Digger (1863) by Jean-François Millet. Print held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, USA. Public domain.

I was away most of last week and didn’t keep on top of the news from my other country, Belgium, so when I noticed that The Conversation had published a story about a farmer in Belgium who had moved a stone and thereby accidentally annexed France, I clicked on it. It sounded like une histoire belge (‘a Belgian story’, a joke made by the French at the expense of French-speaking Belgians, which is, by the way, most often also enjoyed by Belgians). Incidentally, the Dutch similarly produce belgenmoppen (‘jokes about Belgians’) at the expense of the Dutch-speaking Belgians.

While I understand that this little story was only used as an ‘in’ on the subject of the ‘fragility’ of borders, unfortunately, it’s a typical example of lazy reporting and/or writing. This kind of writing makes people distrust anything they read in the media. Factual accuracy matters, even in the margin of a story — otherwise, the main message of the story risks getting tainted or lost.

Let’s begin with the title. If anything, only a tiny bit of France was taken. The title of every other article in English that I found by doing a quick Google search accurately says that the border was moved, or that Belgium was made bigger, or that France was made smaller. Secondly, one person can’t annex a country. The title smacks of clickbait. That’ll teach me.

Anyway, I like maps and history, so I read on. Next, the article states that the farmer’s act has caused an ‘international ruckus’. The word ‘ruckus’ implies commotion or even violence, whereas it’s clear from both the linked BBC story as well as other reports that the act has only caused smiles all round so far — people call it une histoire belge.

Further down, another statement — that the stone was carved with a date and compass points. I frowned. A date and a name of a country or a province makes sense, but compass points? I checked some of the images in different reports. Although I can’t be sure that these images actually show the stone that has been moved because the reports don’t actually tell me so, in most reports, I see the same image of a stone showing ‘1819’ and an ‘N’. I suspect that the author has interpreted ‘N’ to stand for north. A quick search would have revealed that the other side of these border stones shows ‘F’ for France, and that ‘N’ here stands for Verenigd Koninkrijk der Nederlanden (or, United Kingdom of the Netherlands), which at the time included Belgium — because the country only came into being in 1830.

Finally, — and not only The Conversation but most other media outlets fail their readership in this — before repeating ‘facts’ reported by someone else, surely some fact-checking should be done? The only thing that is clear to date is that a particular border stone has been moved, making France a bit smaller. The reporting of this story, both internationally and locally, smacks of a game of Chinese whispers. As far as I can tell, it has not been confirmed that a farmer moved the border stone, let alone that they did so because they were sick of having to drive around it on their tractor, or even that they were male …

close-up of young trees and big rocks

Rocks in the Forest of Fontainebleau (1860/1865) by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Painting held in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, USA. Public domain.