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Friday, 14 July, 2000, 14:38 GMT 15:38 UK
'Tis the season to be silly
Summer time, and the reading is easy
As the newsmakers head off on holiday, stories about crop circles and pet seatbelts creep into the papers. The silly season is here. By BBC News Online's Megan Lane.

Believe it or not, summer is upon us. Doubters may point to the gloomy skies, but a quick peek at the day's news should silence the naysayers.

With the parliamentary recess fast approaching, news editors are looking beyond Westminster for the daily quota of drama and controversy.


It's open season on silly season stories all year round now

Roy Greenslade
There are the hardy perennials: Crop circles - combine harvester or alien? Beast of Bodmin Moor - big cat or domestic moggy? Loch Ness - is there a monster lurking in the deep?

And every year, the media gets aerated about some threat so great we have completely forgotten about it the following summer. A case in point is the great snapper-turtles-in-Thames scare of 1987.

The stories typically combine the following elements: mild hysteria (Euro-wasps make beeline for Britain!); nature gone mad (er, the Euro-wasps again); wild theories; and picturesque locations.

A classic example appeared in the Daily Mail on Friday, about a giant crop circle in a wheat field in Wiltshire - a favoured setting for many a silly season story past.

"A message from aliens - or are the hoaxers having a field day again?" asked the newspaper's science correspondent in a full-page spread.

Loch Ness monster - apparently
Blink and miss it: A recent sighting of Nessie
An expert argued the circle had cropped up on one of the "energy lines" criss-crossing the planet. Evidence for this theory? Her friend took a Burmese cat into the circle: "The animal seemed to know it was something extraordinary."

Evidence against came from ex-crop circle prankster Doug Bower, who swore he had an alibi for the night in question.

"I've no doubt that this circle has been made by gangs who are copying what we started in 1976," the pensioner said.

Media commentator Roy Greenslade says crop circles are not so much silly season fodder as "cereal season" - the circles only appear in summer because that is when wheat grows.

"[Silly season] isn't getting earlier, there's a great deal more fluff in the news today. It's open season on silly season stories all year round now."

A pet what?

The same day, the BBC picked up the RAC's campaign for pet seatbelts. Figures showed four of five injuries to pets travelling in cars could be avoided if the animals were strapped into restraints.

Silly season favourites
Nessie: First spotted one dark night in 1933
Beast of Bodmin: More than 60 sightings since 1983
Crop circles: First reported in Stirlingshire 1678 - 300 years later, pranksters began flattening crops in Wiltshire
UFO sightings: Commonly spotted in mid-Wales and Wiltshire
Any perceived threat to the British way of life is virtually guaranteed coverage - particularly if it involves bureaucracy gone mad.

In 1996, beer drinkers apparently faced the dire prospect that Eurocrats in Brussels planned to create a "bland homogenous Euro-pint" by forcing brewers to abide by an EU directive about standardising water in foodstuffs. Has it happened? Depends on your choice of tipple.

Bizarre tales of freak accidents also make it onto the news agenda over the hotter months.

In August 1998, a Tynemouth policeman told of the dive-bombing herring gulls driving his family to distraction.

"We had almost become prisoners in our own home," Robert Lephard said. "Sometimes it was like a scene from Hitchcock's The Birds just trying to get to the car."

Beast of Bodmin?
Grainy photos are a must
There were also stories about the razor fish of Devon, on whose sharp shells 800 holidaymakers cut their tootsies in one weekend. The beach was promptly evacuated and a state of emergency declared.

This summer, the tabloids reported that the latest dot.com millionaire is a cat.

Rachel Hawkwood, co-founder of the online retailer Intersaver, decided to reward the office cat for his contribution in keeping spirits high during the launch.

Instead of a pat on the head and a bowl of warm milk, she gave him shares now worth one million pounds on paper.

Yes, it's e-commerce gone mad - rich pickings for the silly season.

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See also:

14 Jul 00 | UK
Pets told to belt up
19 Aug 99 | UK
Puma hunters target Wales
08 Jul 99 | UK
Nessie hosts hunters
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