Frivolous and fanciful conspiracy theories – such as a number about the BBC – have darker consequences for democracy, writes Martyn McLaughlin.
It is no surprise that one of the most divisive general election campaigns in living memory is proving to be fertile ground for conspiracy theories. They flourish in times like these, when old norms are being eroded and solid ground gives way. It is not enough to contend with the lies and hollow promises that being uttered aloud. We must also wrestle with an imagined reality conjured up by febrile minds.
As is so often the case, the BBC has found itself in the firing line of the latest barrage, with particular venom reserved for Question Time. The episode in question, featuring four party leaders, attracted a bewildering array of criticism, including accusations it featured “planted” guests sympathetic to Labour.
But it was another conspiracy, propagated by those from the opposite end of the political spectrum, that has endured. It focused on a lunchtime news bulletin featuring an exchange in which the audience laughed when Boris Johnson was asked about the importance of people in power telling the truth.
The laughter and subsequent applause – clearly audible in the initial broadcast – was edited out of the clip. As sure as night follows day, the BBC stood accused of doctoring the footage to favour the Prime Minister, with its more excitable critics presenting the act as incontrovertible proof of the corporation’s institutional partisanship.
These accusations are as absurd as they sound. Hours after the bulletin aired on Saturday, the BBC pointed out the clip had been shortened for timing reasons. On Monday, it issued a statement describing the edit as a “mistake”, adding that there had been no intention to mislead.
Cock-up, not conspiracy
The clarification was belated, but welcome. Not that it stopped the wilder claims from spreading. If anything, it added fuel to the fire.
“How many have to notice before it stops becoming a conspiracy theory?” asked one Twitter user, presenting an argument explicit in its disdain for evidence. A crowd of 100 people can point at a horse and insist it is a cow. The only salient fact to be drawn is that those people are idiots.
The reality, as the BBC statement suggested, was altogether more mundane. High-profile, embarrassing mistakes happen. The BBC’s television news alone is responsible for more than 18,000 hours of programming every year. If anything, it’s remarkable that there are not more gaffes.
The same conspiratorial talk surrounded a careless edit which spliced a 2016 clip of Mr Johnson into a BBC Breakfast Remembrance Day segment earlier this month. The inference? That the BBC selected the old footage to make the PM appear more presentable, despite the fact he routinely cultivates the appearance of a man who sleeps in the back seat of a Skoda Octavia. It was, in essence, conspiracy without a theory.
The finer details of how digital story assets are stored and accessed by BBC journalists via an in-house media system known as Jupiter is every bit as dull as you might expect. Suffice to say, it is not foolproof, and its imperfections can be exacerbated when combined with time-pressed staff.
Of course, many of the conspiracy theorists simply regard mistakes as being synonymous with cover-ups. This is dangerous for several reasons, not least because it obscures the difficult debates required about our media – the allegation of the BBC’s risk-averse commissioning process, made by investigative journalist John Sweeney is a case in point.
Kremlin-backed RT delights in Question Time row
But more than that, such conspiratorial nonsense can have darker consequences. RT, the Kremlin-backed broadcaster, was among those to delight in the Question Time furore. As of yesterday morning, it was the top story on its website, noting how “the BBC appears to be in the doghouse”, and that it “initially showed no remorse” despite Ofcom receiving scores of complaints. The news article was accompanied by an op-ed which described the BBC as “a mouthpiece of the state”.
Leaving aside the irony of this coverage, given Ofcom fined RT £200,000 this summer for serious failures to comply with due impartiality rules, this is an ignominious example of how criticism of the BBC and the mainstream media is weaponised by those intent on attacking our democratic institutions.
Russia’s motivation is to bludgeon our free press and sow mistrust and discord, a job made easier by those too gullible or blinkered to see the bigger picture, and who cosy up to Sputnik and RT in the misguided belief they share ideological grievances about Scottish independence.
The propaganda machine amplifies these narratives and complaints, lending them a wider credence. In turn, those who first complained cite coverage by the likes of RT to corroborate their point.
The Question Time story followed this tried and tested route without fail. RT’s story has been retweeted or favourited by hundreds of people, Labour supporters and independence campaigners among them. The author, Irvine Welsh, even noted how RT was “justly calling out” BBC bias.
In a few days, the stooshie will subside and be replaced by another whipped-up frenzy. The easy response is to dismiss the way such baseless and seemingly frivolous claims are sucked up and spat out by feedback loops and echo chambers.
What is harder is asking what damage they are inflicting on a fragile country already experiencing a unprecedented crisis of trust.