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Holy terror: The first great radio hoax

By Paul Slade
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Secret London
Murder Ballads

“Unemployed demonstration in London. The crowd has now passed along Whitehall and, at the suggestion of Mr Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues, is preparing to demolish the Houses of Parliament with trench mortars. [...] The clock tower, 320 feet in height, has just fallen to the ground, together with the famous clock Big Ben, which used to strike the hours on a bell weighing nine tons.”

- Ronald Knox, Broadcasting the Barricades, January 16, 1926.

“Hundreds of people rang up amazed newspaper offices, asking for details and saying they had heard it from the BBC. In the West of England, rumours were still going round yesterday morning and anxious enquiries were made of the police as to the truth of the report.”

- Daily Mirror, January 18, 1926.

The first reports came through just after 7:40 on Saturday evening. Listeners to the BBC's fledgling radio service heard the closing words of a talk on Gray's Elegy, then a plummy announcer's voice breaking in with news that an unemployment demonstration in Trafalgar Square had turned violent. The angry demonstrators were already sacking the National Gallery, he said, and they weren't finished yet.
It was January 16, 1926, and many listeners must been half-expecting news like this to break any day. Russia's 1917 revolution had left Britain's establishment nervous about proletarian revolt, the First World War had undermined all notions of working class deference and the Labour Party had just adopted Clause IV's call for common ownership. The first half of the 1920s saw the formation of the British Communist Party, two miners' strikes paving the way for a General Strike to come, and the election of the country's first Labour Government.
“There were great worries that deference was on the wane,” explains Joanna Bourke, author of Fear: A Cultural History. “And that poor people, the unemployed, were not going to put up with being poor any more.”
After a few minutes of live music from the Savoy Hotel's house band, the announcer broke in again. “The unemployed demonstration,” he began. “The crowd is now pouring through the Admiralty Arch, and is advancing towards the back of the Government buildings in Whitehall in a threatening manner.” (1)

The crowd had reached the Houses of Parliament, and was preparing to fire trench mortars

There followed some reports of demonstrators throwing empty bottles at the ducks in St James's Park, and then a shuffling of papers as fresh reports seemed to arrive on the announcer's desk. “Eh, what's that?” he asked. “One minute, please. From reports which have just come to hand, it appears that Sir Theophilus Gooch, who was on his way to this station, has been intercepted by the remnants of the crowd still collected in Trafalgar Square, and is being roasted alive. [...] He is now being roasted alive by a crowd in Trafalgar Square.”
At this, the BBC cut to the Savoy band again. There was another burst of music, and then an announcement that the crowd marching down Whitehall had reached the Houses of Parliament, and were preparing to fire trench mortars at London's most famous landmark. “The clock tower, 320 feet in height, has just fallen to the ground, together with the famous clock Big Ben,” the announcer told astonished listeners.
Worse was to come. “One moment, please. Fresh reports, which have just come to hand, announce that the crowd have secured the person of Mr Wotherspoon, the Minister of Traffic, who was attempting to make his escape in disguise. He has now been hanged from a lamp-post in the Vauxhall Bridge Road.”
Once again, the BBC patched listeners through to the Savoy's band. But this time the music was quickly interrupted by a loud explosion. “Hello everybody,” the announcer cut in. “London calling. The Savoy Hotel has now been blown up by the crowd. That noise which you heard just now was the Savoy Hotel being blown up by the crowd. [...] One moment, please. The more unruly members of the crowd are now approaching the British Broadcasting Company's London station with a threatening demeanour. One moment, please.”
As the rioters reached BBC headquarters, accounts of their progress came to a close, replaced by an hour of assorted music.
The BBC's 2LO was then Britain's only radio station, television was still a decade away, and there would be no newspapers until the following day. All over the country, listeners switched off their sets in a stunned silence and tried to digest the information that the nation's art treasures had been looted, Parliament flattened, the Savoy Hotel bombed and a Government minister lynched in the street. For many, their first instinct was to telephone whatever authorities they could think of and demand more information.
“We had hundreds of serious telephone enquiries from all parts of the country,” the Savoy Hotel's manager told reporters next day. “There were calls from Ireland, Scotland, Manchester, Newcastle, Hull, Leeds, and many other places. We must have had over 200 local calls. People wanted to know whether it would be necessary to cancel their rooms. Some made anxious enquiries as to the safety of friends staying at the hotel.” (2)
Newspapers received hundreds of calls too, later saying they'd been “bombarded with enquiries asking for further details of the revolution and information on the state of the metropolis”. Other listeners called the BBC itself, one complaining that his wife - who had a weak heart - fainted at hearing the broadcast. The Admiralty took calls from people demanding it send a Royal Navy battleship up the Thames immediately to quell the violence. The Mayor of Newcastle returned from an official dinner, where no radio reports had been available, to find his wife in great distress and a telephone message from the Sheriff of the County asking what he intended to do to safeguard his own city. (3, 4, 5, 6)

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Did Welles copy Knox for his own Martians trick?

It wasn't only the British newspapers that excitedly reported Broadcasting the Barricades' reception. The New York Times told readers all about Knox's programme in its January 19, 1926 edition, heading the article “We Are Safe From Such Jesting”. (26)
      The copy below this unfortunate headline explained that the foolish Brits' confusion had been possible only because the BBC had a monopoly on UK broadcasting. America, the NYT smugly pointed out, had a free market system which allowed listeners to flip through many rival stations, and so check the facts any one broadcaster was using.
      “Large numbers of people were filled with anxiety,” the paper said of Knox's programme. “Such a thing as that could not happen in this country.”
      Twelve years later, on October 30, 1938, Orson Wells' Mercury Theatre ensemble broadcast their adaptation of HG Wells' War of the Worlds, using many of the same fake news techniques which Knox had pioneered. “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact,” screamed that same New York Times. “Many Flee Homes to Escape 'Gas Raid From Mars' - Phone Calls Swamp Police at Wells Fantasy”. (27)
      The panic in America dwarfed anything that had happened in Britain, but was created by much the same means.
      Like Knox, Welles used a series of breaking news reports to convey a sense of urgency in his story and, like Knox, he cut in and out of a pre-programmed dance band broadcast to mimic the on-air chaos of covering a sudden emergency.
      What's less clear is whether Welles and his producers were consciously aping Knox's broadcast, or had simply hit on a very similar idea for themselves.
      Speaking after Broadcasting the Barricades airing in 1926, a BBC spokesman claimed its impact as a definite British first. “Such a misunderstanding has never been created in any other country in which wireless is employed,” he told the Birmingham Mail. (28)

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