Gossip dressed up as investigative journalism
Conspiracy theories about everything from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina to spiked writers are polluting the mainstream media.
There was a time, not so long ago, when you would have had to trek down to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park or rub shoulders with the weird anti-Semitic guy at your workplace if you wanted to hear conspiracy theories. The idea that political events or interventions were the work of some wicked conspiracy, orchestrated from behind the scenes by Freemasons, or ‘The Man’, or a powerful Jewish lobby out to control our minds and our spending habits, was the preserve of a cranky and usually right-wing minority.
Now, however, conspiracy-mongering has moved from the margins to the mainstream, and it masquerades as investigative journalism. Today it tends to be journalists – often liberal and left-leaning ones – who are constantly on the lookout for a conspiracy, for the big bad puppet-masters who are allegedly controlling things from a suspiciously safe distance. Some of them have even accused spiked writers of being involved in a vast and dastardly conspiracy.
Many reporters today seem less interested in what politicians and public figures say or do, than in working out the hidden motivations behind what they say and do. They no longer ask, ‘Is this public figure right to say what he said?’ or ‘What will be the consequences of his actions?’, but rather ‘Who’s funding him…? Who put him up to this…? What are his links with big business that might explain his antics…?’
Even the discussion of something as important as the Iraq war has become an eternal hunt for a conspiracy, rather than a serious debate about the political and moral rights and wrongs of invading a sovereign state. So it is widely believed, on both sides of the Atlantic, that the war was the carefully elaborated plot of a wicked cabal of neocons in the White House; some even point out that many in the cabal are Jewish, to give their conspiracy extra oomph. Others claim that big corporations, desperate to get their greasy mitts on Iraq’s oil reserves, directed the war from the comfort of their plush boardrooms. Respectable liberal newspapers such as the Guardian and the Independent have entertained the theory that Western security forces are secretly behind the kidnapping and beheading of Westerners in Iraq, in a bid to discredit the Iraqi resistance (1).
Public life has become infected by this kind of conspiracy-mongering. Almost every important issue descends into a farcical search for hidden agendas – which can be infuriating for those of us who want to debate the issue on its own terms. On bird flu, there are whispers that the scare is being stoked by pharmaceutical companies who are set to make a fortune from the extra demand for flu vaccines; others claim the bird flu risk is being played down by Western leaders (including that cabal in the White House) who want to keep the public’s mind focused on Islamic terrorism. In Britain, journalists seek to explain Tony Blair’s position on everything from global warming to gambling laws to his failure (thus far) to ban junk-food advertising with reference to big companies that are allegedly leaning on him behind the scenes. Meanwhile, British tabloids still seem to believe that Princess Diana’s death in a car crash in 1997 was the work of an anti-Diana tendency within the elite (or ‘The Firm’, as the late Diana referred to the Royal Family).
In America, there were myriad conspiracy theories following Hurricane Katrina. Some claimed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency allowed New Orleans to become flooded in order that it could demand a hike in its national funding; others claimed there was a conspiracy in the higher echelons of government (rather than simply incompetence) to leave poor blacks stranded in the flooded zones. Such is the penchant for conspiracy theories on everything from Iraq to Katrina to President Bush’s nominations for the Supreme Court that a Hollywood figure such as Woody Harrelson – whose political views are taken seriously, believe it or not, by many left-leaning publications – could recently declare that, ‘The epidemic of all human rights violations all stems from the same sick source, and that is The Beast: these giant frigging industries that control the body politic, our society and certainly our economy.’ (2) In the past you would have had to scour some cranky pamphlet on the Illuminati or UFOs (or both) to read such a statement.
The rise of the conspiracy theory points to an important shift in journalism and public debate. There has been a move from debating the substance of someone’s beliefs or behaviour to focusing myopically on the motivations behind them; from challenging individuals over their words or actions to trying to uncover some deep, dark ulterior motive. This has had a deadening effect on public debate. It replaces a critical engagement with political developments with a destructive neverending search for the secret agenda. And it means that no one is ever truly held to account for what they say or do. After all, if Blair is merely the puppet of dark neocons forces when it comes to Iraq, then how can we hold him up to public ridicule for what has happened there?
This is not investigative journalism; it is gossip. I should know: some of those who work or write for spiked have been on the receiving end of this kind of cheap conspiracy-mongering.
There have been a fair few articles and rumours over the past few years accusing spiked’s editor Mick Hume and managing editor Helene Guldberg, as well as contributor Frank Furedi and Institute of Ideas director Claire Fox (with whom spiked shares an office), among others, of being involved in various conspiracies headed by everyone from the Serbian government to the drugs companies. Many of the arguments made by contributors first to Living Marxism and LM and later to spiked, all of which were edited by Hume, have been challenged, not substantially or politically, but by a kind of muck-raking search for the secret financer behind the arguments. Those who oppose what some of our writers have said about Western intervention, environmentalism and free speech have not taken up the arguments head-on but rather have said, ‘Well look who’s funding them….look who they have meetings with….what do you expect?’ These attacks should be understood as part of the broader climate of conspiracy-mongering today, where robust political debate has given way to a kind of cowardly dinner-party whispering campaign about individuals’ motives or personal interests and private lives.
The commentators who have laid into spiked have one thing in common: they have not engaged with our arguments but rather have tried to dig for dirt behind the scenes. This has been the case on various issues, and has been going on since the days of LM in the late 1990s. Journalists such as George Monbiot at the Guardian – who has written the same silly article about spiked and the Institute of Ideas about five times, merely under different headlines, and who seems especially to dislike Frank Furedi – takes particular umbrage at what some of our authors have said about the environmentalist movement and the need to defend scientific and medical progress. But instead of coming out and saying that, and arguing the toss over these issues, his starting point is always to try to discover who funded such-and-such a conference or, going even lower, to point out whom Furedi is married to or whom he rubs shoulders with at conferences or dinner parties. Anyone who has seen the new film Good Night, and Good Luck will know that attempting to discredit or incriminate an individual by exposing who is in his circle of friends and acquaintances was also a preferred tactic of that maddest of conspiracy theorists, Joseph McCarthy. (This is not to plead, by the way, that spiked is the poor little victim of a contemporary form of McCarthyism. We don’t do victimhood. It is merely to point out the similarities between conspiracy-mongering then and conspiracy-mongering now.)
Furedi has even been on the receiving end of an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. Under the headline ‘Why Jews’ views are very bad news’, a racist website recently accused him of being involved in a conspiracy ‘dedicated to the overthrow of mainstream White society in the UK’. It asked why ‘White’ individuals including Mick Hume and Claire Fox decided to join Furedi’s ‘Jew-directed attack on the mainstream’. (Apparently it is because they come from Catholic Irish backgrounds – which will be news to Hume, if not Fox – and thus ‘feel hostility towards Protestant England, the largest and most powerful country in Britain’.)
This kind of poisonous drivel might seem a world away from liberal Monbiot’s writings about spiked and the Institute of Ideas. In fact, there is a thin line today between right-wing and left-wing conspiracy-mongering: both are concerned with uncovering secret agendas rather than having an upfront debate, and it is as nonsensical to claim that Furedi, Hume and Fox are motivated by their racial make-up as it is to say they are driven by behind-the-scenes businessmen. Indeed, this racist article quotes extensively (and favourably) from a Guardian piece on the alleged ‘Furedi cult’ and from the website of Lobbywatch, a leftish group opposed to GM technology. Here, an old-style anti-Semitic conspiracy theory meets the new-fangled liberal conspiracy-mongering, and they make spookily comfortable bedfellows.
The scurrilous nature of these kinds of attacks was brought home to me when a freelance journalist (who this week was appointed editor of the Jewish Chronicle) wrote a piece attacking an article I wrote for spiked in 2004. In Choking on the facts I revealed that the UK House of Commons Health Select Committee misled the public when it claimed that a three-year-old girl had died as a result of overeating and that her death served as a salutary lesson for a nation apparently eating itself into an early grave. In fact, as one of the doctors who had studied the girl’s condition told me, she died from a complex genetic disorder, not from simply wolfing down one too many chocolate bars.
Almost a year later, the freelance journalist attacked my article, not by challenging any of the facts in it, but by suggesting that I was part of some vast conspiracy orchestrated by the food industry to discredit the Health Select Committee. As he admitted when I had the misfortune to bump into him at a media lunch a few months later, he had no reason to doubt that the content of my article was true but rather wanted to know why I wrote it. He seemed less interested in the public argument I made about this three-year-old girl and the obesity panic more broadly, than in theorising about mine and others’ mindsets and our alleged links with the food industry when we wrote and published the piece.
This kind of conspiracy-mongering serves to close down debate. It is a way of discrediting individuals and their views without having to engage with the substance of their arguments. It is the last refuge of the coward. Investigative journalism was traditionally concerned with exposing a public figure’s words and deeds to the harsh light of truth. Today, some investigative journalists are little more than glorified gossip columnists, pointing out that Public Figure A once had dinner with Businessman B and received funding from Corporation Boss C, and therefore is suspicious and untrustworthy. They are no long hunters of facts or askers of challenging political questions, but rather are detectives of the mind, always trying to work out what someone was thinking (and who paid him to think it) when he did what he did.
If you want a public debate, come on then. If you want to continue speculating about what’s going on inside our heads, bedrooms and boardrooms – get a life.
Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.
(1) See When reporters cloud the facts, by Brendan O’Neill, British Journalism Review, Volume 16, Number 2, 2005
(2) Woody Harrelson, quoted in ‘Hollywood’s angry young man’, Benjamin Davis, New Statesman, 5 December 2005
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