The plan to subvert the pages of some of Fleet Street’s bestselling newspapers was hatched in a windowless office in east London. For months, a team of documentary makers had sat in the Brick Lane film studio they called “the cell”, trawling through tabloid clippings in search of stories they could prove were untrue.
They decided to concoct an experiment to test their theory that tabloid editors sometimes publish celebrity stories with scant regard for the truth.
“We consumed a lot of coffee thinking about it,” said Chris Atkins, the director of the forthcoming film Starsuckers. “How can we do this intelligently? How can we prove our point? But how can we make it funny?”
Atkins and his producers decided the answer was to pose as members of the public and offer completely fictitious stories to the tabloid press about well-known figures. Their first call, on 18 March, concerned a fictional sighting of the Canadian singer Avril Lavigne asleep at the nightclub Bungalow 8.
The story appeared in the following day’s Daily Mirror under the headline: “Avril Lavigne a lightweight at London clubbing”. “After knocking back cocktails, the singer was found slumped across her table, snoring,” the story noted. “Lightweight!”
Within a fortnight, almost every daily tabloid newspaper in the UK had published one of the Starsuckers team’s bogus stories about the likes of Amy Winehouse, Pixie Geldof and Guy Ritchie. At times, the fake stories were reproduced by media outlets across the world, where they were presented to millions of readers as fact.
The Lavigne story was not run in the Daily Express, the Sun or the Daily Star, all of which had been called about it by the documentary team. But over the next fortnight, all four newspapers would be duped into publishing fabricated stories.
Starsuckers presents the experiment with fake stories as evidence that media organisations cannot be trusted to tell the truth.
That claim is likely to be contested by the newspaper industry when the film officially previews at the London film festival later this month. The editors the documentary team targeted may complain they were victims of the same kind of skulduggery the director will be claiming is rife in their newsrooms.
Atkins defended the ethics of his project, which he said was guided by a strict set of moral and legal ground rules…
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