Newspapers have always loved April Fool's Day, from back in the days when they were trusted and massively popular, all the way through to today, when they are neither. Now it seems like a bit of a hollow joke. They say: Hey look, here's something we made up that's completely not true! Hee haw! And your first reaction isn't: Wow, that's hilarious, you've really pulled the wool over my eyes this time you cheeky scamps, but Oh, you've made something up. Not really the first time you've done it this year, or month, or week, or even in this issue, is it?
I don't want to sound grumpy, or a killjoy, or a curmudgeon or anything like that; but fuck it, I am. Or rather, that's how I am when it comes to things like this. The only way an April Fool's joke can work is if someone whom you trust does it to you: that's the whole point of it. It has to be someone you believe, rather than imagine is a constant bullshitter.
The April 1st workplace gags from "I'm a alien!" people in Simpsons ties, the "I'm mad,me!" types in the office, don't ever work, because you know they're bound to try something zany on April Fool's Day, so you're always waiting for it. With newspapers it's different. You don't have an expectation they'll joke with you; you have an expectation they tell all sorts of porkies all the time. Oh, here comes another one. Oh, they've admitted this one isn't real. Yeah, ho ho. If a newspaper worked at your office, it wouldn't be the bloke in the bow tie and the comedy glasses - it'd be that guy stinking of booze that's always turning up late, telling you that his grandmother's just died, or that he trod on a plug and had to go to Casualty, or that he didn't realise you meant today when you said the deadline was today, and that he didn't mean it this time, he'll get it done properly next time... the kind of flaky, marginal character who always seems to avoid being sacked, despite being irretrievably unreliable.
The sad thing is - and I do think it's a genuinely sad thing - that we just don't trust our newspapers any more. Just as we don't trust our politicians, or our estate agents, or lawyers. We've been turned over too many times to keep popping our heads up like Whac-a-moles thinking we won't get bumped on the head with a big sponge hammer. We know what to expect. You might argue - with some justification - that newspapers have always been casually derided as 'tomorrow's chip paper', but I do think there was a time when millions of people would turn to them as a source of information. I don't think we do any more, or at least I don't think we do with such certainty. It's gone beyond the stage of trust having broken down; it's at the point where you just don't know what to believe, and what you read in the paper is just one of many potentially slippery competing sources with agendas that you have to try and unravel. Maybe it was always like that, but it was harder to see because you couldn't check for yourself via the web. Maybe in that sense, our fun has been spoiled.
When you see a front page like this, for example
the immediate reaction isn't: Wow, that must all be true, amazing! But it's also not: That's all such bollocks it must be April Fool jokes, they can't be serious! It's the more wearily pragmatic: Oh. Here we go again. And we do. Snow chaos, some rubbish about ageing, and the great-grandmother we met yesterday who was fined in Bonkers Britain for causing unnecessary suffering to an animal selling a goldfish to some 14-year-old kid who looked about 85, apparently.
The goldfish granny is a perfect modern newspaper tale: it's telling you what they think you want to hear - that Britain is bonkers and all kinds of things, like health and safety and political correctness have gone mad - while obscuring the details that reveal that perhaps Britain isn't as bonkers as you might fear. The animal cruelty charge gets buried, because it's not a story if it's about that. All the mitigation from the convicted person - who pleaded guilty to the charges, let's please remember - is repeated as if it's factual. I wonder if they'd do the same if it was some young kid who pleaded guilty to committing a crime of violence? I'm guessing not.
Animal cruelty is a serious enough business - more serious, you could argue, than selling booze or fags or mucky vids to teenagers, and therefore something that Trading Standards should be clamping down on. But no, apparently the fact that someone has admitted an offence, been fined, said they couldn't afford the fine and has therefore been electronically tagged, is something that 'shames Britain'. Is it all right to commit a crime, then, if you're an elderly lady? Shall we just not bother prosecuting anyone who likes a bit of bingo? Shall we just give up then, and let them do everything they want, because they're old?
And when the Express says FREE HER NOW, it's not joking. This is April 1, but it's deadly serious. If people admit animal cruelty, and they're from a certain 'good' demographic, they should be let off, it says. But I remember when a couple of Romanian immigrants admitted the offence of criminal damage the other week, and the same newspaper roared and roared that they should be deported and shouldn't be receiving benefits, then said they'd STOLEN A MAN'S HOME when they hadn't. I guess they're just the 'bad' demographic, who shouldn't have anything excused, who we don't mind a pack of lies being told about.
Some offences get hidden when it suits the papers; others get magnified and exaggerated. And it seems to depend what kind of background you have, whether you're an immigrant or not. Maybe I'm losing my sense of humour, but I don't find that funny at all. Who, then, are the April Fools? The newspapers, for publishing this kind of crap, or us for reading it, and sometimes believing it?