Chinese Whispers

Paul Gascoigne didn’t die yesterday. I know this to be a bone-fide insurmountable irrefutable fact because so many people were contacting the radio station to insist that he had.

The rumours first reached the office at about 4pm on Wednesday afternoon. People who might be in a position to know about such matters contacted us to know if we had heard anything ourselves. We hadn’t, which should ordinarily have been enough to put such suspicion to bed, but given that everyone is in agreement that such a circumstance could easily arise at any time, it was clearly something that had to be investigated.

We spent the next hour or so working out just how we would react in such circumstances and what the consequences for the evening plans would be were such news to be announced. Then the phonecalls came through, it had been checked out and was found to be a myth. A rumour, generated apparently by people putting two and two together and coming up with seven. We relaxed and carried on as normal.

Of course if we in the media had come across the unfounded rumours it was more or less inevitable that the same would be true in the “real world”, never more so than on a night when many football matches were being played. Nothing travels faster than a terrace rumour and so by 9.30pm it seemed as if every football fan in the country had heard the rumours. Suddenly we were inundated with texts and calls from people either seeking the confirmation that they were mysteriously not hearing on air, or to be the first to pass on to us the “grave news” that they had heard via a forwarded text message from someone’s mate whose wife worked at the Marriott Hotel in either Glasgow or Newcastle (the story varied).

It was highly unusual, but by the end of the evening many media outlets were forced to address the rumours and state for a fact that they knew it was rubbish and that really on grounds of taste the speculation should stop.

The whole affair made me marvel at just how willing people were to believe what they had heard, no matter how grave the news was if it was true. It is as if all logic and common sense flies out of the window when the potential is there for a personal scoop.

So here are a few home truths. I have been at work and at the heart of some of the biggest events, be they news or sporting, of the last decade. Not one single story has started as a result of a rumour or a tip off from the friend of a friend of one of the parties involved. Not one. Every single story has come via official sources, either via the newswire or a police statement or an actual eyewitness reporter from a news agency. Celebrity deaths tend not to be hushed up and news propagated via rumour. They are generally quiet affairs, announced a few hours or even days after the event in a dignified statement by the family or agent. Moreover those individuals who are tabloid fodder and whose day to day existence is a car crash waiting to happen are generally being tailed around the clock by freelance reporters and photographers who know that being there at the moment of disaster will mean big money for them. If Paul Gascoigne or say, Amy Winehouse keeled over in the street or suffered some misfortune in a hotel, do you really believe it would be something that was kept quiet, unreferenced by any news outlet and instead spread by message board postings and text messages?

I guess it is part of an innate human desire to feel in a privileged position. Knowing something really important that the rest of the world doesn’t gives you a great feeling of personal power. Even more so if you can then act as an authoritative source to your friends and associates. That is why people were so prepared to believe that a text message from a mate telling them that Gazza was dead was the truth of the matter. If it was then they had stolen a march on everyone else. They knew before it was official. They had power.

The amusing side effect of this was that the people who had “heard” were only too keen to pass it on to us, a radio station dealing directly with the subject in question. Half the text messages we received in the studio last night were people tentatively wondering if the stories were true, whilst the other half were from people starting their messages with the words “just wanted to let you know..” or “BREAKING NEWS…”. I guess they were struggling to understand why we were not reporting a story they had been told to be true and assumed that for one reason or another we simply didn’t know and would be grateful to them for this important information.

In truth even people in the media are guilty of jumping at shadows in the event of a potential scoop. I remember one Friday in 2001 the whole industry was awash with rumours that the Queen Mother had passed away during the week but it had been decided to break the news to the nation on the Monday morning when all necessary preparations had been made. Everyone was phoning everyone they knew to ask if they knew what the source of these rumours were, with wild stories abounding of every edit suite at BBC news being booked out over the weekend so that obituaries could be updated and prepared. In the event it turned out to be nonsense, and a myth that was truly exposed a few months later when she actually did pass away, the news being announced just an hour after the event took place, on Easter Saturday to newsrooms populated with a skeleton staff of freelancers, all of whom were caught on the hop and totally unprepared.

A year or so later another rumour spread, this time that a Sunday tabloid had a big scoop on David Beckham and an alleged infidelity (you may remember a tale involving the relative of an England team mate). Despite everyone apparently knowing the story, word spread that the full details would be revealed in a front page splash that weekend, rumours given apparent credence by the word that the paper in question had booked a series of television and radio commercials FOR THAT VERY WEEKEND. At no point in all the excitement did anyone stop to consider that a) big newspaper scoops are generally kept secret even from other people in the building so they can be launched on an unsuspecting world when the second edition is printed and b) since when did a newspaper take out adverts to tell people to buy their paper for the earth-shattering story. For a start, a big story guarantees a sellout simply by word of mouth, and wouldn’t the fact that they would have to pay producers and voiceovers to make the advert kind of risk the story leaking out?

More recently there was the day of the London tube bombings in 2005. Amongst the confusion of the day there circulated a persistent tale that police had shot dead a potential bomber in the Canary Wharf area. Despite it being denied repeatedly and despite nobody in an estate populated by tens of thousands of workers having actually witnessed the event (merely hearing it from “someone who worked nearby”) to this day there are still people who believe that such an event took place and was hushed up, simply because they had heard the rumours from a supposedly reliable source but had never had it confirmed.

So indeed it was the case with the Gazza story. Attempts at corroboration turned up such “facts” that The Sun had a special tribute pullout ready to run and that Sky News had prepared an obituary package. Both are almost certainly correct, for no tabloid worth its salt would be caught without a fulsome tribute to a fallen hero stored on a server and ready to print the moment it was needed, any more than a a big news organisation would not have a package about a well known public figure stored in the archives. The mere existence of such preparation (and given the events of the last few weeks, the evidence that they have been accessed and checked to ensure they were up to date) is itself totally meaningless.

Ultimately of course the rumours fizzled out. Gazza wasn’t dead, or at least if he was the press and TV were keeping suspiciously quiet about it. Tales abounded as to how the rumours started, from a bookmaker in Glasgow who was suspicious about a large bet he took on it through to tales of a man answering his description being pronounced DOA at a Newcastle hospital and the man himself being uncontactable by telephone. Two and two almost always make seven when you are all too ready to believe.

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