The fake news catch-cry has become part of everyday language mainly because of America’s 45th President Donald Trump.
Newspaper reporting down the years has included much serious, accurate recording of history; and some that has been downright sloppy and unprofessional; along with some that has been outrageously mischievous and—clearly—some that has been highly inflammatory.
Then there is some tabloid “journalism” which is puerile and meant to entice readers with salacious and titivating pieces of information that have little basis in reality.
It’s mostly associated with publications of more recent decades but there’s an account from a newspaper in 1905 which describes a supposed community of cave-dwellers on the Scottish coast about 40 miles from Glasgow which bears considering.
An extraordinary tale retold
The Aberdeen Press and Journal reported on 14 January 1905 that a Detroit newspaper published an article about a lawless Scottish cave-dweller who’d been sent to jail for neglecting his children.
He belonged to a “large colony” who “infest the sea caves of the Ayrshire coast”. There followed a colourful re-publication of the Detroit report:
“Nearly every cave—and the cliffs are honeycombed with them—has its recognised occupants. Larger caves accommodate families; some are so small that they can harbour only a single dweller. The laws of civilisation are not observed by the cave-dwellers.
“Their rocky abodes are filthy and alive with vermin. They have a sort of rude socialism, which bids fair to degenerate into anarchy. The conditions of life are pestilential, and the habits are degrading.
“If the cave-dwellers see something that they want, they take it—and they are blessed with sharp eyesight. They laugh at the police.
“The people go to Ayr or Maybole, and carry back immense quantities of drink.
“The results are dreadful. Men, women, and children herd together in a drunken stupor, and no tribe of savages could behave worse.
“The potato pits in the districts are robbed, to the despair of the farms who own them, and the many beautiful species of ferns for which Ayrshire is so famous will, it is feared, shortly become extinct owing to these people using most of them for bedding, and selling the finer specimens for drink.
“Large numbers of navvies—there are several gangs employed on the Ayr to Girvan light railway construction—herd with the cave-dwellers and they supply the bulk of the drink.
“There are many visitors to the cave colony, for the lawlessness and licence of the place appeal strongly to the dissolute of the neighbourhood. The cobblers of Maybole regard the colony as a paradise on earth. One of them speaks with glowing enthusiasm of the orgies at the caves.
“It was worked on the co-operative system. A lot of us went down to the caves. Some brought whisky, and one brought a barrel of beer with him in a cart. We had a blazing fire, and as there was no chimney the cave was so full of smoke that you could not see your neighbour’s face. I shall not forget it in a hurry.”
Exposing just how fake the ‘news’ was
Having given the Detroit report full coverage, the Aberdeen Press and Journal then expertly and professionally picked apart the nonsense that the Detroit paper had presented as fact to its readers. Part of the report reads:
That a colony of “worse than savages” cave-dwellers who “hold unspeakable orgies,” who live in a state of “rude socialism which bids fair to degenerate into anarchy,” whose “conditions of life are pestilential” and whose “habits are degrading,” and who riot in a lawlessness that “laughs at the police,” that such a community should exist unknown within forty miles of Glasgow would certainly be remarkable.
It is true that at the Heads of Ayr there are a number of caves, though to say that the cliffs are “honeycombed” with them is a decided exaggeration; they are mere recesses in the rock, useless as shelter with a north-west wind blowing.
They are the resort on Sundays of poachers and others of a like class, chiefly for the purpose of playing cards.
Tramps also have been known to find shelter there for a night.
On the Culzean shore there is a cave which is frequented by some Maybole shoemakers who sometimes in the summer months may make it their abode for the week-end, but the police state that complaints of lawlessness are rare.
Such are the circumstances—not at all unique—on which the fabrication rests.
The circumstances which form the bulk of the paragraph are quite imaginary.
Fake news goes beyond hoax sites
There are so many parallels to modern “journalism” that it is farcical that such a report found its way into print at that time. It is the very stuff of modern hoax news websites which are so obvious that no thinking person could be taken in.
Which makes it even more puzzling as to why the Detroit paper published such an obvious piece of fiction. Shame on that paper doing that in 1905 and shame on their modern counterparts who have become adept at twisting the facts in subtle ways that are mercifully coming under scrutiny more and more.
Such poor journalism is increasingly part of the supposedly respected and responsible media who want to drive the agenda rather than report the facts.
Journalism is all about reporting the facts (well, that’s how I learnt it from 1972 onwards). In reality, it’s very simple and uncomplicated. If followed, Donald Trump and everyone else would have no basis on which to accuse any news outlet of “fake news”.
Only the media itself can right the imbalance.