A mockup of the "Spywhale", an AFP April Fool's joke that never saw the light of day

How many Australian Federal Police does it take to come up with an April Fools’ joke?

At least six, according to emails released in response to a freedom of information request. 

A trove of internal correspondence leading up to April Fools’ Day 2021 shows how ACT policing staff brainstormed, developed and ultimately shelved a surveillance-themed parody of Skywhale, the Patricia Piccinini-designed hot air balloon popular in Canberra.

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Australian police forces use social media as a key outreach strategy, peddling memes and other humorous content to build an audience and communicate messages.

On February 9, the AFP’s acting social media manager sent an email asking someone to come up with April Fools’ Day concepts, noting that they’d done jokes in the past: “Please keep in mind when brainstorming sensitivities in public opinion at the moment and please consider how each of your ideas may be perceived.” 

The very next day, a social media officer emailed back a number of ideas (which have been mostly been redacted in the AFP’s released documents), including a pitch for “Spywhale”.

“ACT Policing has announced the launch of its latest tool in the fight against (speeding motorists/securing the border/graffiti/topic crime type). Introducing the Spywhale,” the email says.

Its author details how Piccinini’s creation would be transformed into an arm of the surveillance state, attaching “eight long-range infrared cameras” to the Skywhale’s teats. A photoshopped version of the hot air balloon is attached, complete with an AFP cap on the fantastical creature’s head.

The team decided to plough ahead with the Spywhale pitch but nixed the original name. A March 16 internal email calls the character as “CSIwhale” instead, perhaps to avoid the negative connotations of a police panopticon.

An internal email about the Spywhale April Fool’s joke, renamed “CSIwhale”

The Spywhale project was grounded after a courtesy check-in with the ACT government. On March 29, one AFP staff member broke the bad news to another. 

“I got the sky whale concept approved from our end and then when we reached out to the ACT Govt who advised we weren’t allowed to due to rules, regulations and copyright issues :(“, the email said.

In the end, there was no April Fools’ Day joke posted to ACT Policing’s social media profiles. Instead it posted about busting a marijuana grow house.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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