In Bad Science this week Ben Goldacre asked “Why don’t journalists link to primary sources?”. He opined that if readers were directed to the original sources of headlines like ‘wind farms blamed for the stranding of whales’ (Daily Telegraph), they would realise how distorted and selective some actually are.
Goldacre says distortions like this are “only possible, or plausible, where the reader is actually deprived of information.”
I came across a good example of this last week on watching UFO UK: New Evidence. This was the latest in a slew of similar programmes churned out by cable and satellite TV in response to perceived growing public interest following the disclosure of the MoD UFO files. In fairness the show, commissioned by the National Geographic channel, was better quality than much of the earlier superficial and clueless productions. The producers also promised to take a skeptical view of the “evidence” for ET UFOs, which is the main reason why I agreed to take part. But as usual I was left disappointed by the final product. Not only did the producers fail to have the courage of their stated convictions, but they also selectively omitted references to primary material that would have undermined one of the key stories presented as “fact”.
The worst example (and there were others) concerns the claim that Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered a “cover-up” of a wartime UFO incident. This involved a RAF reconnaissance aircraft whose crew had a close encounter whilst returning from a mission to occupied Europe. En route to the British coastline they were followed by metallic flying object that behaved unlike any known Axis aircraft or secret weapon. The show implied this was a factual incident, reported in official MoD files. But as usual these were glimpsed only fleetingly, but never shown clearly on screen. The viewer could not be trusted with sight of the actual documents, as this would kill the story stone dead.
This story first emerged from the 6th tranche of MoD UFO files released at The National Archives in August 2010. Although widely reported as “fact” by the media at the time, its credibility is based entirely upon an anecdote reported in a letter from a member of the public, received and filed by MoD in 1999. The letter writer claimed he was the grandson of a RAF officer who was “part of the personal bodyguard” of the PM during WW2 (no evidence for this has emerged) and who was present when the incident was discussed with US General Eisenhower (again, no evidence). Afterwards Churchill was supposed to have said:
“This event should be immediately classified since it would create mass panic amongst the general population and destroy one’s belief in the church.”
This story, seen in the overall context of the MoD UFO files, was just one of hundreds, nay thousands, of similar rumours and anecdotes that found their way to the ‘UFO desk’ at Whitehall. Checks by records staff in 1999 found no evidence to support it. As I pointed out in an ITN interview when the files were opened in August 2010, the story might have a ‘grain of truth’, because the original narrative is similar to other wartime accounts of ‘foo-fighter‘ sightings reported by Allied aircrew. I also pointed out that other wartime military secrets, such as the V2 attacks on London and the cracking of the Enigma code, were at the time concealed by pervasive and necessary secrecy. But that level of secrecy could not be kept for very long.
Nevertheless, there is absolutely nothing about this particular foo-fighter anecdote that suggests it would have been briefed to the highest levels, or that Churchill himself would have ordered a “50 year cover-up” of its content. (Indeed, when I interviewed Churchill’s last private secretary Anthony Montague-Browne in 2000, he told me the PM was a skeptic who had only peripheral interest in flying saucers, to the extent that he once told an inquirer: “I think we should treat other planets with the contempt they deserve“).
The anecdote is a typical FOAF-tale, or urban legend, of the deathbed-confession type, frequently found and reported as fact in the UFO-lore. If we consult the primary sources (the letters that can be consulted in TNA file DEFE 24/2013/1) we find the letter writer, whose name has been redacted, reveals that his grandfather died in 1973 so he never actually heard the story directly from its source. He writes that, fearful of his obligation to secrecy, his grandfather actually only mentioned the incident once to his daughter (the writer’s mother) when she was nine years old ! She in turn only recalled the story, decades later (after her father’s death) after watching a TV programme on UFOs that featured retired aircrew talking about their ‘foo-fighter’ experiences in WW2. Now we’re getting to the core of the legend. She would have thought nothing more about it had she not switched on the TV that night and been exposed to the pervasive media UFO myth. Crucially, it was at this stage that she repeated the story to her son, who the letter reveals was evidently a believer in UFO visitations. He promptly wrote to MoD requesting confirmation of its truth.
This is the real basis of the Churchill/UFO legend. In summary, the whole saga is at best hearsay or rumour, repeated second or third hand and passed down through the vagaries of memory and oral transmission during a period of half a century or more. It lacks any real corroboration in official records (the best we can say is that some aircrew did see UFO-type lights and objects during WW2 raids).
It is certainly not evidence that Churchill ordered a “cover-up” of a wartime UFO incident, as proclaimed by various tabloids and TV news bulletins last summer, now reproduced further courtesy of National Geographic. But the mere mention of Churchill’s name was enough to make this story the lead item above all the other tedious accounts of lights seen in the sky by Joe-ordinaries.
As I pointed out to the producers of the programme, the “Churchill ordered UFO cover-up” legend simply does not stand up to critical scrutiny. But surprise surprise, my qualifying comments to that effect were omitted in the final cut of UFO UK: New Evidence. The effect of this is that anyone watching this programme in future will be left with the impression that it is now an established fact that the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was so terrified of mass panic that he ordered a 50 year cover-up of a UFO sighting. A ‘fact’ that is supported by official documentation from the MoD archive, and by the testimony of a “UFO expert” (me!).
I suppose the next question is so what, or who cares? But this is the point where selective omission, to the extent that the reader or viewer is actively deprived of information, can mislead viewers and in turn encourage and reinforce popular misconceptions.
The next time someone does a survey that asks “do you believe in UFOs?” someone out there may recall the story about Churchill’s cover-up order (on the grounds that ‘they saw it on TV/read it in a newspaper, therefore it must be true’) and will say, well if the ‘old man’ knew something back then, then there must be something in it.
This is folklore in the making. An anecdote has become a legend (a story told as if it is true, and believed as if it were true) and the legend, in turn, now takes its place as part of the wider UFO myth, as seen on TV.
Ben Goldacre notes that journalists get away with such distortions, either of selective use or omission, by not providing direct links to primary source material “they count on it being inconvenient for you to check”. As Ben says:
“…linking to sources is such an easy thing to do and the motivations for avoiding links are so dubious, I’ve detected myself using a new rule of thumb: if you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you.”