By Sam Leith
Many years ago my late grandfather John Junor – a newspaperman, in his day, of considerable clout – found himself in possession of one of the scoops of his career. He was editing the Sunday Express, when one of his reporters announced that they had been offered the clearest shots yet of the Loch Ness Monster.
It was about this time of year. A pair of lads had been walking by the loch with their Box Brownie, when there she was: Nessie, her majestic plesiosaur neck arching gracefully from the still, silvery waters of the loch. They had the presence of mind, just, to snatch a picture. She was blurry, but she was unmistakably the beast. The camera had not been tampered with.
JJ cleared the front page and prepared to make history. The presses were all but rolling, the Champagne all but open, and the eye of the Sunday Times all but wiped. JJ telephoned his proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, to trumpet his achievement. He finished his excited monologue, and waited for the congratulations to come. There was a pause.
‘Mr Junor,’ said the Beaver. ‘You must not print this story.’
The Junor jaw dropped. A chill took up residence in his spine. Ping! A single hair on his head turned grey.
‘Pull the story, Mr Junor,’ he repeated.
‘But, but–but-but-’ my late grandfather riposted.
‘Mr Junor. The photograph is a fake.’
‘I know, Mr Junor, that the photograph is a fake,’ continued the thumb-sized Canadian megalomaniac. ‘And do you know how I know? Because, Mr Junor, there is no bloody Loch Ness Monster. Good evening.’
The front page was killed. And the following day, the young men turned out to have been students on rag week.
This story springs annually to mind as I open my morning newspaper in the August sunshine to read about the discovery of a bearded Lord Lucan playing canasta or selling handmade ethnic trinkets in some distant province of the empire; a great white shark being sighted off Cornwall; or a plague of wasps the size of frogs, frogs the size of dogs, or dogs the size of horses.
Would its like take place now? Would Rupert Murdoch ever demand a story be withdrawn from the Sun on the grounds of a conviction that it was, though harmless, untrue? You’d have to wonder.
Would it even matter? When, halfway through the day, it emerged that the ‘Lord Lucan’ the Evening Standard had found was 10 years younger and five inches shorter than the one who disappeared in the 1970s, the newspaper relegated the story from the front page to page three. The implication was that the paper thought these facts may have made it less likely that their man was the missing earl, but didn’t kill the possibility altogether. (My colleague Christopher Howse this week murmured: ‘You know you’re getting older when Lord Lucan starts to look younger.’)
That reminds me, incidentally, of a heavenly cock-up on a Sunday red-top a few years ago. A paparazzo had taken a photograph that was splashed on the front under the headline ‘Who’s The Mystery Blonde With Rod Stewart?’ Then, too late to pull the story altogether, someone noticed that the man in the photo wasn’t Rod Stewart at all. The following morning, readers were invited to wonder: ‘Who’s The Mystery Blonde with the Mystery Blond?’ Genius.
When a television company transposes two pieces of footage in the editing process to make the Queen look grumpy, there are calls for mass seppuku among its executives. Yet when a newspaper finds its umpteenth Lord Lucan, or insists that Jaws is prowling off Padstow, the reaction is no more than a shrug of the shoulders.
I think there’s something slightly subtler than hypocrisy or simple bad faith at work. The reason that there’s no outrage is that nobody is fooling anybody. Do the editors who assemble these confections really believe for a nanosecond these stories are true? I doubt it. Nor do their readers. We are collaborating in a ritual of belief, or at least of the possibility of belief. This newspaper, too, added to the gaiety of nations by reporting the brouhaha surrounding the ‘discovery’ of Lord Lucan.
Something in us enjoys pretending to believe. ‘Silly season’ stories are the comical manifestation of an essentially benevolent instinct: the same instinct that keeps us searching the faces of the customers in the chip shop for Elvis, that keeps many in the Anglican Communion going to church, and that keeps us looking, in Portugal, for a child missing now for 100 days.
This year, I think, I shall be taking a late summer break in my grandfather’s honour, on the banks of Loch Ness. I’ll bring my camera.
Sam Leith is Literary Editor of the Daily Telegraph
[This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph]