How did the Evening Times fall for an obvious spoof?

In a couple of weeks time, the Pilot Light festival is holding a retrospective in Manchester of the peerless, highly controversial spoof documentary series Brass Eye.

The series, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, attracted headlines throughout its run for near-the-knuckle segments by creator Chris Morris, often capitalising on the gullibility of media figures to spout the most blatantly made-up nonsense without questioning or doing fact-checking on what it was they were talking about.

Thus we got the likes of Carla Lane campaigning for an elephant with its trunk stuck up its backside, Doctor Fox telling viewers that paeodphiles are genetically like crabs, Jenny Powell warning of the dangers of heavy electricity and Noel Edmonds expanding on the risks of cake – a ‘made up drug’.

I mention this only because we’ve had another glorious example of media falling for a blatant, obvious spoof without bothering to check.

Yesterday the Evening Times in Glasgow ran a story on its website about a cat turning its nose up at cheap brand catfood after eating a rat.

The story featured a quote from the cat’s owner, stating:

He was getting the expensive Royal Canin shit, but I recently lost my job so it’s back on the Whiskas I’m afraid

And a link back to the original source of the piece – the Daily Mash.

Cue social media hilarity bordering on incredulity.

For those few unfamiliar with the Daily Mash, it bills itself as a “British satire site offering funny stories on news, politics and sport, an agony aunt column and polls”.

Founded by two newspaper men – former Sunday Times political corr Neil Rafferty and ex-Scotsman business ed Paul Stokes, it’s been running as a British equivalent of the Onion for a decade.

The piece the hapless Evening Times web hack lifted isn’t even a recent spoof – it was originally published October 2015. It also features named quotes from the cat, curiously absent from the Evening Times version.

The Times’ lift and shift version of the story lasted about an hour before disappearing without comment or acknowledgment. Visitors to the story now get the screen at the top of the page.

Quite how the story made it online is unclear – was it written as a training piece and published by mistake?  Or a rewrite of something someone spotted on social and shoved up?

The original Evening Times piece carried no byline, but presumably would have had to go through a senior figure, such as group digital editor Lindsay Archibald.  Presumably she’s now staging an inquiry into how the piece was published and allowed to stay online for the best part of an hour.

Whatever the process for publishing, it has exposed a breakdown in process for checking content. These things happen – the Evening Times isn’t be the first paper to make a fool of itself online by being hoaxed, and it certainly won’t be the last.

But the race to get anything quirky or potentially viral and shareable up online, especially if spotted on another site, means this is increasingly a problem.  Not only is basic fact checking breaking down in the rush to be first, but with journalists under pressure to produce ever more shareable content basic sanity checking is too.

Apparently, at a time when we’re constantly being warned about the dangers of fake news, it appears Scotland’s digital journalists need to be educated on the dangers of republishing stupid news too.