We’ve looked at some of the biggest journalistic scandals in recent wizarding history to see just how similar they are.
Muggles will never have Magizoologists, or an Improper Use of Magic Office slotted in next to the Department for Work and Pensions, but journalism is a shared vocation. If you compare some of the most newsworthy events on either side it syncs up remarkably often.
Unlike the surfeit of newspapers delivering news of current events to Muggles, the Daily Prophet seemed to be the only large wizarding newspaper in the United Kingdom, and initially it seemed to be an accurate source. Perhaps a little too accurate, in fact, employing an idiosyncratic method of reporting quotes precisely as they’re delivered even when it’s not strictly necessary:
‘Mr Weasley was unavailable for comment, although his wife told reporters to clear off or she’d set the family ghoul on them.’
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
As time passed, however, the Prophet started churning out rumours and gossip, which the wizarding community has as healthy an appetite for as Muggles do. As J.K. Rowling puts it, the Prophet ‘sometimes displays an unfortunately sensationalist tendency best epitomised by star reporter Rita Skeeter’.
Harry first had the misfortune of meeting Rita in his fourth year, when she covered the Triwizard Tournament described in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Rita, with her tight blonde curls, long nails and pointed spectacles, had a personality every bit as sharp as her magical Quick-Quotes Quill, which literally conjured salacious stories from thin air. She often wrote articles as revenge, manufacturing a story about Hermione Granger two-timing Harry that became one of the most famous scandals that year, and even had Mrs Weasley believing it. There are obvious parallels to be drawn between Rita’s Quill and Muggle tabloid newspapers, which can sometimes print first and offer retractions later – though this is at least an improvement on Rita, who didn’t offer retractions at all.
Hermione discovered Rita was an unregistered Animagus, turning into a beetle to eavesdrop around Hogwarts and giving a new meaning to being ‘bugged’. This kind of activity feels rather similar to the phone hacking scandals that rocked the British News of the World tabloid (among others) between 2005 and 2011. Heaven knows what Rita would have done if telephones were at her disposal as well.
By the following year the Prophet was eschewing reports of Voldemort’s return in favour of mudslinging at both Harry and Professor Dumbledore, and later published uncomplimentary excerpts from Rita’s hastily-written biography of the latter. When pressed, Rita admitted this had a little something to do with Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge refusing to accept Voldemort’s return, saying: ‘Fudge is leaning on the Prophet.’ However, she also told Hermione that ‘The Prophet exists to sell itself, you silly girl!’ Clearly in wizarding publications integrity comes up hard against the profit margins, as often as it can do for Muggle journalists.
Between January and March 1991 the British newspaper the The Guardian published three essays by Jean Baudrillard collectively named ‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place’. Baudrillard argued that media propaganda prevented the public from knowing what was actually happening. For the wizards and witches reading the Daily Prophet, as well as the stubborn attitude of Fudge, Voldemort’s second rise to power did not take place either, and the Prophet proved such a persuasive single source of information that people began to doubt Harry’s character even while actually knowing him. Seamus regarded Harry suspiciously even though they shared a dorm room.
At the start of the Second Wizarding War communications went underground, with the creation of the clandestine radio show Potterwatch, dedicated to spreading word of the fight against Voldemort and reporting news that the Death Eater-controlled Prophet and Wizarding Wireless Network would not. Potterwatch was hosted by Lee Jordan, everyone appearing on Potterwatch had a code name, and tuning in to the show required a password that changed every week. These tactics are close to the radio network used by the French Resistance when France was occupied territory in the Second World War. Radio communications were key to passing intelligence, and the operators were passionate, inexperienced and always running the risk of being caught.
Fortunately, there are always smaller, independent alternatives for both wizards and Muggles. In the non-magical world ‘zines’, short for ‘fanzines’, exploded in the 1970s with the emergence of photocopiers and punk, a subculture marked by alternative ideas, interesting haircuts and ungoverned self-expression. The truest form of wizarding zine is The Quibbler, published by Xenophilius Lovegood, the father of Harry’s friend Luna. Xeno was determined to get the truth out — or at least, his truth, which was very earnest but didn’t always align with reality, and if being uncharitable one might say The Quibbler shared a few traits with conspiracy theory newsletters as well as zines.
Before the Second Wizarding War had begun it was The Quibbler that, in 1996, published Harry’s side of the story when the Prophet was discrediting his name, and earned itself the distinction of being banned on the Hogwarts grounds by the unrelentingly awful Dolores Umbridge. Remaining genuinely independent, The Quibbler was staunchly pro-Potter even at the height of the war. A truly punk publication.
It would be lovely to say that the wizarding world learned its lesson, but it seems their memories are as short as Muggle ones – or perhaps more exposed to Forgetfulness Charms. As recently as 2014 Rita delivered an underhand column on Harry and his close friends and family from the Quidditch World Cup. On the other hand, Ginny Potter offered much-needed balance as the Prophet’s senior Quidditch correspondent, and The Quibbler resumed publication after the Second Wizarding War without missing a beat (or a Crumple-Horned Snorkack).
Magic may change the methods of journalism, but it can’t alter the nature, or remove the public desire to know just what is going on – even if we never quite get the full picture. It’s oddly comforting to know we have that much in common, don’t you think?