The Real Fake News: The Moro Affair

Matthew Tannam-Elgie looks at a genuine case of fake news that emerged in 1970s Italy

The mainstream media is almost always reliable. Just because I say almost does not mean that I’m a conspiracy theorist. When I hear people say CNN or RTÉ are “establishment tools for spreading disinformation”, I generally switch off and continue watching Prime Time. However, it is an inescapable fact that the media has been taken advantage of by outside forces on rare occasions. The consequences of this have ranged from biased reporting to the circulation of stories that were completely false to begin with. The Moro Affair is an example of the latter.

On 16th March 1978, former Italian Prime Minister and member of parliament Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the Red Brigades, a left-wing terrorist group. The Brigades demanded an exchange of prisoners with the Italian government - Moro in exchange for a handful of convicts. Not eager to appear weak by allowing compromises to be made with terrorists, several leading politicians refused to negotiate. Moro was eventually shot by the Red Brigades after fifty-five days of captivity.

During Moro’s imprisonment, however, someone decided to play a little trick. Obviously, the Italian media was in a frenzy and used all its resources to cover the statesman’s tense days of captivity. Amidst this mayhem, a communiqué supposedly signed by the terrorists was released. It stated that Moro was dead and lying at the bottom of a lake outside Rome. Major Italian broadsheets followed the subsequent search for Moro’s body to a tee, with the public eagerly awaiting news of a recovery. When no body was found, the Red Brigades officially announced that Moro was still alive. They even published a photo of him in his holding cell to prove it. The public, and the press, had been fooled.

What took place upon the release of that false communiqué was an ingenious manipulation of the media. The desperation to gain information and closure was so strong that any lead was seen as miraculous. It just goes to show that if the masses are in a highly emotional state of mind, and if an individual or organisation takes advantage of that, anything can be taken as fact. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that this can happen in all elements of the media. Alongside the news, the entertainment industry can fuse emotion and expectation in an almost chemical reaction to produce monetary success.

During the search for Aldo Moro, the line between journalistic falsehood and truth became very blurred indeed. It fit perfectly with what some people nowadays call “Fake News”. What those people need to remember, however, is that it isn’t all that common. It was an extraordinary time in Italy during Moro’s imprisonment, and literally anything could have been reported during the spiraling confusion. To believe that deliberately false information is customary in the mainstream media is simply paranoid.

There’s an ongoing debate as to who actually wrote the fake communiqué fed to Italians during the last days of their former Prime Minister. Steve Pieczinik, who was sent by US President Jimmy Carter to assist the Italian government during the Moro Affair, has claimed that it was arranged by Italian politicians to test the public’s reaction to Moro’s death. As is usual in the murkier parts of history, only time will tell. What is definite is that this case offers an unadulterated glimpse at how easy it is to meddle with the mainstream media.

This story is the first in The Real Fake News, a series that will look at actual examples of media manipulation used to spread biased (or completely false) information.