The Observer cosies up to conspiracy theorists

The broadsheet’s publication and then withdrawal of a weirdo’s claims about the NSA shows what a parlous state journalism is in.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics

On Sunday, something extraordinary happened in the British media. The Observer, one of Britain’s oldest and most prestigious newspapers, withdrew its headline story, ‘Revealed: secret European deals to hand over private data to America’, mere hours after publication. It hurriedly rushed out a second print edition, and its parent paper, the Guardian, removed the original headline story from its website.

The reason for this almost unprecedented retraction? After the publication of the story, which related to yet more revelations of NSA spying, it seems someone kindly pointed out to the Observer that its main source, Wayne Madsen, is a renowned conspiracy theorist, and a particularly strange one at that. As one wag speculated on Twitter, perhaps Google had broken down at Guardian/Observer HQ.

Because, if the editors had bothered even just to visit Madsen’s Wikipedia page, they would have seen that he’s a 9/11 ‘truther’, who linked the attacks on the World Trade Center to the Bush administration, and an Obama ‘birther’, who believes President Obama was born in Kenya. And when Madsen is not penning pieces with titles such as ‘Did White House S&M Ring Order Special Videos From Abu Ghraib?’, he can be found banging on about the Boston bombers being government agents and the USS Cole al-Qaeda bombing in 2000 having really been carried out by Israel. He also says Obama is gay – apparently the president and ‘his [former] chief of staff Rahm Emanuel are lifetime members of the same gay bathhouse in uptown Chicago’.

How on Earth did the Observer – which, alongside the Guardian, likes to see itself not so much as a cut above the rest of the press, but as being on a higher galactic plane – lead with a story containing such piss-poor yellow journalism that even the editor of the Sunday Sport would have thought twice before publishing it?

It seems the Observer figured that as the story sounded about right, and chimed with its own prejudices about Satanic America, then it could be published even before all the facts and the source had been thoroughly checked. The source was, primarily, a single blog post on which contained an interview with Madsen. In rushing to publish unchecked claims, the Observer was following in the footsteps of its office mates the Guardian, which last month happily threw caution to the wind and published Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA, without first checking everything was correct. As a result, the NSA’s PRISM initiative was falsely depicted by the Guardian as a means of tapping directly into everyone’s Gmail and Facebook accounts, when in fact it is a project-management device for the formal process of requesting records from service providers and internet companies.

It seems that, in their eagerness to expose the evil-doings of America, the Guardian and Observer are willing to chuck a lot of unchecked, often conspiratorial stuff on to their front pages, to see what sticks. As the publication of the Madsen-sourced article suggests, this style of investigative journalism is now starting to appear like a slightly more upmarket version of conspiracy theorising.

Such unchecked, weirdly sourced journalism, entirely reliant on leaks rather than on old-fashioned active reporting, is not about enlightening the public. Rather, it is both driven by and fuels cynicism; it is obsessed with elaborate theories of sinister networks and cults, with faceless conspiracies of rulers and spies. Whether they’re exposing the oil industry’s alleged control of the debate about climate change, or the Murdoch Empire’s mastery of British politics and law, or the NSA’s alleged spying on everyone in the world, the Guardian/Observer’s reporting is becoming increasingly Icke-like, always focusing on ‘the story behind the story’ and networks we cannot see.

That the Guardian is becoming ever-more aligned to the conspiracy theorists’ state of mind is confirmed by its recent list of brave whistleblowers, which it published soon after Snowden first made his leaks a couple of weeks ago. The list included Annie Machon, a former MI5 officer and now a notorious 9/11 truther, characterised by Brendan O’Neill in a 2006 interview for the New Statesman as ‘a new kind of conspiracy theorist: the chattering conspiracist, respectable, well-read, articulate, but… no less cranky than rednecks and misguided Kabul cabbies’.

Caught up in the hyperbole and self-congratulatory back-patting of the publication of Snowden’s documents, one Guardian columnist even went so far as to claim: ‘This was the week that seemed to confirm all the old bug-eyed conspiracy theories about governments and corporations colluding to enslave the rest of us.’ Have the conspiracy theorists really been proven right – or have the staff of the Guardian/Observer simply been spending so much time rubbing shoulders with the bug-eyed that they have become bug-eyed, too?

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

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Topics Politics


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