BOB GARFIELD:In England two weeks ago on the front page of the Mail on Sunday newspaper the headline blared: George Harrison is Close to Death! The so-called 5th Beatle, Sir George Martin, had apparently given an interview in which he told of his friend's imminent demise. A few hours later Beatles historian Martin Lewis heard the tragic news on CNN at his home in California, and he smelled a rat. He called the news agency that had conducted the interview and requested to hear the tape. What he heard shocked him and spawned his article in Salon.com called The Art of Lying. Martin Lewis, welcome to the show! So what did you hear?
MARTIN LEWIS: George Martin fielded a question about George Harrison which was simply how is he doing. And George Martin answered in suitably elliptical and diplomatic terms.
BOB GARFIELD: Why don't we listen to the tape.
MAN: His, he's-- very philosophical. You know, he - I mean everybody's got to die some time, and George has been near it many times. And he's been rescued many times. So I guess he's hoping that he's going to be rescued again, and I think he will! But he knows perfectly well there's a chance he may not be, and he's accepting it quite, quite happily.
MARTIN LEWIS: The editor at the news agency took one look at that and obviously that was just not a juicy story, but he extracted it and thought well if I move this quote around and add a few words, and he added 9 crucial words that were not uttered. He knows that he is going to die soon. That is a medical bulletin. That is not a statement of philosophy. And he put that out and sold that to a British tabloid newspaper, and therein lay the big problem.
BOB GARFIELD:Sold it to the Mail on Sunday so the embroidery or the invention was not - did not end with the World Entertainment News Network. The Mail on Sunday invented still further!
MARTIN LEWIS: What they did, they took that telltale quote -- He knows that he is going to die soon. --and placed it in the story twice as though George Martin had said those words twice. They then put together every conceivable bad piece of news about George Harrison in the last few months, and they put in a lot of emotive language like: he's on his death bed and he's very emotional and made the confession to George Martin.
BOB GARFIELD:George Harrison, whether or not he's on death's door has not been a well man. He's been treated for cancer. But I guess that is not really relevant to this, this situation. The relevant fact is that at least two news organizations just made things up which I, I, I think is antithetical to journalistic principles.
MARTIN LEWIS: Absolutely. I mean the, the official answer they gave me was A) we stand by our story, and B) we have heard the tapes. Well they obviously didn't hear the tapes, because if they had heard the tapes, they would hear George Martin say words that do not relate to this. There is no reference to dying soon and that George Harrison knows this. So I assume simply they were just being blase and they wanted the story to go away. But perhaps they had reckoned without the fact that I was a A) an obsessive Beatle fan, B) a very old friend of George Martin who is offended that a 75 year old man was being used in this fashion, and C) that I had studied my Woodward and Bernstein! So I made it my business to get hold of the tapes so I could hear for myself. And that is when I discovered that the Mail was full of guff!
BOB GARFIELD: This isn't Watergate; George Harrisongate maybe. Why is George Harrisongate important?
MARTIN LEWIS:One of the things when I was investigating this story is I was told the same thing over and over -- Martin you're making a big fuss; this is standard issue practice. This goes on all the time. You're getting, you're getting crazy about this. This is what happens in journalism, and it just struck me that if I hadn't got my obsessive personality, my love of the Beatles and the fact that I was offended that a guy who has been unwell was being treated this way -- maybe I wouldn't have put all this effort into it. And it did make me think -- good Lord, just think how many stories like this go unchallenged or un-- uninvestigated.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, let me ask you just one further question. How obsessive are you?
MARTIN LEWIS:Well, I think I do this for one main reason. When I was 15 or 16 I do remember my mother coming into my bedroom one day and saying why aren't you studying your work. I of course was reading about the Beatles. She said Martin, no one's going to be interested in the Beatles in 30 years' time. You should do your, do your homework! And I think I've stayed obsessed just to prove my mum wrong. She's 79, God bless her, and still a Beatles fan.
BOB GARFIELD: Martin Lewis, thank you very much!
MARTIN LEWIS: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD:Martin Lewis is an author, Time.com columnist and Beatles historian whose article in Salon.com debunked the rumor of George Harrison's impending death.