About a week ago, I came across a strange story about a pair of twins getting married. I think it first surfaced on the BBC website (Parted-at-birth twins 'married') - where the use of inverted commas around the last word indicated that it was not a verified fact.
This all seemed a bit too much like an urban myth, so I was rather surprised when it was then picked up by most British newspapers, who were only too happy to add some extra detail to help things along.
When I say "add", of course I mean "make up". Because it's all based upon nothing more than a rather vague statement made by a politician, who admitted that he had no first-hand knowledge of the case. So no-one could verify exactly whether it was true or not - though a few simple enquiries might have helped to establish that it probably wasn't.
In spite of this, the story was spreading all round the world, even making it on to Reuter's "Oddly Enough" where at least it was reported without any embellishments, and with a worthwhile caveat:
Alton could not immediately be reached for comment and no further information was available about the twins or where they were from.
So hats off to Heresy Corner, a blog that wondered what exactly was going on here (Lord Alton's Tall Story):
The story of the twins who allegedly got married, only to discover their relationship and seek a High Court annulment, continues to be reported uncritically by news organisations around the world. BBC News gave it prominent coverage on all its major bulletins last night, and the sensational tale has been reported as far afield as India and New Zealand.
So far, however, there remains only a single source for it: a speech by Lord Alton in the House of Lords. Since this story made international headlines yesterday, it's a little surprising to discover that he made the speech, in a debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, a whole month ago, on December 10th 2007. Anyway, this is what Lord Alton, a former Lib Dem MP who is now a cross-bencher, told the House:
I was recently in conversation with a High Court judge who was telling me of a case he had dealt with. This did not involve in vitro fertilisation; it involved the normal birth of twins who were separated at birth and adopted by separate parents. They were never told that they were twins. They met later in life and felt an inevitable attraction, and the judge had to deal with the consequences of the marriage that they entered into and all the issues of their separation. I suspect that it will be a matter of litigation in the future if we do not make information of this kind available to children who have been donor conceived.
That's it. No names, no dates, no context, no evidence. And that is where it might have remained, buried away in the pages of Hansard.
Except that some eagle-eyed journalist (come forward and take your bow) happened upon it. As it sped around the world, it became, as such stories tend to, steadily more specific in its details, until the News of the World, in its appeal for information, is able to claim,
Their marriage was annulled at the High Court at a special hearing held within the last 12 months.
What's their source for this assertion, I wonder?
A vivid imagination, I fear.