I will finish the year with a trend in modern life, often politically exploited, that does not seem to be going away: the conspiracy theory. Use of conspiracy theories is a key factor in why the world is the way it is. There are gullible people out there and some politicians know this.
But firstly, let us put the conspiracy theory in its historical context – it has been around a long time. The concept of a conspiracy theory refers to a belief that an event or situation is the result of a secret, often sinister, plot by a group of people or organizations. These theories often involve claims of secrecy, manipulation, and deception, and are often used to explain events or phenomena that are perceived as mysterious or inexplicable.
Throughout history, conspiracy theories have emerged in response to a wide range of events, including wars, revolutions, assassinations, and other significant historical events. In some cases, these theories have been fuelled by real-world events and the actions of governments, secret societies, or other powerful groups. In other cases, conspiracy theories have been used to deflect attention from the true causes of events or to advance specific agendas or political goals. For example, the Nazis in their rise to power exploited ‘stab in the back’ conspiracies about Germany’s defeat in the First World War, including antisemitic tropes.
In modern times, conspiracy theories have proliferated due to the widespread availability of information and the ease of communication through the internet and social media. These theories can take many forms and can be spread through various channels, including online forums, social media platforms, and traditional media outlets. Even though many conspiracy theories are not supported by evidence, they can still have a significant impact on public discourse and can shape public perceptions and attitudes towards events and issues.
Conspiracy theories tend to fall into four main categories – the “Enemy Outside” refers to theories based on figures alleged to be scheming against a community from without; the “Enemy Within” finds the conspirators lurking inside the nation, indistinguishable from ordinary citizens; the “Enemy Above” involves powerful people manipulating events for their own gain; the “Enemy Below” features the lower classes working to overturn the social order.
I am not going to touch on the famous ones like the Moon landings were faked or 9/11 conspiracy theories but focus on one lesser known one in the UK which should have been debunked much sooner than it eventually was; and set out a historian’s framework for testing whether something is likely to be true or not.
The Carl Beech case, also known as the “VIP paedophile ring” scandal, was a major news story in the United Kingdom in the early 2010s. In 2014, Carl Beech, a 51-year-old man from Gloucestershire, made allegations to the UK’s Metropolitan Police that he had been sexually abused by a group of high-profile individuals, including politicians, military figures, and other public figures, as a child in the 1970s and 1980s.
The allegations sparked a major investigation, known as Operation Midland, which involved significant resources and lasted for several years. However, the investigation failed to find any evidence to support Beech’s claims, and he was eventually charged and convicted of perverting the course of justice and fraud in 2019. The case was widely covered in the media and sparked widespread public controversy and debate.
The story got legs because one UK politician got wind of a rumour, the type you might find these days lurking in the darker corners of the internet. That rumour matched an inner hope (and their political prejudices) – a hope that something would be true.
Once they started the ball rolling, any attempt to do any due diligence on the accusations was pushed aside. Literally blocked. As in many such stories, too many people become invested in the outcome – they want to find establishment figures guilty of horrific offences – to allow the facts to get in the way. Unfortunately, the prominent politician had met with Beech prior to the start of the police operation and remained in contact with him as the operation began, showing his support of Beech’s allegations by accusing named Conservative party politicians. He accused one as being “close to evil” based on Beech’s accounts. One of the falsely accused politicians how their house raided by the police.
However, criminal investigations and investigative journalism are much like historical inquiries. Serious allegations of wrongdoing should of course be thoroughly investigated, but the investigation should proceed sensibly with open minds to discover provable facts. This should be straightforward questions like ‘Who’, ‘What’, ‘Where’ ‘When’ ‘Why’ and ‘How’? If someone says that X was in the Dog and Duck Pub at 12.30pm on Thursday, does he know what X looks like? Does the Dog and Duck Pub exist? Was it open at 12.30pm on Thursday? Can anyone else say that X was there?
In the case of Carl Beech, he could not identify people. His description of where people were was provably wrong on a number of instances. His descriptions of places were provably wrong, trivially. His whole story was provably false. The case should never have lasted so long. Beech had been peddling variations of this story for decades. One of the significant errors detectives had made in Operation Midland was to fully accept the allegations made by Carl Beech without objectively investigating the credibility of his claims. As the operation began to reach its conclusion in March 2016, the taskforce began to re-check the accounts given by Beech, and slowly began to unravel his deception. Unknown to the Metropolitan Police at the time he made his allegations, Beech had previously attempted to submit a claim of abuse to Wiltshire Police in 2012, in the wake of the Savile scandal – his claim at the time alleged that his stepfather, along with Jimmy Savile and a group of unidentified men, had abused him considerably
The other conspiracy theory I like – or fraud – is of course the Hitler Diaries. People absolutely wanted it to be true that one of the most evil and infamous figures of the twentieth century might have left an account of what happened during his rise to power and the Second World War. They also wanted it to be true because serious people, major news organisations, had invested significant money in buying the story. But the Hitler Diaries were really crap forgeries designed, originally, to rip off some neo-Nazi collectors and provably false with, what eventually proved to be, the most basic of forensic investigation, but they got traction because one of the people taken in by it was themselves a journalist. One well renowned historian asked to ‘authenticate’ the diaries did not engage in any critical thinking. One of the Sunday Times journalists involved with the story, Brian MacArthur, later explained why so many experienced journalists and businessmen “were so gullible” about the authenticity of the diaries:
‘… the discovery of the Hitler diaries offered so tempting a scoop that we all wanted to believe they were genuine. Once hoist with a deal, moreover, we had to go on believing in their authenticity until they were convincingly demonstrated as forgeries. … The few of us who were in on the secret fed in the adrenalin: we were going to write the most stunning scoop of our careers.’
(I highly recommend Robert Harris’ masterpiece ‘Selling Hitler’ which is a superb account of the fraud and accompanying farce of the Hitler Diaries).
Why people believe in conspiracy theories is more a subject for sociologists and psychologists I think, but they are a more of a problem now in our political discourse because there is now so much information out there to find, create, misunderstand, or misuse. Why do any critical thinking or look dispassionately for provable facts if you can read something on the internet and take it as gospel?
But I think it would be remiss not to consider that some people, and they could be our next-door neighbours, feel powerless. If you cannot change your own life, it must be that some greater force controls the world and is to blame. And it becomes easier to vote for the person pointing the finger at the greater force, or whatever scandal in the heat of the moment is being used as a proxy for that greater force e.g., Twitter Files, Hilary’s emails, Hunter Biden’s laptop. These proxies or greater forces exist on the far left as well as the far right. Often, they are mendacious, and none aid our understanding of the world, its problems, and difficult and complex solutions.