Piers Corbyn (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP)

Has Britain gone mad?

The myth of fighting conspiracy theories can be as comforting as the real thing

Artillery Row

Has Britain lost the plot? Some of our leading commentators certainly seem to think so. Josh Glancy, the Sunday Times Special Correspondent went in search of “Conspiracy Britain” earlier in the year and found “a country rife with quackery and wingnuttery”. David Aaaronovitch went sleuthing into the depths of Twitter to present a sprawling epic of post-pandemic conspiracy Britain. Matthew Sweet (“Dr” Matthew Sweet to you) has also taken to Twitter to call out GB News for becoming the broadcasting arm of David Icke inc, even urging a “Royal Commission on Conspiracy Culture”. To top it all off, last week a poll from the website UnHerd revealed that 38 per cent of Britons believe the world is run by a “secretive elite”. Blimey, someone confiscate the tin foil!

Sweet, Glancy and their acolytes are right. Some people have completely lost their marbles. During the pandemic, like a poor man’s Louis Thereoux I found myself going along to those smiley face sticker meetings that were advertised on lamposts. Down the rabbit hole I went, attending some very strange events that ended up with Piers Corbyn receiving rapturous applause in a bougie bistro in Vauxhall as he predicted millions of deaths at the hands of the Pfizer vaccine. 

In the attempt to understand the post-pandemic world, nut cracking only gets you so far, however. Beyond Twitter investigations and fringe loony meetings there is a far bigger story that overshadows and complicates all of this: the endemic decline of trust, not just in media, but in elite establishments that persists across the West in the wake of the pandemic. 

Firstly, I don’t think Britain is losing the plot. Statistics show that globally Britain has some of the lowest belief in “conspiracy theories” relating to vaccines and climate change (funnily enough quoted in Glancy’s own article). What about the UnHerd poll? Belief in a secret elite who control the world is a fascinating question, but it’s such a wide net you can end up catching everything from David Icke fans to “left behind” critics of neoliberalism — the latter which Tom MacTague astutely teased in his analysis.

Still, the belief persists amongst “pandemic sensibles” that the public discourse is plagued with conspiratorial cranks. It is an easy way to explain away the crisis of trust, in both media and government in the wake of the pandemic. By focusing on its most extreme manifestation, this explanation curiously foregoes any proper attempt to understand why it is happening. 

The track record on transparency for Pfizer and Moderna was appalling

For Glancy, Aaronovitch and other eager nut hunters, the idea that some people might have valid cause to distrust the media or the government is apparently beneath them. It has nothing to do with the glut of bad “fact checking” and journalism during the pandemic, poor government communication, sleazy NHS contracts, unnecessarily coercive methods of compliance, weak transparency amongst governments and pharmaceutical companies, the poor implementation and understanding of lockdown policy, the widening of income inequality, the serious physical and mental harm inflicted on society’s most vulnerable and so on. 

One serious impression I did get whilst Therouxing around the Covid Conspiracy circuit was that a lot of these people were lonely, lost and helpless. They normally had personal gripes with the impact of the pandemic (lost businesses, or a loved one who had committed suicide or gone insane being the most common). Yes, all too often they were spouting nonsense, but the prevailing ideology was not one of a coherent political movement, but isolated paranoia and helplessness. 

Rather than being seen as a dangerous threat to society, much of this should be viewed as one of the uglier symptoms of a government and pandemic response that was all too often incoherent, poorly communicated and lacking in transparency.

The vaccine issue — that conspiracy favourite — highlights this well. I don’t doubt for a second that the vaccines have saved lives. Nonetheless, the track record with regards to transparency and trial data for the likes of Pfizer and Moderna during their development was appalling. Around May 2021, Transparency International reported that just 45 per cent of analysis for registered clinical trials for the top vaccines were available to researchers, with just 12 per cent making public the protocols for how testing was conducted,leading the centre to warn against “science by press release”.

This became a huge problem in the debate around side effects and the efficacy of the vaccine versus natural immunity, the narrative of which the established media completely (and deservedly) lost control of. As such, this lack of transparency wasn’t a theme for the cranks, but a hot topic for debate amongst doctors and scientists that saw numerous studies and letters in the BMJ warning about its impact on public trust and vaccine uptake.

In light of this, it’s hardly paranoid to criticise the influence of unaccountable transnational companies and organisations in the response to the pandemic. As Toby Green and Thomas Fazi argue convincingly in their important book, the Covid Consensus, conspiracy-favourite Bill Gates did indeed wield a large amount of control over the development of these vaccines through the Gates Foundation. It’s a perfectly reasonable position to accept that the vaccines were a crucial part of the pandemic recovery, whilst also criticising this influence in light of the above issues around transparency.

A reasoned debate, predicated on the belief that the public aren’t too thick to make their own sensible choices, might have prevailed. Instead a micromanagement of acceptable debate and opinion arose, often in collusion with the clearly biassed “content moderation teams of Silicon Valley. Even worse, amidst this lack of transparency, governments advocated for totally pointless vaccine mandates and “passports” that experts warned would only further entrench vaccine hesitancy. 

The media must acknowledge a majority of people who feel alienated

This has been a self-inflicted disaster, creating a lost audience now preyed on by the likes of Oliver, Steyn and Fox. Enlightened opinion has not learnt its lesson. Pundits continue to sneer, dismissing critics of 15 minute cities (a critique, as the great Simon Cooke points out, that it’s perfectly reasonable to make) as “conspiracy theorists”. Meanwhile, they adopt the curious position of bemoaning the supposed influence of the likes of the cranks whilst refusing to engage with them head on. At the peak of Bridgen mania, it would not have been hard to invite him onto the Today Programme, tear apart his totally unfounded claims that the vaccines were responsible for winter excess deaths, and question some of the very shady characters he’s been hanging out with. If Christopher Snowdon and John Bye can do it on their Twitter accounts, so too can some of our award winning journalists.

Instead, issues regarding vaccines, the impact of lockdown, energy policy in pursuit of “net zero”, immigration and even the influence of the World Economic Forum on our political class are far too déclassé to consider for debate amongst the experts in politics and media. Instead they fall into the hands of Neil Oliver and Lawrence Fox types, who take their cues from the shoot-first-ask-questions-later style of cable news polemics, thriving off the paranoia and fear of the lonely, lost and disenfranchised.

I fully agree with Matthew Sweet that this should be confronted — but what is the end game? Shut them down, silence them and celebrate a victory for common sense? The media must start to acknowledge that there is a sizable majority of people who increasingly feel alienated by the lack of transparency on issues that clearly bother them — from immigration to pandemic policy. This applies to our political class as well. In this respect, the response of failed politician Gavin Barwell to the implication (drawn from the UnHerd poll) that there are elites who ignore the whims of the electorate, was very revealing. “Another conspiracy theory” protested the man who as a minister of state neglected fire safety warnings before the Grenfell disaster, and whose party has presided over record levels of legal and illegal immigration despite pledging to reduce it. 

Transparency and accountability aren’t flimsy report recommendations; they’re the lifeblood of our democracy’s social contract. When this falls apart, conspiracy theories thrive. Continuously blaming “online disinformation”, whilst lamenting the rise of decentralised, online driven outlets at the expense of “trusted” organisations like the BBC, Sky and ITV simply doesn’t hack it anymore. Not least, when some of those institutions you end up defending are just as shady, dishonest and problematic as the peddlers of “disinformation”. 

We have been here before. After the 2008 financial crisis, the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the negative impacts of globalised liberalism, elites worldwide failed to learn from the crisis of trust. The public revolted in 2016 and then again in 2018. In the wake of the pandemic, a failure to come to terms with this latest crisis risks seeking false vindication, in debunking the wayward theories of the powerless. The most famous analysis of conspiracy theories rightly posits that they are an empowering means of making sense of a complicated and chaotic world. Then so too can be the attempts to “fight” them.

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