UK tabloids compete for fish wrappery

By Phil Plait | February 15, 2009 10:42 am

Whenever I wonder if US news is the worst on the planet, I just need to look east, across the Atlantic, to be reassured that we have close competition. I swear, the UK newspaper The Mirror has a bet with The Sun to see which of them can have more ridiculous articles*.

The latest volley in this war is about (drum roll please): the Moon Hoax. Yes, The Mirror has discovered this 40 year old rotting piece of cabbage and is serving it up like a fine box wine. Breathlessly marked "EXCLUSIVE" — as if they are the first to have stumbled on this news — the article goes on and on about the usual tired and long, long-debunked claims of the Moon Hoax crowd.

This article is slightly different than most "fair" articles on these topics in that the writer, Dennis Ellam, actually does give explanations for some of the dumb conspiracy claims, but also uses a writing tone that is somewhat sarcastically dismissive when discussing them. I’ve seen this many times; it allows the writer to fan the flames of the conspiracy while also innocently claiming that they present both sides.

Ellam was pretty confused over the provenance of the conspiracy though. After a description of some of the claims, he then says, "But the HBs [Hoax Believers; a term I coined back in 2001] have begun to gather important allies." Who would these important allies be? Why, Bill Kaysing! But Kaysing originated the Moon hoax idea, so how could the HBs have gathered him as an ally? And Ellam, like every other conspiracy-fanner, neglects to mention that Kaysing had some pretty crazy ideas, like that any kind of space travel is impossible and that NASA blew up Challenger on purpose to keep Christa MacAuliffe from revealing the truth about NASA’s fakery.


Ellam also quotes astronaut Brian O’Leary as saying it’s possible the landings weren’t real. That quotation — unattributed in the article, for shame — comes from the wretched Fox TV show back in 2001, and O’Leary claims he was taken out of context, in fact now saying quite succinctly that the landings were real.

Ellam also relates the incident where Buzz Aldrin punched Bart Sibrel as the act of a guilty man lashing out against a truth-seeker… when we know for a fact that Sibrel was harassing Aldrin and physically intimidating him. Sibrel tried to sue Aldrin for the punch, and the judge threw the case out of court.

Ellam presents all these points in a very misleading way, but all of them are easily debunked. He could have trivially fact-checked them by contacting either me or Jay Windley (who runs the website, another Moon Hoax mythbusting site). It’s not like either of us is very hard to find when it comes to this conspiracy; perhaps typing "Moon Hoax" into Google was too much trouble.

So why bother checking your facts, backing up your claims, or doing, y’know, research, when instead you can write something destined to stir controversy where none exists?

I guess, in the end, people in the UK need something to line their birdcages, and The Mirror is only too happy to provide.

Tip o’ the tin foil beanie to Peter Backus.

* As you may recall, The Mirror recently had an article claiming a UFO hit a wind turbine, while The Sun had a grossly exaggeratedly article about life creating methane on Mars (and The Mirror also had a terrible article about that as well).


Comments (36)

  1. I’m just waiting for the GeoCentrics to get a headline with them. “Copernicus was WRONG!” they’ll claim in big bold letters.

    Yeah, there really is a group out there with a slick website and mailing out fancy tri-fold flyers. I can only hope we are all victims of Poe’s Law or some viral marketing, but somehow I doubt it…

  2. This is the problem with so-called “news” papers: they are not in the business of reporting news, their main aim is to sell advertising space. The sooner they are euthanized by the internet, the better.

  3. The whole of journalism is sliding into the sea. Seen the latest TIME magazine? “How Faith Can Heal” on the cover! What a joke!

    Then there’s the issue before that with “How to save newspapers” on the cover. Thinnest magazine I’ve seen evah. They’d better think about how to save the magazine and forget their competitors, the newspapers!

    I guess it’s like a lot of things. Doing something well takes hard work and it’s all to easy to be lazy. There is no reward for hard work but more work and the bosses don’t care unless subscriptions take a nosedive.
    [grumble, grumble]

  4. This is just ridiculous! I am truly shocked that the British are reporting this. After all, not only did we go to the Moon in 1969, the British have had a base there since 1980!

  5. Xeero

    More and more the internet seems to be winning out over popular media based news. Though how much of a surprise is this? The news you pay for, on TV, in newspapers, etc. is reliant on your money to survive and that means anything they report can rarely be the honest truth. It typically means it needs to be blown out of proportion or sensationalized, and always controversial.

    Not to mention typically the mainstream news is very biased. Heck apparently most “world news” shown here in Canada isn’t even recorded by us! It’s bought from US based companies and then “Canadianized” so the basic spelling and dialects changed and then regurgitated.

    In the face of all this we have the internet, which while it’s also rife with controversy and falsehoods you also have a much larger community that’s nigh impossible to police. This means you actually have an increased potential to find the truth if you can cut through the clutter, not to mention you can often get the information for free. Most news firms will/are going to have trouble competing with that sort of setup.


    This calls for a journalism joke:

    A photographer for a national magazine was assigned to get photos of a great forest fire. Smoke at the scene was too thick to get any good shots, so he frantically called his home office to hire a plane.

    “It will be waiting for you at the airport!”, he was assured by his editor.

    As soon as he got to the small, rural airport, sure enough, a plane was warming up near the runway. He jumped in with his equipment and yelled: “Let’s go! Let’s go!” The pilot swung the plane into the wind and soon they were in the air.

    “Fly over the north side of the fire,” said the photographer, “and make three or four low level passes.”

    “Why?”, asked the pilot.

    “Because I’m going to take pictures! I’m a photographer, and photographers take pictures!”, said the photographer with great exasperation.

    After a long pause the pilot said: “You mean, you’re not the instructor?”

  7. Hey, they’re panicking at declining readership and their inability to deal with the internet as the news medium of choice so they have to get as crazy as possible in order to sell copies. Can’t wait to see what the next few years throw up in the way of headlines, I reckon they could do worse than hiring David Icke as their new head investigative journalist… :-)

  8. Ah, oh, yes, with reference to the UFO/wind turbine story, everyone’s favourite used-to-be-a-broadsheet followed that up recently…

    Precis: metal fatigue.

  9. Moony From The Moon

    Of course the moon landings were faked. Here’s the proof:


    If that doesn’t convince you, nothing will.

  10. Sili


    Definitive proof that you never went up there!

    The text reads: “If the Americans really had landed on the Moon.” — Actually, I think Eddie Skoller did that joke in the seventies in his What did you learn in school today?

  11. I’m surprised the Daily Fail didn’t make your list of awful tabloids.

  12. Mchl

    Well… you can rate this Mirror’s article, so let’s rate it fairly together.

  13. slang

    The loons still show up occasionally on BAUT, BA. Stay away from the recent ‘oxxo’ thread if you’ve just eaten. :)

  14. MPG

    Larian LeQuella Says:
    February 15th, 2009 at 11:10 am

    I’m just waiting for the GeoCentrics to get a headline with them. “Copernicus was WRONG!” they’ll claim in big bold letters.

    There’s a guy on YouTube putting forward straight-faced arguments for geocentricism, but he’s apparently an Edward Current-esque spoof. He’s a dedicated one, though, keeping up the pretence in numerous comments and responses on his videos, to that point that it’s got many people fooled, but his user page clearly states he’s a comedy writer. At least, I think he’s a spoof. Poe’s law indeed.

  15. Ad Hominid

    It’s worth noting that the Mirror is the same rag that made the pedophile accusations against Arthur C. Clarke a few years ago. Their claimed source, the only one, was a supposed recording of Clarke admitting to the offense. The story was withdrawn when both the British and the Sri Lankan police demanded copies of the recording and the Mirror was unable to produce them.

  16. Moony From The Moon
  17. Andy Cooke

    I tried getting The Independent some years ago (a so-called “quality” newspaper) but could never take it seriously again after reading an editorial which casually said something along the lines “like those who still actually believe that NASA landed men on the Moon”

    And then when it announced that it was now a “viewspaper” rather than a newspaper.
    Trust me, it can get bad over here.
    The Guardian is one of the better ones, when the science correspondents break free of editorial shackles (the Guardian did not cover itself with glory during the “MMR scandal”, but simultanouesly employs the excellent Ben Goldacre, with his “Bad Science” regular articles, which flag up stupid scienc reporting elsewhere and patiently and clearly explain the facts).

  18. David

    The chances of getting a man to the Moon and bringing him back again were something like 0.0017 per cent in other words, a virtual impossibility, [Kaysing] adds.

    Aside from all of the other nonsense in the article, this line just cracks me up. Making up statistics can be so much fun – 74% of ten year olds agree with me!

  19. Here are some outtakes from the moon landing.

  20. Lee

    The moon landing is possibly the most popular conspiracy theory out there, along with ‘who killed Kennedy’.

    It doesn’t have to be true or false to be entertaining as many people love a mystery.

    As others have said, it generates readership and website page views along with expert opinion and wacky ideas alike.

    I love reading about it!

  21. justcorbly

    One should not take the Mirror or the Sun with much seriousness. After all, it’s not like people buy them for the articles.

  22. MadScientist

    Fish wrappery? I wouldn’t wrap my fish in *that* garbage.

  23. tacitus

    The Daily Mirror and The Sun can barely be described as newspapers. They do have two or three pages of “news” but the rest of the paper is dedicated to salacious gossip, stuff you would see on Entertainment Tonight, and sport — in particular, lots and lots of football (soccer).

    They’re serious newspapers in the same sense that American Idol is the pinnacle of American high art and cultural life.

    The Daily Mail and the Daily Express are somewhat higher up the food chain, and they make more of an effort to cover the news, but they’re still more New York Post than New York Times.

    The Guardian, The Independent, The Times, and the Daily Telegraph (in order from left to right politically) are serious newspapers who do report the news, though with varying political slants, of course.

  24. Keith

    I would believe a story that ran in The Onion was true before I’d believe anything written by any tabloid, especially the Mirror or the Sun.

  25. Andrew

    Papers like the Sun and the Mirror have a mental reading age of around 5 years old, and thats a fact.

  26. The Sun and the Mirror are an embarrassment. You can read the Sun in 6 minutes (I’ve done it), and the Mirror little shorter as there are less pictures of blondes with their boobs out. Both papers certainly are not a good example of journalism in the UK, but I am always shocked when I remember that they are the most widely read papers in the country. The Sun is the biggest daily publication in the English speaking world with a daily readership of around 8 million (last time I heard), and the Mirror isn’t that far off.

    Although most Brits know they are crap, many others call it “news”, but the strangest thing is, even the ones who know they are crap, still buy them! I don’t get it. Unfortunately, many of the broadsheets like the Times, Guardian and Telegraph are trying to compete, often lowering their reporting standards to sell more papers.

    Trash media will always win.

  27. polomint

    I would be embarassed to read either the Sun or Mirror.

    I get my copy of The Daily Star every morning, along with The Sport

  28. Stu

    People know the Sun and Mirror are tabloids, whats more dangerous is The Daily Mail, which is a tabloid dressed as a newspaper.
    The scary thing is that lots of people only read one of these 3.

    @Ian O’Neill is also right, the broadsheets are fast moving down this road.

    – I never buy The Sun, but it can be quite entertaining when in a greasy spoon, certainly adds to the atmosphere, also the superficialness of the free train papers (Metro, London Lite etc) is just about right for a short journey.

  29. Nigel Depledge

    Andrew said:

    Papers like the Sun and the Mirror have a mental reading age of around 5 years old, and thats a fact.

    Andrew, I beg to differ.

    The Sun has a Gunning Fog index of 3 (approximately), meaning a person needs to have experienced 3 years of continuous education to understand the text. That means its reading age is about 7 – 8.

    Here’s what Wikipedia says about the Gunning Fog index:

  30. This sort of drivel makes me almost ashamed to be British.
    Notice that the article refers to “the Moon landing” – LANDING, in the singular!!!!!! Doesn’t the imbecile even realise that there were six of them????
    As a dedicated spaceflight enthusiast – and one who has had the great honour and privilege of meeting three of the Apollo astronauts – this bulls**t infuriates me more than any other “conspiracy” stupidity.
    I shall have to write to the Mirror, and point them in the direction of Phil’s and Jay Windley’s web sites – not to mention my own.

  31. Morning television in Sydney, Australia, ran a similar story today — no doubt they lifted the idea from the UK tabloids. I couldn’t believe they were digging up such a rotting corpse, but now I know from where they got the idea.

  32. JB of Brisbane

    Did anyone say anything about the reporter (I could hardly call him a jounalist) neglecting to mention that Bill Kaysing is dead? Or did I miss that bit?

  33. Did anyone see a copy of the Sunday Mirror this morning? Let me re-print one of the reader’s letter – entitled: ‘Dark side of the Moon’:

    ‘I READ your article regarding the moon landing in 1969 with a mixture of satisfaction and amusement. I was then, and still am now, a hoax believer. Most of the photographs gave rise to the hoax theory, but one that blew the whole thing out of the water was when the module was coming down to land (???) – not only was there no dust disturbance but, more to the point, who the hell was down on the surface in the first place to record it coming down? – Chris Grogan, Skelmersale, Lancs.’

    I think this sums up the intelligence of the average Mirror/Sun/Mail/Telegraph reader. Never again will I buy these papers. Do these people not realise that the physics on the moon are different from that on the earth? That dust will behave differently in a vacuum and at 1/6th gravity than on earth? That stars will not appear in the sky because in order to expose those stars would overexpose the shots of the astronauts.

    The fact that they only printed one letter – and from a hoax believer – speaks volumes about where the editorial direction of the newspaper – sorry Tabloid – is pointed…

    Let’s build that 100m mirror and prove once and for all that the Apollo missions happened, and shut these idiots up forever.

  34. jams

    Shame on Discover for letting these lies printed on their pages. You have absolute misquotes in this article. If Discover backs liars, I personally boycott anything to do with Discover and Discover magazine from now on. Same goes for Time.
    Truelly pathetic.

  35. jams, which lies are those, specifically? Care to elaborate?

  36. Hey Phil, I wouldn’t play dumb if I were you. You know very well what lies he is talking about. Do I need remind you of that email I sent you on March 4 this year?


    Hello Phil,

    I saw your entry for Feb 15 2009.

    I couldn’t help noticing you praise Jay Windley’s web page regarding Brian O’Leary. You wrote: “Ellam also quotes astronaut Brian O’Leary as saying it’s possible the landings weren’t real. That quotation — unattributed in the article, for shame — comes from the wretched Fox TV show back in 2001, and O’Leary claims he was taken out of context, in fact now saying quite succinctly that the landings were real.”

    Since strangely none of my Youtube comments on your channel seem to be coming through, I thought perhaps I’d contact you through here. I obtained your email from one of your Q&BA videos
    It might interest you to know that the “letter” that Jay Windley quotes is a forgery. I’ve been in contact with Dr. O’Leary and he not only told me that he is not 100% sure that Apollo landed on the moon, he also told me that he never got in touch with anyone called Jay Windley.
    My emails from O’Leary are featured in context in this video, and used with his permission. The video was posted the day before you posted your blog.
    Would you be so kind as to explain why Jay Windley lied about Dr. O’Leary and retract your erroneous section of your blog?

    Speaking of which; I have noticed in the aforementioned entry, and in various other entries, you claim that “[Bill] Kaysing had some pretty crazy ideas, like that any kind of space travel is impossible”

    Would you be so kind as to provide citation for Kaysing’s alleged claim that all space travel was impossible? I hold both editions of his book, I have a wide collection of personal letters and papers from the man himself, I have watched god only knows how many interviews with Bill Kaysing and never have I heard one claim from him that “any kind of space travel is impossible”. In fact; in the very interview in which he states the Challenger was intentionally blown up, Bill Kaysing says: “I will concede that certain unmanned vehicles might have made it to the moon. The Russians are supposed to have sent some unmanned vehicles to the moon. And possibly our Surveyor did land on the moon.”

    The Surveyor was by all means a form of space travel and Bill Kaysing deemed it as possible. Interestingly, in your blog regarding Kaysing’s death, you refer to this very interview in question:

    You wrote: “But he was still wrong, and made claims that are sickening (NASA killed the Apollo 1 astronauts to keep them quiet; NASA blew up Challenger on purpose to keep the astronauts quiet about the “fact” that space travel is impossible”

    Where in his interview does Kaysing state that the Challenger was blown up to keep astronauts quiet about all space travel being impossible? I am hard-pressed to find any such statement from Bill Kaysing. Instead, he states that the Challenger was blown up because Christa McAulliffe wouldn’t keep quiet about the stars, not because all space travel was impossible.

    Incidentally, Bill Kaysing was merely echoing what Ralph Rene stated in his book. Rene believed that the shuttle was blown up because McAulliffe wouldn’t keep quiet about the stars that one can see on the daylight side of earth. And neither did Rene deny that all space travel was impossible. As he states right at the beginning of his book: “Our shuttles routinely blast off to orbit the Earth. There is not a single doubt that man is in space!”

    As you stated yourself; quoting out of context is basically lying and truly awful. I would hate to think what your readers and followers would say if it turned out that you were putting words in Bill Kaysing’s mouth. That being said: are you willing to bet $100,000 that you can prove that Kaysing stated that all space travel is impossible?
    If so kindly provide any source in which Kaysing made such a statement. Where did he make the statement? On radio? TV? Newspaper? Magazine? Anywhere? Otherwise please kindly retract this statement.

    Jarrah White

    PS: Do you have any comments regarding “Operation: Dirty Trick”?


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar