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Radio review: The Coming Storm

14 January 2022

BBC

In The Coming Storm (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), Gabriel Gatehouse examined the conspiracy theories that led to last January’s riots at the US Capitol

In The Coming Storm (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), Gabriel Gatehouse examined the conspiracy theories that led to last January’s riots at the US Cap...

JUST as dog-owners come to resemble their dogs, so there is a danger that journalists, over time, adopt the sensibilities and rhetorical idioms of their subjects. Gabriel Gatehouse’s series The Coming Storm (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) concerns the conspiracy theories that led to last January’s riots at the US Capitol. It deals in histrionic eccentrics and their paranoid beliefs. But, listening to the first episode of this exposé, one can’t help feeling that Gatehouse has been spending too much time with his pet project.

For his preamble, he takes us to the 15th century and what he takes to be the foundational document for European witch-hunts, the Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer. According to Gatehouse’s script, “for the next two centuries, Europe was gripped by an orgy of misogynistic violence” in which hundreds of thousands were killed. He doesn’t tell us where in the dark web of early modern historiography he researched this claim, and we must, perhaps, simply allow him dramatic licence at this early stage in a seven-part series.

We leap forward to last year’s events. Gatehouse’s intention is to investigate “the dark undergrowth of America . . . by pulling at the tangled roots of January 6th”: a date that has taken on the status of another 9/11 for the many traumatised by the Trump era and fearful of its return.

One of these roots he follows all the way back to 1993, and the suicide of a Clinton aide, Vince Foster. There were doubts surrounding the death, which circulated on the chatrooms of the early internet — doubts that were chronicled in a book from 1997 by a Daily Telegraph journalist, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, The Secret Life of Bill Clinton. Gatehouse got him on the phone to comment; Mr Evans-Pritchard was reluctant to be drawn, and we were left to infer the reason for his subsequent lack of engagement.

I suspect that it might have been something to do with the contribution of someone else whom Gatehouse interviewed and who likened the effect of the Evans-Pritchard book on anti-Clinton conspiracy theorists to “leaving a loaded revolver in a psychiatric ward”. Mr Evans-Pritchard last week wrote a piece in his own paper on the matter. Suffice to say, his book is not the Malleus Maleficarum for the QAnon Conspiracy, and the slur by association is not only unbecoming, but is itself the manifestation of a conspiracist mentality.

In his recent series, Things Fell Apart (Radio, 19 November 2021), Jon Ronson explored the origins of the culture wars through localised episodes in recent US history. In that series, Ronson’s light rhetorical touch enables one to appreciate the contradictory nature of people’s belief-systems, and the importance of serendipity.

There is no such nuance here. I can’t help thinking that, by pulling at some tangled roots, Gatehouse is failing to appreciate the greater eco-system.

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