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Radio review: Death by Conspiracy? and The Lowball Tapes

11 March 2022

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Death by Conspiracy? (Radio 4, weekdays from 28 February) told the story of Gary Matthews, a Covid-denier, who died after contracting the virus

Death by Conspiracy? (Radio 4, weekdays from 28 February) told the story of Gary Matthews, a Covid-denier, who died after contracting the virus

ASIDE from “true crime”, “conspiracy” appears to be the genre that attracts the greatest interest from box-set-podcast producers. Now that Gabriel Gatehouse’s breathless exposé of QAnon in The Coming Storm (Media, 14 January) has just concluded, we have a ten-part series, Death by Conspiracy? (Radio 4, weekdays from 28 February), where it is Covid-deniers and anti-vaxxers who take on the part of the deluded rabble. The victim here is Gary Matthews, a 46-year-old from Shrewsbury, who got into the wrong set and became convinced that Covid was an invention. In January of last year, he contracted the virus and died.

The programme title carries a question mark, to allow some wriggle-room when it comes to direct causation. Many who heard of Mr Matthews’s case were less conscientious and blamed his death on a group of activists calling itself the Shropshire Covid Resistance Network; which might, were it not for the gravity of this case, remind one of something out of the BBC’s comedy series This Country.

The journalist Marianna Spring — who has the dubious distinction of being the BBC’s first official “disinformation reporter” — maintains gravitas throughout, and manages the balance between parochial and tragic with great skill. Indeed, this is an altogether more deft and less heavy-handed production than we have heard so far in this genre, and the encounters between Mr Matthews’s birth family and the social-media family that adopted him into a world of fantasy are genuinely poignant.

In comparison, the conspiracy that lies at the centre of The Lowball Tapes (Radio 4, weekdays of last week) feels reassuringly old-fashioned, while the means by which it has been uncovered seem positively archaic. It is six years ago that those implicated in the LIBOR interest-rate-fixing fraud were convicted; and the damning evidence now received from a whistleblower by the reporter Andy Verity consists not of emails or tweets, but of actual recordings of actual phone conversations.

The hero of the piece is a Barclays trader nicknamed “PJ”. As early as 2007, PJ is sounding off to colleagues about how his bank is habitually understating the rate at which money can be borrowed on a given day, to avoid looking vulnerable to the markets. Hence the term “lowballing”.

If you have time for only a couple of episodes, head for Wednesday’s and Thursday’s. The latter involves crucial conversations with the top brass, in which strategies are discussed that will avoid the explicit accusation of collusion.

Even if, to you, the financial processes being discussed sound as dark and inscrutable as the Covid genome, as they do to me, this is riveting stuff. When presented like this, the lack of response from the FSA and British Bankers’ Association appears indisputably negligent. But dispute there has been a-plenty, and the likes of PJ have been on the wrong side of it for many years.

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