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Media Bites: engineering the future (for a day)

A wonderful media hoax was perpetrated on the sixth of March 1997, including - as all good hoaxes do - a framework of truth around which the deception could be woven. The event was merely a book launch, but the bait that dangled in front of the media offered so much more.

"The Tasmanian Tiger will live again!" proclaimed the press release. "Find out more and the latest on cloning & the status of DNA technology at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, March 6, 12.30pm..."

Following close behind the news of Dolly, the cloned Scottish sheep, and reports on similar work on monkeys in the U.S., the release caused an instant sensation. The phone at the Museum rang wild, drawing calls from newsrooms in Tasmania and interstate, from suburban papers to The Age, all wanting to know if someone had cloned a thylacine. They obviously hadn't seen the small print - possibly illegible on the original faxes - that read "...coinciding with the launch of a new Tasmanian book, ThylaXene..."

ThylaXene is an anthology of short stories by three local authors - Niall Doran, Stuart Newman, & Craig Wellington (Doran & Newman are both PhD students in Zoology). It is published by the local firm Desdichado Publishing, which produced the successful Chronological Adventures of Detrius Thesper by Doran in 1994. The anthology has a much darker tone, however, and the title story concerns attempts to restore biodiversity in an environmentally ravaged world; a project that involves genetic engineering of DNA sequences salvaged from such extinct species as the thylacine, with some unfortunate results.

Wellington, who works in publicity and advertising, decided ThylaXene should arrive with a bang, and the launch was divided between an official (and social) launch later in the day, and the media frenzy that erupted in response to the fax. The press conference took place in front of the museum's thylacine display, with the museum bringing out some of its most prized specimens (including a complete and preserved thylacine foetus) for the event. The culprits arrived at about mid-day, hoping that at least one each of print, radio, and television crews would turn up so that all forms of the media would be covered.

The first crew, ABC television, arrived shortly before 12.30pm. They confirmed that ABC Radio wasn't far away. A paper crew arrived, another radio crew...

...then everybody arrived. It was the biggest turnout of its kind that Wellington had seen in ten years in the business. WIN TV, Southern Cross, The Age, The Australian, Triple J Radio, all of Tasmania's newspapers and just about all of its radio stations... Over 15 media outlets were represented directly, several consisting of large crews; reporters, photographers, cameramen, sound recordists - the list went on. Museum representatives were stunned; they themselves had never drawn a media turnout like that! A myriad lenses pointed at the podium like the barrels of a firing squad. TV lighting intensified the glare. And requests for information continued to come in from media outlets that couldn't be present, all believing that someone was about to drag aTasmanian Tiger out on a lead.

Quiet descended on the room. Everybody was ready to take notes. Everybody was ready to take photos and to film.

All the perpetrators had to do now was avoid being lynched.

Fortunately, most of the journalists took the hoax in the spirit it was intended. They were treated to a factual rundown, drawn from several referenced sources given in a media pack prepared for the event. Realities and achievements in genetic engineering and cloning were outlined, contacts were given for respective experts in the field, and - highlighting links to ThylaXene - the authors described the fine lines between fact, possibility, and fiction, and how quickly these lines can blur and change with time. "I was aware the sort of science fiction I was writing was plausible," Wellington said, "but science seems to be catching up with science fiction at an amazing pace."

As a reward for the hoax, media coverage was exceptional, with articles and stories turning up in a very healthy percentage of the outlets represented (coverage in The Mercury, The Advocate, and The Herald-Sun was particularly noteworthy), and attendance at other press conferences held at the same time looked decidedly sparse. But the legacy didn't stop there.

Triple J, local radio, and The Examiner ran with the story of thylacine cloning for days, ringing and interviewing bemused scientists who must've wondered where the fuss started (interestingly, The Examiner presented the article as their own idea, without referring to ThylaXene at all - just a coincidence?!). ABC Radio ran a debate on the ethics and commercial allure of cloning, sparked by and referring to the launch. Various newspapers ran a series of thylacine-clone cartoons, and the articles in The Mercury drew an exchange of letters with a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London. And in a fitting postscript, WIN TV has been reusing its footage of the thylacine display from that day to illustrate stories of recent thylacine sightings - complete with the reflected silhouttes of the three cheeky authors clearly visible in the glass!

Hoaxes come and go, but to see one pulled off so effectively is a treat of which Media Watch's Stuart Littlemore, Frontline, and any self-respecting scavenger-hunt participant (if there is such a thing) would be proud. However, I can't help thinking that, if someone does eventually clone a thylacine and try to publicise it, some once-bitten elements of the media may not be there to cover it...

Mark Weeding, Togatus, May 1997.

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