The joke's on you

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am

One April 1 in the 1840s, the Boston Post revealed the location of a cave full of treasure on Boston Common. A flock of treasure seekers set out for the park despite the heavy rain to find they were victims of one of the earliest April Fool's Day hoaxes generated by the media.

The origins of April Fool's Day remain unclear. The most likely explanation is that it originated in 16th-century France. The country was one of the first nations to adopt the Gregorian Calendar and move New Year's Day from end of March to first of January. Those who didn't hear about the change kept celebrating New Year's Day on April 1, and were therefore mocked.

A century and a half has passed since the Boston Post trick, but the media's interest in fooling the public continues.

Whether they work in newspapers, radio or television, journalists go to great lengths to produce ingenious pranks for the day.

One of the best known April Fools' Day hoaxes in recent history is the 'spaghetti harvest' of 1957. The BBC broadcasted a documentary about Swiss villagers harvesting spaghetti from trees.

The programme attracted eight million viewers and hundreds of inquiries on how to grow 'spaghetti trees'.

The Guardian was responsible for another famous hoax in 1977. The paper issued a seven-page supplement commemorating the 10th anniversary of San Serriffe, a group of islands supposedly in the Indian Ocean. Thousands of readers contacted the paper asking for travel information.

However, the nation, its two main islands - Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse - and all the details were plays on words related to typography.

But reporters, too, have been fooled. On April 1, 2003, just 11 days after the Iraq war began, the Iraqi ambassador to Russia read a news bulletin to a room of journalists.

It read: 'The Americans have accidentally fired a nuclear missile into British forces, killing seven'. The room fell silent before the ambassador grinned and shouted 'April Fools!'

Harmless hoaxes cheer people up. But some go too far. In 1998, the son of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein published a front page story saying that then US president Bill Clinton had announced he would lift the eight-year-long sanction on Iraq. He dashed thousands of suffering Iraqis' hopes on page two.

He played a similar trick the following year, saying citizens would be given extra rations, but no one was fooled.

In 1999, a radio station in Oregon, US, reported that a dam had burst and floods threatened hundreds of homes. Residents were getting ready to flee when it was revealed to be a hoax.

But the practice of issuing fake news reports can backfire. In 1946, a tsunami caused by a strong earthquake in the Aleutian Islands killed 165 people in Hawaii and Alaska. Many people had dismissed the warnings as a prank.

April Fool's Day is an ancient and entertaining tradition - just be sure your tricks are safe!