Hoaxes leave media red-faced

Pop diva Shakira was the subject of one fabricated interview Keystone Archive

Earlier this year the respected New York Times found itself with egg on its face after one of its journalists admitted to making up stories.

This content was published on October 5, 2003 - 11:59

Now it is the turn of the Swiss press to be duped by works of pure fiction - most recently a five-part “interview” with the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger.

On Wednesday the mass circulation “Blick” newspaper admitted that the Jagger exclusive was a mixture of old material and sheer invention from a German freelance journalist, Robert Macher.

It emerged that the author never spoke to the rock legend, but merely recycled quotes from old interviews, adding in a few made-up details to spice up the articles.

Macher also fabricated a tête-à-tête with Colombian pop diva, Shakira, which appeared in the Blick in March.

The Jagger series appeared shortly before the Rolling Stones performed the last date in their European tour, and possibly their last concert in Europe ever, at Zurich’s Letzigrund stadium.

In recent weeks other publications, including the highbrow “NZZ am Sonntag” and the broadsheet “SonntagsZeitung” have also unwittingly published fabricated stories.

Peter Studer, president of Switzerland’s press council and a former editor at Swiss television, believes the public’s insatiable appetite for personal details about superstars has created a climate where invention is inevitable.

“Here is Mick Jagger in Zurich, on possibly his last European tour, and along comes a guy who says he has a five-part interview with him,” Studer told swissinfo

”That’s very attractive for an editor, and papers pay very well for these personality interviews.”

Alarm bells

Nevertheless, Studer believes editorial staff at the Blick should have asked more questions about the origin of the material on offer.

“Everyone in the media knows how these interviews with superstars are conducted,” explained Studer.

“The entertainers’ agents will invite the press before the tour even starts, and journalists will be called in to see Mick Jagger in groups of five at a time.”

“They get half an hour’s audience with him, and then the next five get to go in. It’s extremely rare that a person like Mick Jagger would give a long interview to one person alone – alarm bells should have run at Blick about that.”

Difficult to prevent

But Studer believes preventing cases like the Jagger interview is practically impossible.

“It has to do with the strong competition we have today,” he said. “And with the personality cult of the last half-century.”

“And it may also have to do with the spread of the internet,” he continued. “It’s so easy to put fake interviews together: you just click on the name ‘Mick Jagger’ and immediately you’ve got huge amounts of information which you can just weave together.”

Studer cites the recent case of the NZZ am Sonntag as another example of just how hard it is to verify every single article.

“The NZZ is Switzerland’s most prestigious newspaper,” he said. “It was offered a series of interviews with American intellectuals and academics by a reasonably well-known Swiss journalist.”

“There was no reason to question his authenticity – but in fact the interviews all turned out to have been invented.”

Television also at risk

And it’s not just newspapers that are at risk of paying good money for fabricated stories.

Studer admits that during his time as an editor at Swiss TV, he too was a victim.

“A freelance journalist from Germany approached us with a number of very attractive stories,” he recalled. “Heroin smuggling across the Swiss border, neo-Nazis training with guns, and so on.”

“We bought one of his stories, and the commercial stations bought several. In the end it turned out they were all fakes, done with actors.”

But Studer believes incidents of fictitious journalism are on the increase in Switzerland.

“When I first heard about the Jagger articles my reaction was ‘oh no, not again’,” he said. “It does seem that there are more and more of these cases.”

“It can happen to everybody. And my only advice to editors would be to proceed cautiously, try to work with journalists you know, and just be very, very careful.”

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

Key facts

The mass circulation Blick newspaper admitted last week that a series of five articles containing interviews with Mick Jagger were fakes.
The freelance journalist who wrote them used old material and invented new details for the series.
Broadsheets, including the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the SonntagsZeitung, have also been the victims of invented stories and interviews.

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