I write this in the hope that in future journalists turn to Google upon receipt of press releases from a man called Stuart Hughes or his company Goldstriker. The right keywords just might lead them to this blog so they can join my legions of followers (six mostly coerced family members and friends) in discovering the truth about just one of this man's many extraordinary claims.
Let me take you back to the beginning…
Until a few weeks ago I had never heard of Stuart Hughes or his company Goldstriker International. But that was before I started seeing stories in national newspapers (The Sun, Daily Mail, Metro, The Independent) about a £3 billion, 100ft motor yacht called History Supreme. This thing was reported as being coated in 100,000kg of gold and platinum, studded with diamonds and having a T-Rex bone as a wall feature. It had been designed by Liverpudlian Stuart Hughes, the papers said, and sold to an "anonymous Malaysian businessman". Boats being my area, I was a little irked not to have received the original press release, and rushed to get some information about the boat. I emailed Stuart Hughes via his website, and got some hi-res photos of the boat sent to me from someone called Toni.
I set to work penning the first paragraph of a story I could post on my magazine's website, my initial journalistic instinct being to get the story online as soon as possible. But before reaching the end of the first sentence, something started to trouble me. I'm not sure if it was the images, which seemed, even to my untrained eye, to have been digitally manipulated (see below), or the claim that Stuart Hughes had managed to source 100,000kg (100 metric tons) of gold and stick it on a 100ft boat, but the longer I demurred, the more outrageous it all seemed to become. The result was the following story on our website, which outlined all our major concerns: The £3 billion golden superyacht: real or fake?
The following day I put a call into Baia Yachts in Italy, the builders of the Baia 100 that Stuart Hughes claimed to have customised, and they confirmed my doubts – the whole thing was bogus, as reported in the below story: £3 billion superyacht story confirmed as fake.
Companies like Baia Yachts, the makers of the Baia 100 Stuart Hughes claims to have customised, only build a handful of these yachts, so it's inconceivable that a senior figure like their sales manager (quoted in the second story) wouldn't know about a £3 billion custom job being sold to a Malaysian businessman. And why would he lie? Boatbuilders love to shout about one-off customisations. And if there was some kind of embargo on the release of the details, how could Stuart Hughes get away with posting so much information – and pictures! – on his website? The whole Malaysian businessman thing didn't stack up either, but that's all laid out in the first story above. As is the fact that packing this much weight into a shallow-draught 100ft hull is tantamount to suicide. Singapore's Straits Times followed up our story, with a bit more detail from Mr Borselli: $4.8b gold-plated yacht? It's a hoax.
I'm proud to say that as the second story above went live, MBY was the only news source on the planet disputing Mr Hughes's claims. Everyone had bought it – from UK nationals, to blogs, to foreign media taking the story as fact from the British papers (MSNBC, Toronto Sun, Ireland's The Journal, Australia's Daily Telegraph & news.com.au). It was big news in Malaysia, I understand – as it would be here if a Brit had dropped a few billion on a superyacht (Malaysia Star, Malaysian Insider). Abramovich's massive Eclipse only cost a few hundred million, after all. Big, big news. But a complete fabrication. A couple of news outlets around the world picked up our story, reporting the reporting – the same practice that led to so much of the media printing falsehoods in the first place (Asia One, MSN Malaysia, Business Insider, Malaysian Insider). It was all too late, though – the genie was out of the bottle and to many people around the world, the established truth was that there was a Malaysian businessman out there who'd just picked up the keys to his new £3 billion, golden toy.
But what was in all this for Stuart Hughes? I'm guessing to draw people to his website so he can hock gold-plated iPads and such (if he even does this – this website accuses him of marketing products that aren't his own). I would love to ask Mr Hughes directly, but all my efforts to speak to him have been fruitless. I've called him, emailed him, and even befriended him on Facebook to send him a message that way. Short of going to Liverpool and knocking on his door, there's nothing more I can do. But even that would be hard, since there's no address on his website, and I can't find record of a company called Stuart Hughes or Goldstriker at Companies House. His company just doesn't seem to exist. He could be a sole trader, of course, and therefore not required to register at Companies House, but even getting confirmation of this simple fact has proven impossible.
The worrying thing about all this is how many major league news outlets (albeit mostly non-broadsheet ones) reported the story faithfully from the original press release. It becomes very easy as a journalist to tell which stories have been written from a press release and not questioned (no unique quotes, figures, detail, etc...), and this was clearly the case with all the reporting done on the story in the UK. And then once it was committed to paper here, it became fact for all the foreign newspapers and websites seeking to cover the amazing story of the gold-plated superyacht. Churnalism, it's called, and it's written about often by the excellent journalism blog Fleet Street Blues, which also picked up on this particular story: Churnalism gold and the £3 billion superyacht reels in the nationals hook, line and sinker. When it comes to online journalism especially, there's definitely a certain quality sacrificed for hit-whoring, with page views often coming before accuracy.
Anyway, quite apart from the failings of modern mainstream media, since writing the stories above I have become a little obsessed with Stuart Hughes and his Goldstriker enterprise. Mainly because despite my repeated pestering about the boat story, a press release pinged into my inbox in early August, telling me about his customisation of the world's most expensive house!
At a secret location in Switzerland, this house apparently contains 200,000kg – yes, 200 metric tons – of gold and platinum. This guy can apparently source more gold than most central banks – 0.18% of all the gold ever mined, to be exact, and that's just for his yacht and house projects. The story didn't hit the UK nationals, but did make its fair share of blogs and overseas papers (The Pakistan Times; Wall Street Journal, which is a reblog of a reblog). There seems to be news editors all over the world ready to print this stuff without a phone call or email to verify its accuracy. It's completely insane, especially as the press releases are terrible – really, really terrible (above). The email sent about the house forgets an apostrophe in the first word of the first sentence – an absolute cardinal sin, and a big red flag for any half-decent hack. The pdf version on the exclusive-haus.ch website (now removed) isn't much better, and only sits a rung above gibberish.
Curious, I emailed Kevin Huber from ExclusiveHAUS. He said he had indeed approached Mr Hughes about adding gold and platinum elements to the house after seeing a number of golden iPods and such belonging to his friends. But rather than the house having been completed, as Mr Hughes claimed (after five years of work, no less), it remains firmly on the drawing board. And the 200,000kg of gold and platinum? More like 1,000kg, Mr Huber said: "Nobody would ever buy 200,000kg of gold for a house – that's for sure". When asked about the press release from Stuart Hughes, Mr Huber said: "Why he wrote that the house is already built we don't know. This is a big mistake and bad advertisement for our serious Swiss company. We are well-known for our high quality standards."
There are other small corners of the internet starting to raise doubts about Stuart Hughes's latest claims, inspired in part, I'm once again proud to say, by our stories: For $12.2 billion, a house made of gold and dinosaur bones? Always with the dinosaur bones. He claims to have embedded them in iPads as well.
His boasts about creating the "world's most expensive suit" have also been tested by Luxury products company Amosu, who did a bit of digging after "finding out the $4.8 billion yacht was a fake". I haven't looked into these claims, and can't vouch for Amosu's investigation, but it certainly fits a pattern of behaviour. But I doubt Stuart Hughes cares, because he got his name in the Telegraph and The Sun for the £600,000 suit story. He's been doing this for years, it seems, pumping out press releases about fabulous products that no one has sought to verify. Who knows? Perhaps everything up to the yacht and house stories was real – even the world's most expensive aquarium? I would look into it, but I've already spent way too much time on this.
But even if only half of this stuff was true, Stuart Hughes would be the busiest man on the planet – in the last month or two alone, he's supposed to have completed the world's most expensive yacht, the world's most expensive house and an £8.2 million, gold-plated, fully armoured Rolls Royce Phantom. Not bad for a company with only one distinguishable employee and no records at Companies House.
This car, by the way, apparently contains 120kg of solid gold, and was sold, you guessed it, to an "anonymous Middle Eastern businessman". The Roller was apparently produced in collaboration with a Swiss company called Eurocash AG. I know a few Swiss people – and they would be mortified by the spelling throughout that website. And doesn't it just look a bit amateurish – like someone found a bad website template online and kicked some poorly spelled content into it? It's like Stuart Hughes's website – just the wrong side of shady. If this guy is dealing with so many anonymous billionaires, wouldn't he have a much slicker online operation? And wouldn't outright lies like the following gem from the 'About Us' section of his Goldstriker website be purged: "3. All our images are real and not computer generated."
Then there are his marketing tools, which, apart from press releases, seem to consist solely of strange YouTube videos that anyone with a five-minute understanding of iMovie could produce – and with fewer star wipes.
They're produced by an outfit calling themselves Santa Barbara Arts TV. The man behind Santa Barbara Arts TV, or SBARTSTV for short, is Cliff Baldridge, who seems just a little obsessed with James Cameron, and who has, as far as I can tell, just six Facebook friends, two of whom are profiles belonging to Stuart Hughes. In one Facebook message I saw when Mr Hughes and I were briefly 'friends', Hughes refers to Baldridge as "the king of US media". I don't know – the king of US media...?
It certainly looks like he's speaking from a penthouse in Venice Beach... see 1:35.
None of it's right – the bad websites, the photoshopped images, the obvious fabrications, the weird YouTube videos... I feel like I'm the victim of some massive, global practical joke, and any minute someone's going to tap me on the shoulder and say: "Aha! Of course none of it was true, you moron. We were just messing with you."
But I don't think that's going to happen. The unpalatable truth is that the world's just full of rushed, repeat-as-required journalists who only have five minutes to question a press release before top and tailing the next one, desperate to post content or miss out on a few precious page views. I'm not sure where I wanted to go with all this, or even where I should direct my anger – but I know it's not at Stuart Hughes. The guy might somehow make a living by producing bogus press releases, but he's not holding a gun to the heads of the journalists blindly reproducing them.
It's been interesting for me to be so close to the lie and watch it spread through increasingly connected global media, infecting everyone, picking up authority with every newspaper, blog or Twitter feed it touches. Credibility through hit results. Soon the lie, like so many others that will never be exposed, becomes fact (so many news organisations can't be wrong, right?), with the original story drowning out subsequent follow-ups about it being wrong, because the correction is just never as sexy.