Nick Cohen

Richard Madeley, Brexit and the new conspiracism

Richard Madeley, Brexit and the new conspiracism
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A lot of people are saying that you are having an affair. I don’t know if they’re right. It’s not for me to say. I just told your husband that a lot of people are saying that.

A lot of people are saying that you are a child abuser. You want me to check? Look at the court records and the sex offender register? Nah. No need. I just need to say that a lot of people are saying you are a child abuser. Why would they say it if there wasn’t something to say? You say they’re wrong. Really? A lot of people will say, well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?

A lot of people are saying that Brexit isn’t Brexit unless it is the most extreme form of Brexit imaginable. No less an authority than Richard Madeley, of the ITV breakfast show Good Morning Britain, explained to Remain activist Femi Oluwole that if we left the EU but stayed in or close to the Customs Union we wouldn’t have left the EU, even though we would have done just that.

Madeley didn’t wholly commit himself to a nonsensical position. Instead, he repeated what a lot of people were saying. Theresa May’s deal takes us ‘out of the EU,’ replied Femi with the look of a teacher faced with an astonishingly dense child. ‘Let's be clear on that,’ he added. If an association with the Customs Union meant we were still a member of the EU, then Turkey would be a member of the EU, which it is not. Why is this even an argument?  

Because Madeley said:

‘A lot of people who want to leave don’t like that deal. They don’t think it does take us out of the EU because it keeps us in the Customs Union.’

‘But it literally does,’ replied Femi.

‘But a lot of people don’t think that it does,’ said Madeley.

Oh my god this was frustrating!

You're either a member of the European Union OR YOU'RE NOT!#GMB

— Femi (@Femi_Sorry) April 22, 2019

'Well, a lot of people say’ is the essential card for the insecure broadcaster to play from the bottom of the deck. He wants to be seen as a man of the people, his many privileges notwithstanding. He has no obvious qualifications for his job: no irreplaceable skill. He lives with the fear that a more charismatic presenter could catch his producer’s eye. Saying what a lot of people are saying is his defence. He can pretend to be the people’s friend: the spokesman for what the people are saying.

If Madeley had accepted that Turkey and an assortment of European countries have arrangements with the EU without being in the EU, he would have been in possession of two qualities he clearly lacks. Knowledge is the first and most glaring, but also a spark of journalistic courage. As it was, he did not dare take on that segment of his audience that does not want to hear that Theresa’s May’s Brexit deal is a Brexit deal.  

Madeley is a coward posing as a tough guy, a crowd-pleaser who pleases no one, a badly designed toupee on a talking tailor’s dummy, an under-informed, overpaid, half-educated, barracking, jeering example of everything that is wrong with Britain’s proudly ignorant broadcasting industry

Or so a lot of people say.

Before relying on the claim that ‘a lot of people say…’, journalists and all who say they live at least a part of our lives in the reality-based community, have a duty to say who is saying it, how many are saying it, why are they are saying it and, above all, whether what they are saying is true. The reason ought to be obvious but somehow isn’t. When people in positions of power with an audience of millions give unquestioning credence to what 'a lot of people say', a lot more people are likely to believe it, and say it themselves.

Donald Trump has always known this. He has brought insane ideas into the mainstream of American politics by using the tactics of the sneak to reach millions of people. In September 2015, to take one of many examples, a supporter at a rally shouted that Obama was a Muslim and ‘not even an American’. He then asked Trump to get rid of Muslim ‘training camps’.  

‘You know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there,’ Trump replied.

Trump uses ‘a lot of people are saying that’ to fly kites. If his audience likes it, he moves forward. If it flops, he retreats and says that he didn’t believe it himself, but like Richard Madeley was merely a journalist reporting what a lot of people were saying.

The hit-and-run strategy was much employed before his 2016 election victory. In his attacks on Hillary and Bill Clinton, Trump indirectly raised questions about one of their close friends, Vince Foster, whose suicide in 1993 has entranced far-right conspiracy theorists for years. When the smear failed to stick, and Foster’s sister accused Trump of furthering his candidacy by ‘cynically, crassly and recklessly’ insinuating that her brother had been murdered, Trump pleaded innocence.

‘Somebody asked me the question the other day, and I said that a lot of people are very sceptical as to what happened and how he died,’ he said. ‘I know nothing about it.’

The possibilities the internet has opened for demagogues and liars are without limit. In a new study of conspiracism, out last week, Nancy L. Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead argue that ‘conspiracy entrepreneurs’ are developing new types of conspiracy theories that cannot be said to serve a political purpose however extreme. As long as you accept that old conspiracies thrive too – there’s nothing modern about the Labour party’s anti-Semitism and its political purpose is all too clear – then you can see why they believe many of today’s bare assertions and fabulists concoctions are conspiracy theories without a theory. Their sole legitimacy comes from their repetition by ever-larger numbers. The effect is to delegitimise all standards of truth and promote disorientation and a nihilistic cynicism: which is why Russia’s propaganda organs are so keen on promoting them.

What validates the new conspiracism is not evidence but repetition. What matters to Trump and all like him is ‘the number of retweets’. The more retweets the more credible the charge. The authors conclude that politicians have a duty to take on the fantasists rather than beg for their support.

To leap from the tragic state of America to the ridiculous figure of Richard Madeley, I would say journalists have the same duty. Flunk it and we risk much. As the authors, say ‘it doesn’t take communism, or authoritarianism, or fascism, or anything else. Conspiracism can demolish democracy on its own’.

And the name of their book in which the warning appears? But, of course: A Lot of People are Saying

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

Topics in this articleSocietybrexituk politics