It was said that no one — in this media-savvy age of sophisticated electronic communications — could again create a mass audience scare the likes of the Martian invasion Orson Welles depicted in his 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds.” Last week, Belgium got its own taste of the power of broadcasting to create mass public fear. And it was, just as with the Orson Welles broadcast, all in the name of art.
A fictional newscast showed fuzzy pictures that appeared to be King Albert II and Queen Paola fleeing the country on an air force plane as pro-monarchy demonstrators waved Belgian flags outside the royal palace. Then there was live footage of trams blocked at Belgium’s new border. Flanders, the report declared, had proclaimed its independence. Belgium, a nation of 10 million people, was no more.
It was all fictional drama telecast by public broadcaster RTBF, but it was effective in whipping up a fury as more than 2000 frantic viewers jammed RTBF’s switchboard.
Last Thursday’s issue of “Le Soir” newspaper announced that “Belgium Died Last Night.” Belgium embassies throughout the world called authorities back home to check whether Belgium’s federal system had indeed collapsed.