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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 May, 2004, 07:23 GMT 08:23 UK
Mirror not first to be duped
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Online

Photos of soldiers abusing an Iraqi have been acknowledged as a "calculated and malicious hoax" by the Daily Mirror, with editor Piers Morgan forced out by his board.

Adolf Hitler
The Hitler Diaries hoax still makes the blood of journalists freeze
But it is far from being the first time that a newspaper has been duped when it should have known better.

Perhaps the most humiliating moment in newspaper history came in 1983 when the Sunday Times followed the lead of German magazine Stern and chose to run extracts from the Hitler Diaries, which were quickly established to be forgeries.

They were the work of Konrad Kujau, who had based his forgery on a book of Hitler's speeches and proclamations compiled by a Nazi federal archivist.

Peppered with personal comments such as "must get tickets for the Olympic Games for Eva" and "the little Dr Goebbels is up to his tricks again with women", the works still fooled many of those who came in contact with them.

An editorial job is not science... but they are not infallible, they do make mistakes
Alan Abel
Legendary hoaxer
But soon after publication in Germany and Britain, tests revealed that the paper, glue and ink were of post-war origin, and the text of the 60 volumes of diaries was full of mistakes and anachronisms.

They had been authenticated by the eminent historian of the Nazi era and Times newspaper group director, Lord Dacre.

He said afterwards he had withdrawn his authentication at the last minute, too late to stop publication, and that he felt he had been made a scapegoat.

The damage to his reputation was huge, with the editors involved also profoundly embarrassed, and even Sunday Times proprietor Rupert Murdoch was touched by the scandal.

But although there was embarrassment in the Hitler Diaries case, there was no political impact to match that in perhaps the greatest ever hoax involving a newspaper - the Zinoviev letter.

In 1924, the Daily Mail published a letter purporting to be from Gregori Zinoviev, head of the Comintern organisation, a part of the Soviet political machinery dedicated to international revolution.

Labour's downfall

The letter exhorted British communists to spread sedition in the country and its armed forces, and the Mail ran headlines like "Civil War Plot by Socialists' Masters".

A few days later Britain went to the polls and the letter was blamed for the Labour government's heavy defeat.

But the letter was a fake, and British Labour supporters have blamed a plot by the establishment ever since.

An investigation by Foreign Office historian Gill Bennett in 1999 concluded it was faked by anti-Bolshevik Russian emigres in Latvia, angered by Labour plans to normalise relations with the Soviet Union.

But British intelligence agents, long blamed for its creation, may have been responsible for its leaking to Daily Mail, knowing the damage it could do to the Labour government.

Lord Dacre
Lord Dacre authenticated the Hitler Diaries and was humiliated
There were clues in the incorrect titles contained in the letter, but the Mail, as well as a number of spies, civil servants and even MPs, believed in it.

But while this hoax cost a government its grip on power, and the Hitler Diaries cost many their reputations, all news organisations are the victims of lesser hoaxes on a regular basis.

The Sun apologised in 1996 when it ran a front page splash on a video purportedly featuring Princess Diana and lover James Hewitt cavorting. In fact, the grainy video featured lookalikes.

The Mirror exposed its rival's mistake with a front page headlined "Fake", and said in its editorial: "Its editor issued an apology. But however low he grovels, it won't be enough to right this wrong."

American Alan Abel, often described as the world's greatest hoaxer, has persuaded editors to run stories on a host of made-up schemes including a campaign to clothe "lewd naked animals" and a school for professional beggars. He also tricked the New York Times into running his own obituary.

He told BBC News Online no editor could be expected to be right all of the time.

"If it's a good story on a slow news day between axe murderers and killings, and the editors want some levity, they will go for it."

He said hoaxes, even those that were fraudulent, happened in free countries, but the photos that ended up in the Mirror were beyond the pale.

"It is deplorable... There are people who are waiting to make a buck.

"If they missed it, if it got by them because there was a deadline and the story was hot and they needed to get it out first... they may have to go, somebody has to take the fall."

Stringent checks

But he added: "An editorial job is not science, they are allowed to make mistakes. It is a bad, bad mistake, but they are not infallible, they do make mistakes."

Linda Christmas, from London's City University's journalism course, said she could not recall any hoax on the scale of the faked Mirror pictures, and she said its journalists would have carried out the most stringent checks.

The former Guardian journalist said both broadsheets and tabloids made mistakes but that the allegations made by the soldiers were strong enough not to require the use of pictures if there was any degree of suspicion.

"Journalists are trained to think around corners, to ask 'where are they taking me'.

"To be sceptical, not jumping for joy, that is the way we train students at City. Examine their motives, question, question, question.

"Our tabloids have chequebooks, but they run the most rigorous checks."


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