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TV review: Bad Influencer: The great Insta con, and Hemingway

09 July 2021

BBC/Minnow/Brooke Holm

Bad Influencer: The great Insta con (BBC1, Wednesday of last week) told the story of Belle Gibson, who pretended to be suffering from cancer

Bad Influencer: The great Insta con (BBC1, Wednesday of last week) told the story of Belle Gibson, who pretended to be suffering from cancer

TO NEGATIVE commentators, Covid-19 has merely hastened the inexorable withering, decline and irrelevance of the Church of England. Yet there are gleams of hope in the enveloping darkness. Why don’t clergy redefine themselves as a small but characterful niche in the wellness movement (worth, apparently, $4.2 trillion a year); and why don’t clergy wholeheartedly embrace social media, reinventing themselves as today’s moral and personal guides of choice — namely, influencers?

I hope that episcopal focus groups eager to promote such a vision watched Bad Influencer: The great Insta con (BBC1, Wednesday of last week). An Australian, Belle Gibson, gathered a huge online following, moved and inspired by the way she not only survived but thrived despite inoperable brain cancer. She had pulled herself out of conventional treatment, ending her chemotherapy and determining that she could heal herself by adopting a rigorous diet.

Around the world, this was what her devotees longed to hear: let’s jettison these experts, and take personal control, restoring our health with a combination of organic vegetables and punishing exercise. Seemingly endorsed by Apple and Penguin publishers, her diet book flew off the shelves. Ms Gibson lived up to her name: despite terminal cancer — she was later diagnosed with four secondaries — she looked gorgeous, a model of health and vitality.

Some adherents began to wonder why, however rigorously they followed her regime, they never achieved their true goal: looking like her. They became not better, but worse. A few journalists began digging, and, eventually, the entire business (significant term) was revealed as a hoax. She never had cancer; schoolfriends said that she had always been a compulsive liar, seeking attention by any means. Thousands are left feeling bitter, duped, fools — and poorer. Presumably, some who, following her inspiration, pulled out of conventional therapies actually hastened their death.

This is a salutary tale. Religion is far too accommodating a home for the self-appointed guru; far too many people are desperate to punish and abase themselves (like all fads, wellness addiction is curiously puritanical) if only a charismatic healer tells them to. My prescription: a daily dose of morning and evening prayer.

For a different kind of puritanism, see Hemingway (BBC4, Tuesday of last week). His extraordinarily influential revolution in the writer’s craft was to achieve the greatest possible simplicity and directness, providing the reader with the unadorned and unmediated experience of real life, ugly and sordid, as well as beautiful and uplifting. He sought to write “one true sentence”: I can never quite forget that he vigorously publicised his life as exaggerated boastful myth.

Visually splendid, it is a powerful insight into crucial 20th-century culture. But why do they treat him, as he did himself, so very seriously, verging on the portentous?

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