The Chinese lantern craze fuelled a tabloid UFO campaign during last year’s silly season and this year they were back.
During the summer armadas of lanterns 100 strong were photographed hovering over Lincolnshire, Merseyside and parts of Holland. Newspapers saw the story as light relief from the tedium of MP’s expenses. Keen to keep the mystery alive the Mirror proclaimed: “These spooky orange lights in the sky have the country baffled” whilst the Mail headlined with “Invasion of the orange aliens” (4 July). The lanterns were everywhere.
In June they lit up the skies over the Glastonbury festival and shortly afterwards a spate of false alarms involving “red flares” along the south coast were traced to more lanterns. This led coastguards to urge beach party-goers to contact them before they liberated any more orange aliens.
In August contributors to The Guardian debated the alleged environmental impact of the lanterns, hinting that a ban might be on its way. Their sale has already been prohibited in Vietnam and in three German states following the death of a 10-year-old boy in a house fire sparked by a lantern. In a separate incident a couple celebrating their marriage set fire to two houses in Dieburg, causing £200,000 in damage.
A story published by The Independent on 28 July quoted the National Farmer's Union and RSPCA as raising concerns that cattle could be harmed by eating the metal wires that hold the candles in place after the lanterns fall to the ground.
But the managing director of Sky Lanterns, which has been selling the darned things for seven years, pointed out that as with any other product it was ultimately up to the customer to behave responsibly when liberating them.
Banning the sale of these mini-hot air balloons, which bring joy to many people and produce beautiful displays in the night sky, would seem to me to be a massive over-reaction. After all they were first used in China during the 3rd century and are still released in the Far East to celebrate special occasions and as a symbol of good wishes.
"Sky lanterns" have become increasingly popular in the UK since 2002, but here they have sparked a rash of tabloid UFO headlines of the "Flat Earth News" variety. The tabloid obsession began with one widely-publicised sighting by the crew of the South Wales Police helicopter, who reported a "near-miss" with a UFO last summer.
The "UFO", captured on the copter's camera, appears to be just a few inches in length and there can be little doubt it was from a flotilla of 30 lanterns released from a wedding reception nearby earlier in the evening.
When will the tabloid lantern bubble burst? Maybe it already has. The novelty factor the lanterns provided is now wearing paper thin. Last summer hardly a day passed without The Sun’s alien invasion headlines. This year the stories are fewer and attempts to suggest some "mystery" remained looked increasingly desperate.
Either the UFO fleet had returned home, or someone realized there was only so many times you can run the same story before the public loses interest.