The man who fooled the media

Chris Atkins is a liar – a very good one – and the media knows this only too well. Over the past few years the BAFTA-nominated documentary-maker has made a name for himself fooling the British media into covering a range of false stories. Most recently he fooled the Daily Mail, BBC News, and others into believing that the Prime Minister’s new cat, Larry, was stolen from his aunt.

His work aims to expose the amount of outright nonsense that appears in the media. Journalists, desperate to fill space in news print or flesh out a television bulletin, will often publish unverified information.

In his 2009 documentary “Starsuckers”, Atkins duped assorted tabloids into publishing made-up stories about celebrities. One of these included Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding having a book collection on quantum physics and a telescope.


Chris Atkins, director of the film ‘Starsuckers’, puts the media to the test with fake stories. Photo: Borderlines Film Festival

“They don’t care. That’s the most depressing thing. You do something like ‘Starsuckers’ that shows this stuff … and they literally do not care and keep on going. They’re oblivious to it,” Atkins says.

“The only time they think ‘hang on, we’re printing all this shit that isn’t true’ is if people stop buying their papers. Perversely, the opposite is the case. The truth is often quite dull. So lies sell better. The public are more receptive to lies than they are to the truth, because the truth’s boring.”

“Starsuckers” also exposed journalists allegedly willing to use illegal methods of obtaining information – like taking celebrities’ medical records. As well as Max Clifford, the notorious publicist, talking candidly about all of the information he manages to keep out of the media on behalf of his clients.

The backlash came thick and fast: “Lots of people tried to sue us. The News of the World, Max Clifford, and Bob Geldof were all queueing up at one point to try and take us to court if we said the things that we were going to say about them.”

“We said ‘We’ll see you in court’. Then we screened the film, and we were right. But that did take up a lot of time and energy, and unfortunately, money fighting off these various legal challenges. The News of the World’s one in particular was extremely vicious,” Atkins says.

“But similarly [we had] lots of plaudits lots of pats on the back, lots of people coming up to [us] saying thank you for doing this, thanks for doing the thing television documentaries weren’t doing.”

He said: “Now people are banging on about phone hacking like it’s new news. Actually, phone hacking is five years old, and ‘Panorama’ has just got around to doing a documentary on it. That’s what I call being current affairs on the BBC.

“At the time, we were the only people really saying ‘Come on, our tabloid press are out of control. They’re printing things that aren’t true and they’re breaking the law’.”

He claims no representatives of the tabloids will defend themselves publicly against him: “They’ve just refused to debate with me, which I sort of think speaks volumes.”

His earlier documentary “Taking Liberties” (2007) was about the erosion of civil liberties under Tony Blair’s New Labour government, which flirted with authoritarianism.

He gained a BAFTA nomination for the film. “Starsuckers” also received widespread acclaim, though not in the tabloids of course.

Both films were made for the big screen and shown in cinemas before making it onto television. They’re made in the big American style of documentary associated with the likes of Michael Moore. The reason Atkins has adopted this style – he’s seemingly the only British documentary maker to have done so – is because he “can’t stand most British documentaries”.

Atkins says: “All my favourite documentaries are American. When I was seeing things like Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, Werner Herzog – even things like ‘Murderball’. There were amazing polemical docs and great story-based docs. ‘Spellbound’, ‘Catching the Friedmans’ – all this stuff was coming out of America. I’m a big ciné buff and I was watching all of these docs going ‘This is what I want to be doing’. These things have a point, rather than our films that didn’t seem to have much of a point.”

He lays the blame at the top-down approach of the TV sector, which most British documentaries are made for, as they stamp out original and creative work.

“You go in, say ‘I’ve got a great idea. It’s about the erosion of civil liberties’ and they go ‘Ah, we’ve had a civil liberties season, we’ve had a Blair season, why don’t you do something about food?’ … If you have an Oscar-winning idea and you go to a TV commissioner they’ll tell you it’s crap and say ‘Why don’t you make something about food?’ … because that’s what they’ve decided in a planning meeting they need to have a season on.

“That’s why our documentaries on television – and as a whole a lot of our television – is just unwatchable in Great Britain, because it’s made by top-down decisions from advertisers, not by people with a creative bone in their body.”

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