense, but in two years' time, Smart will be deciding who to back to run the country.
"What happens is, in the two or three years working on the celebrity desk, their desire for the truth as a concept is surgically extracted from their brains. They stop caring what the truth is. Then they get to write about WMDs," says Atkins, with only the merest hints of irony.
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