Sadly, Donald Trump – on top of all his other sins – has given (a) conspiracy theories and (b) criticism of the press a bad name.
When it comes to conspiracy theories, I’m still very cautious; except that I know that politicians do conspire. It is no less gullible to automatically dismiss a conspiracy theory, than it is to be prone to accept it. In my researches I’ve found so much certain evidence of Britain’s secret services’, for example, plotting subvertly throughout their history, as to be in no doubt of that. Sometimes in the last century it was in cahoots with the Conservative Party. If you don’t wish to credit the ‘Wilson Plot’ of 1974-6, which is supposed to have been responsible for ousting the PM then, you must accept the Zinoviev Letter Affair of 1924, which helped bring an end to the first Labour government. (See my Plots and Paranoia.) And, at a much lower level, just think about it: haven’t you occasionally conspired, in much lesser matters, with your partner to keep something from your children, for example, or with your team mates to disguise your googly (in America, curve ball)? People conspire all the time. But crying ‘conspiracy’ can also be a convenient excuse when you’ve not got your way, which is why it’s so distrusted.
And for any historian working in this field to argue that Harold Wilson was brought down by an MI5 ‘conspiracy’ in 1976 would be the kiss of academic death. I can understand why. Conspiracy theory is the field for weirdoes. Probably the weirdest of them all is the ex-Coventry City goalkeeper David Icke, one of whose theories (among many others) is that the British Royal Family are in fact alien shape-shifting lizards. Now we have the almost-as-weird Donald Trump joining him. Another reason why academic historians don’t warm to ‘conspiracy theories’ is that it upsets their ordered view of the past. They prefer great events to have big causes. They want to see patterns in history: the progress of liberalism, say, or the inevitable march of the Marxist dialectic, or the working out of God’s (or Satan’s) will. If they aren’t pre-disposed to such broad theories ideologically, they like them because it makes it easy to present history as a narrative. Even history books are supposed to have plots. (Mine do.) That these narratives can be seriously disrupted by anything as accidental as a conspiracy among a small number of people with their hands on the hidden levers of power is anathema to them (to us).
Likewise, to suspect that huge present-day events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were achieved through a small group of right-wing millionaires working clandestinely through ‘a dark, dystopian data company’ called Cambridge Analytica, and not through genuine popular choice (see https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy), must be a shock to democrats, as well as to historians. It throws all the political conventions out of the window; and fundamentally undermines confidence in democracy. That’s the ultimate political danger. Perhaps it’s just as well to be sceptical. But that doesn’t mean that conspiracies can’t be real. (See Robin Ramsay, Conspiracy Theories, Pocket Essentials, 2006, on this.)
Much the same is true of the other canard that Trump has floated among us: the idea of ‘fake news’. Again, no-one wants to cry this too loudly, because of its association with the Donald; but with regard to the present British election there can be little doubt that the news is skewed. Whether that’s connected with the ‘Cambridge Analytica’ thing – with the same millionaires behind both, for example – seems possible, but can’t be proved. The bias of the press against the Left, however, and Corbyn in particular, is pretty obvious, and not only in the papers owned, notoriously, by millionaire tax exiles. It has even reached the BBC and the ‘Leftish’ Guardian. Labour politicians are bullied, Theresa May is given a soft ride, the size of May’s public meetings is exaggerated and Corbyn’s – huge ones – diminished. There have been petitions on the web for the BBC to sack their Political Editor, Laura Kuenssberg (below), whose coverage of the election is blatantly inaccurate, biased and cynical; but of course she won’t be sacked – yet. (One of the petitions was rejected because some of its signatories expressed unpleasantly sexist views.) Besides, many of the BBC’s top people, and other political commentators, have strong Conservative links themselves. It looks quite grotesquely unfair, and far different from what we have grown to expect from a much-respected ‘impartial’ state broadcaster. There can be little doubt about this. Academic studies, for example by the Cardiff University Journalism school, confirm it. But any complaints are treated as sour grapes; which is why Corbyn generally doesn’t complain, though he must be itching to.
If these two things – a conspiracy, and the loaded press – can be shown, or even suspected, to have substantially affected the result of this election, it bodes ill for people’s acceptance of that result afterwards, and therefore for our public order. It will bear out the belief of many of us that Britain is only a semi-democracy, at best. Just as our press comes fortieth in the world scale of ‘press freedom’ (see https://bernardjporter.com/2017/04/30/press-freedom/), our political freedom can’t come very much higher. The power of our press certainly, and the ‘conspiracy’ factor possibly, have seen to that.