The Satoshi Scoop
- 7 March 2014
- From the section Technology
It looked like a huge scoop.
Newsweek, in the first edition of its reborn paper edition, had uncovered the true identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the man behind the crypto-currency Bitcoin.
And guess what - it was Dorian Nakamoto, birth name Satoshi, a 64-year-old Japanese-American living a quiet life near Los Angeles.
As excitement about Bitcoin has grown, so has the speculation about its founding father, the man who released this paper on a peer-to-peer electronic cash system in 2009. Most thought the name was a pseudonym, or that there was in fact a group of people, probably in the US rather than Japan, who had come together behind that Nakamoto brand to publish the paper and create the currency.
There is even an ongoing discussion about whether Nakamoto is in fact British, after textual analysis revealed his skilled use of apostrophes and the Oxford comma. But now it seemed Newsweek had revealed that the Baron of Bitcoin was in fact hiding in plain sight all the time.
Within minutes of the story going online, however, holes were being picked in the theory. There seemed to be little but circumstantial evidence to pinpoint the 64-year-old - he is a skilled mathematician, with libertarian views, and frustrated by transaction costs involved in paying for the model train parts which he imports.
There followed a classic journalistic comic caper, with reporters and camera crews in hot pursuit of Dorian Nakamoto. The chase was won by the Associated Press, who took Mr Sakamoto to their Los Angeles bureau. There, he insisted he was not Mr Bitcoin, and a line he'd given Newsweek - "I am no longer involved in that and I cannot discuss it" - had been misunderstood, and in fact referred to his engineering career rather than being an admission of past involvement in the currency. The Newsweek journalist who broke the story, Leah McGrath Goodman, told AP that she stood by it, and insisted "there was no confusion whatsoever about the context of our conversation - and his acknowledgment of his involvement in Bitcoin".
Adding to the doubters, a Bitcoin-related site suddenly got a comment from "Satoshi Nakamoto" declaring, "I am not Dorian Nakamoto."
So, scoop or slip-up? I'm still not entirely sure, but the tale sent me into my loft this morning to retrieve one of my most prized journalistic souvenirs. It is a page from the diary of Adolf Hitler, signed by the Fuhrer, and dated 1 September 1939.
Of course, it is not genuine - it was written in my BBC notebook by the notorious forger Konrad Kujau when I went to visit him in his Hamburg prison cell in 1984. I was a young producer, working with John Simpson on the trial of those accused of forging the Hitler Diaries, and because I spoke German (and John was away on another big foreign story) I was despatched to interview Herr Kujau.
When the Sunday Times, in conjunction with Germany's Stern magazine, unveiled the news that Hitler's Diaries had been discovered, it appeared to be the scoop of the century. One of the UK's most eminent historians, Hugh Trevor-Roper, vouched for the authenticity of the diaries, acquired by the Stern journalist Gerd Heidemann.
But very quickly the story unravelled. Trevor-Roper started to waver in his endorsement at a chaotic press conference, and days later forensic tests revealed that the diaries had been written on post-war paper, using modern ink. The journalist Heidemann and the forger Kujau both went to jail, and the Sunday Times and Stern were left to wipe copious amounts of egg from their faces.
Now, there is certainly no suggestion of any dishonesty in the Newsweek scoop - and it may turn out that the magazine has got the right man. But what the tale of Bitcoin's creator shares with the Hitler Diaries is this - both stories are, in an infamous phrase, "too good to check".
In the rush to get a fabulous scoop out before rivals catch up, there is always a danger that journalists will ignore facts that do not fit their theory. Of course, all of this could be sorted out if the real Satoshi Nakamoto steps out of the shadows…