Rebirth of a legend

It's a legendary example of the made up anti-immigrant scare story. On 4 July 2003, the Sun's front page headline screamed, 'SWAN BAKE: Asylum seekers steal the Queen's birds for barbecues'. The whole thing was, as you'd expect, a bit spurious.

Nick Medic, a journalist from the Refugees, Asylum Seekers and the Media (RAM) project, smelled something wrong and investigated further, only to find that the paper had no evidence to base its conclusions on. In an article about the incident published by the Telegraph - 'How I took on the Sun and lost', Nick says:

In November, four and a half months after The Sun article appeared, a letter arrived from the PCC. The commission "noted" that The Sun was "unable to provide any evidence for the story", and that what was presented as a "factual account" was in reality conjecture.
Unfortunately, although Nick managed to get the PCC to admit this, and get the Sun to issue a 'clarification', his work was pretty much wasted since the PCC allowed the 'clarification' to not actually clarify very much and be buried on page 41.

In the Telegraph article, Medic says:

Our patience was now exhausted and some of us were furious - especially those who were aware that the [then] director of the PCC was a personal friend of the editor of The Sun. We sent the PCC a final e-mail expressing our dismay at the ruling but reluctantly accepting it.
So four years later, in today's Mail, we have 'Sorry, poached swan's off: Calls for clampdown on river bandits from eastern Europe' to prove a good urban legend never dies. In this incarnation, the claim that the people were asylum seekers has been replaced by claims that they're 'Polish and Lithuanian immigrants', showing the media's shift away from attacking asylum seekers and the Mail's preference for attacking eastern Europeans in general instead.

The entire article is hung from the claims of one witness, like this:

Club official Joanne Edwards, 44, who patrols the canal regularly, described a number of tense confrontations with Poles and Lithuanians.

"Every time I try to explain to them that they can't treat our waters as a larder they just pretend they don't understand," she said.

"On one occasion there were four of them fishing and they'd already taken a fish without putting it back.

"Then they got a swan round the neck and pulled it back up on to the bank and the four of them were fighting with it, but luckily it was strong enough to pull away."
One important thing here is that 'Club official Joanne Edwards, 44' hasn't been directly quoted as saying the people involved were Polish or Lithuanian specifically. The other is that this is the testimony of just one person. Even if we accept that she has seen what she claims, then all she has actually seen are four people, possibly foreign, in a tussle with a swan. Swans are notoriously territorial and we warn our kids to stay away from them to avoid being attacked. She has no idea of whether these people were in fact trying to take the swan away, let alone cook it and eat it.

In other words, the evidence the paper has in this instance is a combination of the paper's and the the witness's conjecture. First, that the people were Polish and Lithuanian, and secondly that they were trying to take the swan away to cook and eat it. That's even if she did at all.

It's a testament to the effectiveness of urban legends in getting locked in to the psyche that the first thing she thought was that these people were trying to take the swan away to do that.

As a result, the angling club for which she is an official has hilariously produced signs with a picture of a swan on a plate with a line through it. Laugh, I nearly did.

Presumably, signs will be posted to prevent escaped mental patients with hooked hands from trying to get into parked cars, junkies from putting syringes in McDonalds ball pits or gang members hanging trainers over telephone wires to mark their territory.

Oh, wait.

1 comment:

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