Call that Fake news? My Sun Story.
The Sun, a true story for the Albany barmaid, Melanie
The year was 1993. I was a professional musician and studio owner with a record label, putting in many hours in studios by day and gigging most nights of the week. I had a weekly gig at the Albany pub in Thames Ditton, a popular riverside venue opposite Hampton Court Palace in Surrey where, every Saturday night from 9, I would perform two fifty minute sets of popular songs to a room filled with seasoned music loving characters, one of whom was a great friend of mine, a larger than life Californian character, Mike Rick. Often I would work as a duo, with Ronnie Johnson (Van Morrison), Duncan Mackay (10CC), John Edwards (Status Quo) and Chris West. It was a vibrant pub scene gig every Saturday night. The landlady loved me. Live music was well paid then.
Mike was exactly the same age as myself, we were born 15 days apart. He once played drums with Steppenwolf and worked as a Chippendale in Los Angeles before arriving in Surrey a few years previously. Mike was a popular local character, tall, blond haired blue eyed with a six-pack, which he would display at any given opportunity and that year he attended every one of my 280 gigs in London and surrounds.
With two young children to support, Mike had turned his back on his acting and modeling career to set up a Photo agency, the Mike Rick Agency (MRA) through which he would sell any manner of photo to any manner of buyer.
One Monday night on a rare night off from work, I arranged to meet Mike for a pub meal at the Albany, where the lovely landlady Denieze ran a quite outstanding kitchen offering home cooked traditional pub meals at the shortest of notice. While I waited at the bar for Mikes arrival I looked through the pile of the previous days papers. A copy of the News of the World had dedicated its entire front page to the story of a wife swapping arrangement gone wrong. I read the story to learn that the two couples, who were local to the area, were in court after one of the men, a serving police officer, had attempted to murder his wife following her unsanctioned meeting with the husband of the other. Pretty standard NOTW fare. (The News of the World was at the time a massive circulation Sunday tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch and representative of the values he is most famous for.)
Behind the bar that night was the buxomly attractive Melanie. A flirtatious 19 year old with a short skirt, too much lipstick and a tight fitting cleavage boosting top, who lived in one of the neighboring roads and always worked on the nights I performed. Mike was mildly interested in her.
It was a quiet Monday in the bar and so Melanie joined us in conversation, remarking on the NOTW story about the wife swapping couples. The conversation led to the subject of chequebook journalism and soon after that, I explained to Melanie that
‘As long as you identify the demand for a story, you can make up more or less anything and the tabloids will print it.’
Incredulously Melanie asked “How does that work then. Surely they can’t print made up stories.”
“How it works is simple supply and demand. You look at what the demand is for. For instance, looking at yesterday’s papers, they all have a wife-swapping story. They will want more stories on that same subject. So if you supply a new wife swapping story, they will almost certainly print it. News has less to do with truthful factual reporting than supplying stories for an existing demand.”
“Your making that up” said Melanie. “They can’t run made up stories.”
A customer arrived, demanding Melanie’s pint pulling attention and once she left my conversation with Mike turned to a dare. “I’ll bet you I can make up a story about wife swapping and get the Sun to run it, and then show it to Melanie to demonstrate how easy it is to make up stories.”
“You write it up and I’ll sell it in” was Mikes reply.
Soon after finishing our meal I went home and started to write my Sun piece. 1,000 words, telling the story of a couple, who lived in Surbiton, which seemed to me a prime location for this sort of suburban past time. Because the current story was about wife swapping gone bad I decided to make my one provocatively upbeat. My characters would be bored with their long marriage and turn to wife swapping for a bit of fun and then find that it strengthened their marriage and both loved the arrangement, creating an easy opportunity and an open invitation for some editorial moralizing on the tale, as is so integral in a good tabloid story.
The story wrote itself and half an hour after starting I called Mike to read it to him on the phone.
‘That’s right on the money’ was his reply. ‘Now all we need are two actors for the photo shoot. They wont run the story without pictures, but with a photo shoot I reckon I will get 2 grand from them, so we could use that to pay actors.’
My friend Ken, who I often did duo gigs with and is a handsome West Indian origin musician, immediately sprang to mind. He was single and game for a laugh and would be grateful for a nice pay day. I called him.
“Ken, I have a possible gig for you. Will take you one hour and pay you one thousand pounds. Interested?”
“What do I have to do?”
“Its an acting gig for a Sun story that I am making up to prove a point to the barmaid at the Albany. You come round to Mikes tomorrow. I have a script. Read the script and recite it. In a nutshell, you will be a married man who does a bit of wife swapping. You love it and it has done wonders for your marriage. They take a photo or two of you and your wife and that’s it. About a Month later they pay the bill and you get a thousand pounds. Wear dark glasses and no one will even recognise you.”
“What time shall I be there” asked Ken.
As his wife for the purposes of my story I asked another musician I knew who would appreciate a four figure payday for a one hour photo-shoot, Audrienne. Her reply to my request was “Where do I sign.”
Tuesday morning arrived and at ten o clock Mike made the call to the Sun Newsdesk, outlining the story on offer and negotiating the £2,000 charge plus his usual agents fee. He called me straight after to confirm the sale and that the journalist and photographer were scheduled for 2 pm for the photoshoot and interview at his home in East Molesey.
Ken and Audrienne showed up at 1.30, thrilled to the bone. “I’ve never made a thousand pounds an hour before” said Ken.
Almost exactly at 2 o clock a very polite young pair from the Sun arrived, a photographer and a journalist, who read my two page story, which was of course credited to Ken, before clicking some posed pictures of Ken and Audrienne. Ken wore a suit for the occasion and Audrienne dressed up as well, looking very much the part of the couple from Surbiton. The Sun pair left at three, one hours work for my actors as promised.
On Wednesday morning I stopped by the Newsagent on my way for morning coffee and picked up a copy of the Sun. The story was featured as a double page center spread. A fetching picture of Ken and Audrienne and my 1,000 word story edited down somewhat, but more or less exactly as I had written it. As a cherry on the top, on the sidebar of the spread was a comment by Sun Agony Aunt Deirdre Sanders, commenting that although wife swapping had worked for this couple, they were ‘lucky to escape disaster.’ She urged readers not to try it at home, or in the schoolyard.
I enjoyed a wonderful sense of elation that morning as I drank my cappuccino whilst reading a story I had made up just 48 hours previously being presented as news in a National paper read by some 9 Million people. My first thought was, all that cost them was £2,000 plus a few expenses and they filled two entire pages. Fake news is great for Publishers.
That night I went to the Albany to claim my gloating prize from young Melanie.
“Melanie, do you remember our conversation on Monday about making up stories in the paper” I asked.
“Yes, you told me papers make up stories” she reminded me accusingly.
“Have you see today’s Sun” I inquired. “No, why should I have” she replied.
With a flourish I opened a copy of the Sun to the center page spread and placed it in front of her. She looked down and started reading. “A wife-swapping story. What’s your point” she asked.
“It’s a made up story. I made it up on Monday after we spoke” I said, a little taken aback that she hadn’t spotted the obvious. “And here it is appearing as a true story on Wednesday in the Sun.”
A perplexed expression descended across her face. She scanned the article and found what she was looking for. “Your making it up. It has the name of the journalist with the story and its not you.”
“Well, that’s correct, its not my name on the story, but I did write it, and look at who that is in the picture”. Ken had played in the Albany many times and Melanie knew Ken.
“Why am I looking at this picture” she asked. “Don’t you recognize who that is”. She looked again. ”Its Phil Jefferson” she replied, reading the name I had made up for Ken.
“Does that not look to you like Ken” I inquired. She looked again. “Yes, it looks a bit like Ken, but this guy is Phil Jefferson, look at the name on the picture”.
Melanie was adamant and would accept none of my attempts to convince her, leaving me with the assurance that the picture of Ken was definitely Phil Jefferson because ‘There is no smoke without fire.’
I had set out to demonstrate to a young lady how chequebook journalism follows a supply and demand model placing very little reliance on truth, and although I had failed to convince her, I had succeeded in entertaining an audience of 9 Million along the way, given two musical friends a £1,000 an hour pay day while earning for myself an important lesson.
My truth was that I had made up a story and seen it published to a huge audience. A story based on pure invention. Half an hours worth of fake news, with two actors posing for a few pictures. That was read and believed by 9 million people. And best of all, I had given two musicians friends £1,000 which I knew they could do with.
Melanie’s truth is that some fellow named Phil Jefferson and his wife Terri had tried wife-swapping and the Sun had published their story, which, for some strange reason the musician had tried to pretend he had invented.
The overall truth, the one on which tabloid journalism depends, is that you can never overestimate the public stupidity and that is why there has always been a demand for fake news. And for as long as there are those who choose to not develop a thinking age above an 8 year old, there always will be.