How a simple tentacle became a media star
Sometimes I hold seminars about journalism – photo journalism in particular of course. Most of the time I start talking about the journalistic rule number one.
What is rule number one? Journalism works very simply. When a dog bites a man – this is not a story. Dogs bite men. Unless the man is Prince Charles or the President of the United States, nobody is interested. But the opposite case – when a man bites a dog – that’s a story. The story will be even bigger if the man who bites the dog is the U.S. President and the dog belongs to Prince Charles.
However, in the future I must change my seminars and change the picture from the dog to the octopus “Paul” — better known as the “octopus oracle” at the Sea Life Aquarium of Oberhausen, a former coal mining and steel producing city in western Germany.
The two-and-a-half year-old octopus has become a star all over the world by predicting all six of Germany’s 2010 World Cup games correctly – two defeats and four victories.
With his nine brains it takes him only a few moments to choose between two glass boxes – each filled with a delicious mussel. Each box is decorated with the flags of the respective teams that are scheduled to clash in South Africa. The keepers of the Sea Life Aquarium strictly follow the FIFA regulation: the home team gets the left box and the guest team receives the right box. Then hungry Paul reaches with one of his eight tentacles into one of the boxes to steel the little mussel. When the mussel quickly disappears into his mouth a whole nation is plunged into disbelief or jubilation.
The first time I covered Paul’s prediction for Reuters was before the classic clash between England and Germany. Only a handful of TV cameras – most of them local or domestic TV – were there. Then there were, including myself, four photographers from Germany’s biggest daily and three wire agencies. After Paul predicted the Germany-England match and the following game (Germany vs. Argentina) correctly – the media coverage got completely out of hand.
One cannot imagine how many cameras can fit in a two meter square area in front of Paul’s glass window that is only slightly bigger than the size of an A1 placard. The media scrum for Paul’s next prediction, the semi-final between Germany and Spain, was even bigger. Dozens of semi-professional wanna-be-journalists arrived prior to the match with their (no joking) mobile phone cameras to glimpse Paul’s prediction. The “real” professionals pleaded to the PR-manager of the Sea Life Aquarium to end the “zoo situation” and form a pool and/or give the agencies and newspapers that had come from the very beginning to cover the Paul story the places in the front row. In fact, there is only one row that one can work from.
The respective photographers kneel some 50 cm (20 inches) in between and in front of the tripods of the TV cameras that use the other 50 cm of space in front of Paul’s aquarium window. It’s not fun sometimes to be a photographer – to be squeezed in like cattle while working in temperatures of 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity that feels to be approaching 100 per cent.
To make sure I got a good spot, I got up early today to talk with the Sea Life management and my colleagues of our competitors and TV stations to arrange dignified working conditions. I was there two hours ahead of the time when Paul was scheduled to pick the winner of the so-called “little final” between Uruguay and Germany. Paul picked Germany. Some 45 minutes later he was hungry again and chose Spain as the 2010 World Cup winners over the Netherlands in Sunday’s final.
All of my colleagues were very grateful with Paul for choosing so fast. It didn’t seem to matter whether he picked Spain or the Netherlands. Kneeling in front of an octopus under these circumstances makes you think how stupid sometimes our job in the media is and how simple journalism works: a story is a story when a man bites a dog — or nowadays when a hungry octopus picks the correct mussel from a glass box.