The subjects journalists take most seriously are the ones they are trained to understand – in particular crime, politics and showbiz gossip. A high-profile report was published last week into why the BBC dropped one particular news story that happened to combine all three of these elements (and which, when it was eventually taken up by a rival broadcaster, proved to be the news sensation of the year). Since the Pollard report ruled out any kind of conspiracy or cover-up, the only conclusion is that the BBC editorial staff dropped the story because they had less than 100% confidence in the reliability of their sources. It’s reassuring to know the BBC has such tremendous journalistic integrity... but this only applies to stories they consider “serious”. When it comes to the more unusual and offbeat stories of interest to Forteans, virtually the opposite is true. Here the concern is not to dig into sources, examine conflicting viewpoints and present the balanced facts, but simply to tell a cosy little narrative with a well-constructed plot and stereotyped characters. The result is often closer to a TV soap opera than serious investigative journalism.
Last Sunday the BBC website ran a story entitled “Has World War II carrier pigeon message been cracked?” The article begins “An encrypted World War II message found in a fireplace strapped to the remains of a dead carrier pigeon may have been cracked by a Canadian enthusiast,” and then goes on to inform us that “the message—which attracted world-wide media attention—was put in the hands of Britain's top codebreakers at GCHQ at the beginning of November, but they have been unable to unlock the puzzle. They remain convinced the message is impossible to decrypt...”
When I first read the story, I took it completely at face value – as I’m sure many other people did. It was only when I read the write-up in last month’s Fortean Times (FT296), which was much more detailed than the BBC report, that I started to think about it more carefully. The most striking fact that had been omitted by the BBC (not just in that first report, but in all subsequent coverage) was that the dead pigeon was found thirty years ago, in 1982 – “74-year-old” David Martin was merely 44-year old David Martin at the time. The fact that it took the collective brainpower of Britain’s media three full decades to come up with a newsworthy angle on the story gives one pause for thought.
The idea that a WW2 carrier pigeon message should be found forty years after it was sent isn’t far-fetched in itself. That it should be the only known instance of an encrypted message is a bit of a coincidence... but after all, coincidences do happen. But there are other coincidences. It was sent on D-Day, and it was destined for Bletchley Park. “So what?” you say. “I’ve heard of D-Day, and I’ve heard of Bletchley Park.” But that’s the whole point! As memories of WW2 fade from public consciousness, D-Day is one of the few events, and Bletchley Park one of the few locations, that still have any meaning for the average visitor to the BBC website. To top it all (as the FT article pointed out) there is the coincidence of names between “Bletchingley” and “Bletchley” – a subliminal clue that would be far more at home in a work of fiction than in serious journalism!
The second instalment of the story came three weeks later on 23 November: “WWII pigeon message stumps GCHQ decoders”. This had to happen, because the hackneyed plot template we’re using runs “secret code is found ... experts say it is uncrackable ... code is cracked by amateur sleuth”. The story demands that a plodding, unimaginative, taxpayer-money-wasting Inspector Lestrade must profess himself stumped before our modern-day Sherlock Holmes can burst onto the scene. But if you read the article carefully, the reason GCHQ said the message was undecipherable wasn’t just that they were helpfully conforming to the stereotype of the stuffed-shirt bureaucrat that our story demands. It was because the code has all the appearance of having been encrypted using a “one-time pad”, which no less an authority than Wikipedia describes as “a type of encryption which has been proven to be impossible to crack if used correctly”.
So we come to that inevitable final headline, “Has World War II carrier pigeon message been cracked?”. When a Canadian amateur historian said he’d decoded the pigeon message, the BBC journalists were faced with two alternatives. They could investigate the story properly—and run the risk of it vanishing in a puff of rational argument—or they could run the story with a question mark at the end. They took the latter approach, which is a lot simpler and a lot more entertaining.
If the Canadian solution is to be believed, the message doesn’t use a one-time pad or any other type of cipher. It uses standard military codes that had been around since the First World War – “relying heavily on acronyms”, as the article says. The purpose of the code is not deception but compression. The 136 characters of the coded message, rather than encrypting a Top Secret message of 136 characters, are simply a shorthand way of writing a much longer message of a hundred-odd words.
But how certain is all this? An internet search reveals many attempts to debunk the Canadian solution, both on the grounds that it’s not how things were done in WW2, and that the resulting message contains no information of tactical or strategic value. This blog post, with the comments after it, provides a good summary of what's wrong with the Canadian “solution”, as well as serious and well-informed research towards a true understanding of the cipher used. What is remarkable is that the BBC and other mainstream media have shown no interest either in this debunking of the Canadian work, or in any of the more level-headed but less spectacular research on the subject.