Charles Nevin: It takes a good hoax to reveal a vital truth

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The Independent Online

Cynicism, I have observed, is a charge often levelled at journalists. Which is odd, as any time spent in the trade almost daily demonstrates that there are many things new and at first sight incredible under (and indeed often in) the sun.

Only last week, for example, we had the world's tallest man using his arm to remove alien objects from the stomachs of two dolphins, and the even more remarkable coincidence of Mr Blair being interviewed by police about the tedious minutiae of his peerage dispositions on the very same day the Government announced that it was halting inquiries into allegedly corrupt arm sales, closing 2,500 post offices and backing new runways at Heathrow and Stansted, all of it overshadowed by the news that Mrs Betty Hamilton of St Austell has kept a Christmas pudding on the top of her television since 1992 to improve reception, David Beckham has sent Nelson Mandela a copy of his autobiography for Christmas, and the results of the Princess Diana inquiry.

Explain that, please, conspiracists. And there was another amazing piece of news, too: the announcement on Belgian television that the King and Queen had fled in a helicopter following a unilateral declaration of independence by Flanders. International opinion remains divided as to which was the more startling, the announcement, or the revelation that it was a hoax.

Now, I am not one of those who falls into the lazy cliché of labelling Belgium dull. Far from it. To those misguided believers in a lack of Belgian celebrity, I am able to offer, off the bat, Audrey Hepburn, Samson the TV dog and Edward de Smedt, the inventor of asphalt. Over the years, I have also chronicled such achievements as the construction of the world's largest bag of chips, 1.5 tons in an 11-foot-high cone, at Kelmis, near Liège; and reported on personalities like Piet Satter, below, possessor of the second-longest moustache in Europe, and Jo Lernout, the burst dotcom bubbler and inventor of a robotic guinea pig.

You, naturally, will be wondering if these are also examples of the famous Belgian sense of humour. My response is that the chips were checked, the moustache was measured, and, to be absolutely honest, I haven't heard much about the robotic guinea pig recently.

The important thing is that the Belgians have used the Flanders hoax to make a serious point, enlivened an important but dry debate, and brought simmering resentments between the Walloons and the Flemish to a useful boil. Hoaxes, as our friend Borat shows, reveal better than any other ploy some vital truths, especially the importance of their happening to someone else.

They do have to be funny, though. I'm not sure, for example, how well it would go down if Lord Stevens announced later today that he'd been joking and that the Duke of Edinburgh, far from being innocent, was, in fact, the head of an ancient, secret and completely ruthless organisation now in complete control of Harvey Nichols.

And, in this as so much else, timing is all: let the joke run on too long, and you risk irretrievably alienating the hoaxed, who will have serious trouble retaining their sense of humour, particularly if unexpected consequences arise. That is why I should now like the Supreme Court to stop, finally, larking about and announce that, all right, Al Gore won, really.

Paris gets her just dessert

Spokespeople have a thankless task: derided, mistrusted, caught between the fierce, opposing forces of disclosure, privacy, self and wider interest and, oh, yes, truth. To watch the face of Tony Snow, President Bush's man, is to know the anguish the job can bring. That's why I applaud some outstanding recent efforts.

First, the Bishop of Soutwark's spokesperson: "Part of any bishop's role is to be out in the community and meeting with people, so what he has done on this night was nothing unusual."

Second, a spokesman for Paris Hilton, left, on the white substance spotted in her nostril at a restau-rant: "I'd label it a stray dessert." Splendid.

I also liked Tony Blair's chap, David Hill, early on Thursday re the possibility of the boss having a chat with the law: "Look, nothing is happening. I think that's pretty unequivocal". Unequivocal! Inspired!

* While welcoming the current popularity of books packed with fascinating facts, I am slightly wary of The Book of General Ignorance, derived from Stephen Fry's BBC quiz show, QI. Some people find QI 's corrections of popular misconceptions a touch smug; I lament the threat to all those delightful nuggets of lore that I have never dared check for fear they might not be so. Current favourites include: 1. Before deciding on Tiny Tim, Dickens was considering calling the little chap Puny Pete. 2. A vicar wrote to Darwin suggesting he should publish a book on pigeons instead, because "everyone is interested in pigeons". 3. Coco Chanel used to pop over from Cap d'Antibes in her flying boat to stay at the Midland Hotel, Morecambe. Please get in touch only if they're true, as I should hate them to be Fryed. I also made the mistake last week of checking to see if the Mayor of London still keeps newts, but, thankfully, there has so far been no reply.