A very familiar urban legend has been given another airing in today's Daily Mail story 'Swan bake: carcasses and piles of feathers found next to cooking pots at migrants' camp'. The headline is a direct echo of the first incarnation of this legend, 'Swan Bake', which appeared on the front page of The Sun back on July 4 2003. That time, after an investigation by Nick Medic, the paper had to issue a 'clarification', because large parts of it were made up. There's more about that in 'Rebirth of a legend', where I looked at the last time this legend appeared in the Mail, along with 'Rebirth of a legend II - 'The art of lying without lying'. Anton Vowl at The Enemies of Reason has a good takedown of this latest retelling.
The thing I looked at closely in 'Rebirth of a legend II', was how the paper had produced an entire article about eastern Europeans eating swans without once actually stating that an eastern European had eaten a swan. This one is similar.
The whole story is based around the idea that some swan carcasses have been found in a makeshift camp used by eastern Europeans.
Tellingly, the parts of the article that provide the strongest link to the possibility of the swans being eaten by the people in the camp - the ones that say bones and feathers were found near cooking pots - don't actually say they were swan bones, or swan feathers. Look at the headline again. Although there's a link made between swans and the bones and feathers found, it doesn't explicitly say that swan carcasses and feathers had been found next to cooking pots. Later in the article comes this:
One swan had had the wings snapped from its back, while other bones lay near to a tent and cooking utensils.Other bones. The hack hasn't said 'other swan remains' or 'bones from other swans', either because they don't know whether the bones are from swans or because they know they're not. You'd expect to see bones near cooking pots. Gil Grissom would be very disappointed.
Even the opening sentence, which comes closer to making a positive claim than the rest of the article doesn't state that eastern Europeans have eaten any swans. It says:
Carcasses from dead swans, broken up and stripped for food, have been discovered in a camp used by East European immigrants, according to reports.The article doesn't say that they've been broken up for food by eastern Europeans. Or even people. And since it includes the 'according to reports' bit, the story doesn't actually say that the carcasses are actually from swans.
The only definite claims about people eating swans made in the article are in quotes from local people. In a variation of something I mentioned back in 'Rebirth of a legend' - if you already have the idea that eastern Europeans eat swans, and you see what you think might be swan carcasses near where people who you've heard are eastern Europeans are living, you'll be far more likely to jump to the conclusion that eastern Europeans must have been eating them, rather than urban foxes. Or British people killing them for kicks.
There are only two actual references to the people in the camp where the carcasses were allegedly found being Eastern European. There's this:
Three tents remained in the camp on Wednesday. Two young Poles living there refused to come out and speak to reporters but denied taking the swans.Three tents. Not a very big camp then. I just love that addition of 'remained', as if there were more before the reporter turned up. Plus, as Anton Vowl pointed out, the hack seems to know these people are Polish despite them refusing to actually talk to reporters. The presence of a 'Romanian bible' being used to give weight to the claim that the people in the tents are Polish is another gem in this quote. Imagine a Polish cop arresting you during a search for a French national, and claiming you must be French because you've got books in English near you.
A Romanian bible and cooking equipment could be seen outside another tent, while putrid food and thousands of feathers were nearby the third.
There's also this quote about the people being eastern Europeans - which includes two curious things (or three if you include the fact that the person being quoted is referred to as a 'she' after being revealed as being a bloke called Dave):
"It makes me sick to my stomach. I have heard it is mostly Eastern Europeans who are camping here until they can get a house," she told The Sun.The first curious things is the 'I have heard' bit. The woman called David doesn't actually know that the people are eastern European. The second, even more curious bit reveals that the witness told this to the Sun. The Sun? Why is this story in the Mail and not the Sun (see update at the bottom), if that's the paper that did the investigating? Couln't possibly be because last time the Sun ran a story like this it had to issue a 'clarification' because it was made up, could it?
There's no hard evidence that the people in this camp are actually eastern European, no evidence that swans have been killed to be eaten, and no evidence that any of the dead birds have been killed by people. We only have the word of one witness that the birds were even swans.
There has never been a single report about any eastern European actually being caught eating a swan. There is one report of a Bangladeshi man being charged with killing a swan to eat, but no eastern Europeans. The Sun also reported a story last month about a gang of three British men killing 29 swans for fun. Still no eastern Europeans. But what's the betting that the person who first found the swans in that second case thought there were some dodgy Polish people about?
As Anton Vowl says in his comments:
I love the way all the commenters know someone who knows someone who says that evil Poles/Romanians eat swans/ducks/geese.Just like all the best urban legends, eh? "This bloke down the pub said that his mate's cousin saw it, so it must be true".
It's a pity my comment never got past the mods at the Mail:
Masterfully done. Another story about eastern Europeans eating swans that doesn't actually state that an eastern European has eaten a swan!I hope I haven't just given them ideas.
Is that because when the Sun actually did that back in 2003, it had to apologise for the story made up nonsense?
Hey - maybe you'll find more stories about eastern Europeans eating swans if you get Diana Appleyard to offer people a hundred quid for anonymously providing her with one. Maybe if you get Sue Reid to bribe Poles with cash and accommodation in her flat if they come to the UK and eat a swan you'll even get pictures. You never know your luck.
*UPDATE* Thanks to Septicisle in the comments for pointing out that the Sun has covered the story with pictures. I'll look at the coverage in my next post.