Today marks the 89th anniversary of what is probably the first fake news broadcast in history: Broadcasting the Barricades, a satirical skit that aired over the BBC on January 16, 1926. The show was the work of a Catholic priest, a satirist, and a writer of detective fiction who all happened to be the same man: Father Ronald Arbuthnott Knox. Knox penned the skit to poke fun at the BBC, because he believed his countrymen took what they heard on the radio too seriously. But he copied the style of BBC news bulletins so well that some listeners mistook his satire for the real thing.
Broadcasting the Barricades “reported” that a mob of unemployed workers were attacking London and lynching government ministers. A portion of Knox’s audience apparently believed these reports to be true, because newspapers and the BBC soon found themselves overwhelmed with calls about the fictitious uprising. This incident is often cited as a predecessor to the alleged panic surrounding Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. But, as with the later show, there are definite indications that the reports of hysteria surrounding Knox’s broadcast were exaggerated. The BBC, for instance, later reported receiving an influx of mail from listeners who enjoyed the show, as Welles and CBS would in 1938.
Still, the fake news format of Broadcasting the Barricades was remarkably similar to Welles’s War of the Worlds, and evidence suggests that reports of Knox’s broadcast may have served as one of Welles’s inspirations. You’ll find the full history of this forgotten experiment in fake news, and its connection to the infamous Martian invasion of 1938, in my upcoming book Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, which comes out on May 5.
For now, though, it’s worth reiterating that history’s first fake news broadcast was the work of a talented satirist who was also a man of deep Catholic faith. I’m sure Stephen Colbert, today’s preeminent fake news satirist and “America’s most famous Catholic,” would approve.