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As the Sun says, yule couldn’t make it up

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Each year I look forward to The Journal’s Christmas Miscellany. This year it will be interesting to see whether any article catches the world’s attention like the 2010 piece about drug use by animals, written by The Journal’s former deputy editor, Andrew Haynes.

The article briefly mentioned accounts of reindeer munching on hallucinogenic fly agaric fungi. The Sun got hold of the story and, under an enormous heading, “Rudolph gets Blitzen”, printed an “exclusive” 120-word news item claiming that reindeer “deliberately seek out the mushrooms to escape the monotony of dreary long winters”.

The Sun’s piece included the strapline, “Yule couldn’t make it up”. But the tabloid had itself made some of it up, in the form of phrases such as “Scientists have found . . .” and “Scientist Andrew Haynes believes . . .”.

Intrigued by all this, I kept a Google eye on the news and found that over the following few days thousands of publications around the world — print, broadcast and internet — repeated the Sun’s flawed story, often mangling it even more by, for example, misspelling the author’s name and asserting that, far from being a mere pharmacy journalist (I hope he doesn’t mind that description), he is an eminent pharmacology expert whose research team carried out a valuable study into the dietary habits of reindeer. The only thing these reports got right was their description of the PJ as a “respected” journal.

What shocked me most about the media hoohah is that hardly any writer bothered to check the original article, even though at the time it was freely available on PJ Online. Almost everyone who took up the story either plagiarised the Sun’s distorted report or cloned an even more garbled version ultimately derived from the Sun’s “exclusive”.

And still it goes on. For example, just a few weeks ago, the quarterly Australian Geographic repeated the nonsense. As we approach another Christmas, the twisted story will no doubt be dredged up yet again.

As the Sun says, yule couldn’t make it up.

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