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Radio review: Disaster Trolls, The Coming Storm, and Free Thinking

11 November 2022

BBC/Tom Traies

The BBC’s “disinformation correspondent” Marianna Spring presents Disaster Trolls (Radio 4 FM, weekdays)

The BBC’s “disinformation correspondent” Marianna Spring presents Disaster Trolls (Radio 4 FM, weekdays)

THERE was a moment Disaster Trolls (Radio 4 FM, weekdays), on Thursday of last week, reminiscent of the climactic scene in the film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. A reporter holds a microphone to a man, who in turn points a video camera at her and the television crew, which is filming the whole stand-off. Culture wars, spaghetti-western style. Fortunately, it ended less bloodily. All parties backed off, taking with them their own digital version of the event.

Disaster Trolls is the latest series from the BBC’s “disinformation correspondent” Marianna Spring, and investigates a disturbing campaign of harassment directed at victims of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing. Co-ordinated by one Richard D. Hall, the campaign presents an alternative account of the atrocity, saying that it was staged by a troupe of “crisis actors”. Motivated by outrage on behalf of those bereaved or left disfigured by Salman Abedi, Spring has been on the hunt for Mr Hall and his followers.

The programmes adopt the stylistic tropes now familiar from the True Crime genre of podcasts. It is slick and compelling, even when the incontestably serious subject matter occasionally sounds absurd. My favourite character from the first week’s episodes was Neil Sanders: an amiable if low-level UFO and alien-abduction specialist, who was flattered into contributing to Mr Hall’s online presentations, but baulked at his wackier claims about staged terrorist attacks. How, Mr Sanders sensibly asked, could you disguise all those actors?

Like the True Crime genre, our fascination with conspiracy is an import from the United States, where they do conspiracy so much bigger and better. In time for the mid-term elections, there appeared the latest series of The Coming Storm (Radio 4, Sunday, first of two).

The story here is about QAnon, and how people can believe the craziest stuff. The reporter Gabriel Gatehouse is now a doyen of conspiracy porn — although his excitement can sometimes get the better of him. The Twitter account Libs of TikTok is, in Gatehouse’s livid prose, “the large hadron collider of social media, smashing the liberal filter bubble into the conservative information eco-system”. I’m no atomic physicist; but nor, I suspect, is Gatehouse.

In Free Thinking (Radio 3, Thursday of last week), Matthew Sweet invited his guests to imagine the great Scottish Reformer John Knox as the subject of a mega-budget Netflix series. More pertinently, how would he have fared on Twitter? With the tongue of a viper and the hide of a rhino, quite well, you would imagine — except that titles such as The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women would use up those precious characters fast. On the other hand, in this, the 450th year since his death, one doesn’t get a sense that Knox’s views are set for a sympathetic re-evaluation.

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