The Secret Rulers of the World

Jon Ronson: 'Crazy people are on to something, but what they're on to is very different to what they imagined it to be.'

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

With cranky conspiracy theories on everything from UFOs to Princess Di’s death circulating the web, and with the recent high-profile protests against global elites, it seems Jon Ronson’s The Secret Rulers of the World on Channel 4 couldn’t be more timely (1).

Attempting to grapple with the beliefs of conspiracy theorists, Ronson’s camcorder-shot documentary deftly juggles inevitable daftness – David Icke’s 12-foot-lizard conspiracy, anybody? – with probing analysis.

‘I’d been writing about and making films of political extremists’, says Ronson, ‘and all these people kept telling me about “the secret room”. So I decided to track it down. Initially, I didn’t think I was entering the world of conspiracy theories’.

In this five-part series, Ronson joins conspiracy theorists attempting to infiltrate Bohemian Grove in north California, allegedly a bizarre summer camp where US establishment figures dress up like druids and worship a giant owl. Elsewhere, he quizzes those obsessed with the Bilderberg Institution, and neo-Nazis still peddling notions that the international Jewry is holding Western governments to ransom.

Whatever the differing conspiracies, they are united by the firm belief that there is a New World Order planning widespread death and destruction. The really bizarre aspect is why it should get anybody’s blood boiling. After all, the terror inflicted against Iraq is hardly shrouded in secrecy.

‘That’s absolutely true’, says Ronson flatly. ‘But instead conspiratoralists need to fetishise and mythologise nonsense like Bohemian Grove. These are people who can only invoke the Bible or Satan. Occasionally, they have a point, but more often have to create an artifice around it.’

‘Conspiracy theorists reflect a widespread mistrust of politics and politicians, and what they end up believing is actually elitist and anti-democratic’, explains Ronson. ‘They believe that businessmen or judges should be making decisions, as they’re not corrupt. But by taking power away from politicians, they want to take power away from the electorate too.’

A former award-winning columnist for Time Out and the Guardian, Ronson has been making compelling documentaries for over five years. Many assume that he and Louis Theroux front similar piss-taking programmes, but Ronson is very different. For all Theroux’s understated comic brilliance, there is an undertow of studenty cynicism that suggests believing in anything is ultimately absurd. By contrast, Ronson’s fascination with ideological motivations sheds light on his subject and, ultimately, on us too.

This is particularly revealing in the episode on Sunday 29 April, ‘The Legend of Ruby Ridge’. When conspiracy theorist Randy Weaver briefly hangs out with woodland neighbours, the self-styled Aryan Nation, his family is put under FBI surveillance and Randy is even courted as a potential informant. After he declines, the FBI trump up a bogus firearm charge, but Weaver refuses to attend court. Eventually the FBI and local police blast out the household during a week-long siege. Tragically, Randy’s wife Vicky and son Sammy are killed.

Using camcorder footage from the horrific event and interviews with daughter Rachel Weaver, it is an electrifying piece of documentary TV. But for many it has proved equally challenging. Why feel sympathy for a family who goes on picnics with white supremacists? ‘I had a letter from one woman accusing me of being a Nazi’, says Ronson, ‘and why should I make racists look good? I used to think no platform for racists; now I realise it’s the wrong approach. If you don’t allow free speech, you end up being as reprehensible as the people you’re censoring. For me the Weaver film is what happens when liberals go off the rails.’

Indeed it is. The killings were whitewashed by the authorities using the left’s anti-Nazi rhetoric, but the programme is a salutary reminder of the state’s disregard for free speech and civil liberties. Ronson wanted to take the film further, drawing a parallel between the Weavers and the Serbs. ‘At one point we were going to put footage of Milosevic in the Weaver film’, he says. ‘NATO and the liberal left justified what happened to the Serbs by saying they were modern-day Nazis.’

So are Randy Weaver and the other conspiracy theorists right after all? ‘What I’m trying to say with these programmes’, says Ronson, ‘is that the crazy people are on to something, but what they’re on to is very different to what they imagined it to be’.

Neil Davenport is a freelance TV and film critic

Read on:

TV UK, by Dolan Cummings

(1) The Secret Rulers of the World, Sundays on Channel 4. A book on the series, Them: Adventures With Extremists by Jon Ronson, is out now. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

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Topics Politics