We’ve never met, but we do have a connection. We’ve both lived in the same house on Heathbank Road in Stockport. The Sweets moved out in 1983; you moved in about three years later when you started working at BBC Manchester. Coincidence? Well, yes. Even David Icke would have trouble drawing a sinister line between those two dots. But it’s a coincidence that means whenever I clock you on the telly, I think of my mum and dad.
I thought of them this week, when I saw you on ITV, sharing the contents of your inquiring mind. I found myself remembering a taxi ride I took with my mum in September 2017. We were going to visit my dad after his cancer operation, and the driver wanted to tell us why he’d voted for Brexit. The EU, he said, was a secret plot to re-establish Nazi rule across the continent, and it had to be stopped. As you might appreciate, this wasn’t what either me or my mum wanted to hear at this moment. After we came back from the hospital I rang the cab firm to ask them never to send that driver to us again — rather, I suppose, as hundreds of people rang your employer this week to complain about you.
Let’s remind ourselves of what happened, shall we? On the Easter Monday edition of This Morning, your reporter Alice Beer was debunking one of the more exotic problems of the current crisis — the spate of attacks on 5G phone masts, carried out, it would seem, by people who believe them to be exacerbating or even facilitating the spread of Covid-19. You agreed emphatically with Alice, so I think we can assert that you don’t really believe that a virus can be transferred from bats to humans via radio waves. But the caveat you issued did leave some room for doubt. “What I don’t accept,” you said, doing that stern look I think you may have copied from Huw Edwards, “is mainstream media immediately slapping that down as not true when they don’t know it’s not true … it’s very easy to say it is not true because it suits the state narrative.”
I detect several problems here. The first is the idea that there is any measurable distance between you and the mainstream media. Eamonn, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you are the mainstream media. You are to television what the individually-wrapped Weetabix is to a hotel breakfast bar — always present, whether requested or not, and rarely the subject of a strong opinion.
The second problem resides in that little cluster of negatives with which you adumbrate your position on the limits of knowledge. There are, I suppose, an infinite number of things that we don’t know are not true. We don’t know, for instance, that you are not a homunculus operated by a highly-trained owl, though we would be suspicious of anybody who suggested this was a question that merited investigation. It’s harder, however, to push a proposition about corona and the phone signal into this category — or, indeed, any proposition about the health dangers of 5G — because, unlike the possibility that you are a bird-driven human simulacrum, science has already chewed this over very thoroughly, and found no evidence that any such dangers exist.
So I wonder why you said this? Perhaps you read a May 2019 piece in the Daily Mail, quoting the research of the Californian academic who described 5G as a “massive public health experiment”. (But, not, I’d guess, the subsequent article in Scientific American that concluded that his work “pivots on fringe views and fatally flawed conjecture, attempting to circumvent scientific consensus with scaremongering.”) Maybe you’ve been monitoring the Twitter feed of Piers Corbyn, the meteorologist brother of the former Labour leader, through which he shares his view that Bill Gates and George Soros have faked the corona pandemic as part of their bid to surveil the world’s population with 5G and cull it with vaccines.
Or maybe you’ve been streaming the 5G-themed fireside chats hosted by the American writer Naomi Wolf, in which she declares that “there’s almost no objective reporting in mainstream media about the real dangers of 5G,” and warns that “your DNA changes to a precancerous condition when you’re around these cell towers”. Her own reporting in this field includes publishing a link to an approving account of a man named Mark Steele, who is convinced that Gateshead council is poisoning its electorate with 5G transmitters hidden inside the streetlamps. (No such transmitters exist.) Dr Wolf also believes that 5G may be responsible for the headaches and tinnitus suffered by her neighbours in New York. “Everybody who lives in my apartment [block],” she says, “is very much more uncomfortable.” I suppose that’s one explanation.
Conspiracist thinking thrives in anxious times. Corona has made it bloom like mould on toast. The Times caught two British academics from Russell Group universities sharing speculations that the virus is a biological weapon. A journalist for Metro announced that he’d submitted an FOI request to St Thomas’s NHS Trust, suspicious that Boris Johnson had somehow faked his stay in the intensive care unit. (“The PR timing,” tweeted Marcus J Ball, “is just too perfect.”) London Live, the cable television station associated with George Osborne’s London Evening Standard, made the bizarre editorial decision to air an 105-minute interview with David Icke, in which the former Coventry City goalkeeper was permitted to serve a Covid-scented platter of half-digested matter from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
I’ll throw you a bone, here, Eamonn. Intelligent people are not free from these predilections. The Nobel prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis doubts the link between HIV and Aids and strongly suspects that he was once abducted by extraterrestrial racoons. So your willingness to leave a space for conspiracy theories on This Morning does not necessarily mean that you are an idiot. And such an instinct may not always be misguided. Conspiracist thinking can sometimes be virtuous. Ask Bob Woodward, who investigated Watergate, or Chris Mullin, who led the campaign to prove the innocence of the Birmingham Six.
Those who engage in it, however, need to protect themselves against its corrupting effects. The philosopher Quassim Cassam is, I think, our wisest writer on this matter. I’d heartily recommend his work to you. He points out that conspiracy theories can reduce our confidence in knowledge that there is no good reason to doubt. That Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969, for instance, is a bare historical fact. But if you swim in the discourse that claims otherwise, you may find yourself describing the history of the Apollo missions as, let’s say, a “state narrative”.
Likewise, there is no reasonable evidence that the 5G phone signal carries a health risk. But there is a discourse that asserts the opposite — based on unsound extrapolations from weak studies, which have been amplified into certitudes by unreliable commentators. Now, like the Moon landings, George Soros, Zionism, Pizzagate and Atlantis, 5G has entered the repertoire of things that conspiracy theorists like to talk about — and will go on talking about until, I suspect, the arrival of 6G.
On Tuesday, as ITV totted up the complaints, you issued a statement suggesting that your remarks had been misunderstood. You reiterated your rejection of any link between Covid-19 and 5G, but then, astonishingly, repeated your original error. “Many people,” you said, “are rightly concerned and are looking for answers.” Well, there are people think that the Rothschilds were responsible for the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 370, and we would know what to think of a broadcaster who thought such a view worth airing.
Cassam’s book, Vices of the Mind (2019), notes that psychologists have tended to see conspiracist thinking as a problem of mindset. He prefers to regard it as an epistemic vice. A form of intellectual masturbation. And perhaps, if we think of it in this way, it might help to reduce its dangerous allure. So those inclined to regard you as the Noam Chomsky of ITV Daytime, critiquing the MSM between the Danone adverts, might be better simply to think of you as a man who gave into a weakness and discharged something unwelcome in front of his work colleagues.
Nobody would judge you for doing this at home and in private. Visit all the websites you please. Feel free to watch terms such as #soros and #EU and #fourthreich tumble from the hashtag tombola of Piers Corbyn’s twitter feed. And if you want to chat with other people online who are into this kind of stuff, then fine, it’s a free country. But for shame, Eamonn, for shame, not on the This Morning sofa. Not with your wife sitting next to you, and my mum and dad watching at home.
All the best, Matthew