Silly Season Survey

Yes folks it’s August and we have officially entered the period of the summer that journalists have traditionally called ‘the Silly Season’.  If you are a journalist please fill out a questionnaire to take part in my research into the origins and purpose of this piece of media folklore.

Since at least the mid-19th century hacks have regarded the dog days of summer as a period when there is very little serious news. A skit published by The Sunday Times in 1955 described the Silly Season as ‘the month of strange reports in newspapers, supposedly put together by second-eleven journalists.’

My favourite Silly Season cartoon, by Bernard Partridge, published by the satirical magazine Punch during the ‘airship’ [Edwardian UFO] scare of May 1909. The cartoon shows a forlorn sea-serpent gazing at a headline in The Daily Scare that reads: ‘Mysterious Air-Ship seen Everywhere By Night’. The sea-serpent says: ‘Well if this sort of thing keeps on, it will be a dull August for me,’ (credit: Punch and Airminded.org)

The story suggested that during August all senior editorial staff were away yachting or shooting grouse, giving a shadow staff of credulous and scoop-happy cub reporters a free hand to put out Fleet Street’s newspapers.

And the result? Sightings of sea-serpents, lorry-drivers buried under ten tonnes of eggs, images of Jesus in toasted cheese sandwiches, crop circles and perhaps inevitably….flying saucers. For certain sections of the tabloid media (The Sun, Daily Mail and new kid on the block The Huffington Post) throwaway stories about UFOs and ‘alien invasions’ have become perennial silly season fodder. During the summer of 2008 formations of Chinese lanterns floating above towns and cities in the UK were transformed into an ‘alien invasion fleet’ by The Sun which had, the previous year, entertained its readers with a yarn about a great white shark sighted off the Cornish coast.

One of those caught up in the fun told me that he received a call from a tabloid journalist ‘who instinctively seemed to understand what was required from me when he said “it’s about time we had another UFO story.”‘

This year the 2012 Olympics filled the gaping hole usually left in the news schedule. But even the hard news machine that drives the sporting spectacle in London hasn’t been able to escape the instinct to break a Silly Season story.

On 31 July the Daily Mail announced that as a billion people tuned into the Olympics opening ceremony ‘something else was seen among the whiz-bangs in the night sky’…something saucer-shaped, metallic and with a bulge in the middle.  The UFO appeared at the close of the opening spectacular at the Olympic Park stadium in Stratford at around 12.30 p.m. You have to scroll down the page to find mention of ‘one theory’ that the spaceship was the Goodyear Blimp used by a news channel to gather footage of the ceremony.

Skeptic Bob Sheaffer, on his Bad UFOs blog, located similar images of the blimp from Goodyear’s own website and concluded ‘case closed’. The UFO is a blimp, probably one used by NBC Sports to cover the ceremony (an interesting example of the media generating it own stories).

But for Silly Season narratives the case can never really be closed. Indeed, hadn’t Nick Pope, ‘one of the UK’s top UFO experts’, predicted only weeks before the Olympics opened that ‘mass summer events would be a prime time for crafts from other worlds to present themselves to mankind.’

D. Mail strapline 31 July 2012

In fact, conspiracy theorists had been predicting a fake alien invasion since 2010 when The Guardian published a story noting that ‘some people believe an elite clique will use the games to simulate an alien invasion in their plan for global domination.’  In February I blogged about the more barmy predictions surrounding the alien plot, noting that during 2011 an early silly season story suggested aliens might use the Royal Wedding as an opportunity to stage a landing.

Yes it does sound like a bad plot from Dan Brown but even a brief google search will reveal that many thousands – possibly millions – of people across the world continue to believe that invented silly season stories have some basis in fact. And that to me is evidence of the power the news media still has to generate belief in the most bizarre ideas and theories. All this despite the steady decline in the influence of traditional platforms such as the tabloid newspaper, which was once the key source of such stories.

So if you’re reading this and you are a journalist – or have been a journalist, either employed or self-employed – I would appreciate a few moments of your time to fill in my ‘Silly Season Survey’ questionnaire which you can find here. The results of my research will appear in an academic journal in due course.

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4 Responses to Silly Season Survey

  1. Andrew May says:

    Hi David – There is a science fiction story called “The Silly Season” written by C.M. Kornbluth in 1950, and reprinted in Robert A. Heinlein’s anthology of Fortean-themed stories, “Tomorrow the Stars”, in 1952. In the story, a spate of ludicrous silly season stories is engineered by prospective alien invaders in order to create a “Cry Wolf” situation in advance of the real invasion. The story mentions Flying Saucers, which in 1950 would still have been a novel and topical subject.
    – Andrew

  2. It’s called “cucumber season” in my country (Poland). Three years ago we had “black pumas” here, but, unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be anything that spectacular this year.

  3. Ross says:

    Here in the USA, we live under the perennial unconfirmed rumor that we live in a “democracy.” Talk about silly.

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