Saturday, September 17th, 2005

There’s an interesting article in the current edition of The Fortean Times (a magazine I used to do illustrations for, and quite an entertaining read) about the conspiracy theories surrounding the 7/7 London bombings.
One of the best bits is a comment by the article’s writer that it isn’t stupid for people to believe in conspiracies, giving a fairly long list of previous events that have turned out to have been the handiwork of the authorities in different countries, including the UK. (The sinking of The Rainbow Warrior is a good example, with the French being the culprits there, and Noam Chomsky gives a good account of US and UK activities in other countries in Hegemony or Survival).

But ultimately each of the various 7/7 conspiracies is shown in the article to be flawed. Although it doesn’t mention the shooting of the Brazilian on the London Underground two weeks later, the subsequent distress of much-quoted ‘eye witnesses’ (who described the victim as wearing a padded jacket with wires trailing from it, and leaping over ticket barriers only to see photographs of his body shoowing quite clearly that he was wearing summer clothing and hear that he used his ‘Oyster’ card to calmly get through the barriers, and that it was the poliec who jumped over the barriers, not him), show that not only does the rumour mill take over but that we quite literally can’t believe our own eyes. Our brain seems to fit our observations together into a narrative that makes sense. We see someone jumping over a barrier, we remember reports of what the 7/7 bombers were wearing, we see someone get shot – consequently we add the details from one memory to another and produce a version of events that makes sense.

Mark Whitby said: “I was sitting on the train… I heard a load of noise, people saying, ‘Get out, get down’.
“I saw an Asian guy. He ran on to the train, he was hotly pursued by three plain clothes officers, one of them was wielding a black handgun.
“He half tripped… they pushed him to the floor and basically unloaded five shots into him,” he told BBC News 24.
“As [the suspect] got onto the train I looked at his face, he looked sort of left and right, but he basically looked like a cornered rabbit, a cornered fox.
“He looked absolutely petrified and then he sort of tripped, but they were hotly pursuing him, [they] couldn’t have been any more than two or three feet behind him at this time and he half tripped and was half pushed to the floor and the policeman nearest to me had the black automatic pistol in his left hand.
“He held it down to the guy and unloaded five shots into him.
“He [the suspect] had a baseball cap on and quite a sort of thickish coat – it was a coat you’d wear in winter, sort of like a padded jacket.
“He might have had something concealed under there, I don’t know. But it looked sort of out of place with the sort of weather we’ve been having, the sort of hot humid weather.
“He was largely built, he was quite a chubby sort of guy”

It doesn’t help that the media takes the stories and prints them without question. On 7/7 I swapped channels to see how the BBC, ITV and Fox News were covering it. Fox was clearly getting its coverage and info via Sky, Murdoch’s satellite service in the UK, but adding comment from studio guests and reporters in London via phone. Fox’s coverage was awful with the descriptions of the city bearing little relationship to the truth and seeming to come more from a Dickensian depiction of the place than any other. Bloomsbury, the area of town where the bus blew up, was described in overly romantic terms, for example, more because of its historic associations than its present situation.

The thing that marked out the BBC’s coverage from that of other stations was that while other agencies were reporting everything – every rumour, every estimated death toll – the BBC only reported official sources. This meant that ITV and Fox were reporting estimated deaths of between 30 and 50 (only guesses because no one had even reached the body-strewn carriages underground at the time), while the BBC reported one confirmed death and several injuries. After the event the BBC was criticised for being the mouthpiece of officialdom but to my mind what it showed was that when news agencies report rumour and gossip as fact, they soon become facts. Take the ‘discovery’ of WMD in Iraq that recent polls showed a large proportion of US citizens to believe had happened, even though none have been found. But if you remember, there were constant reports during the Iraq war of things being found (that later, but less publicly, turned out to be harmless) and images of reporters and soldiers donning chemical suits.

It’s a difficult line to draw for the BBC because on the one hand – as here – being conservative with your reporting means that while you’re less sensational than other channels you end up telling the truth in the long run. But on the other, when you make such a thing of reporting official figures you’re at the mercy of what those in charge want to release. And there’s the conspiracy thing again…

When I was stuck in London on 21 July after the second attempted bombing there was little information, and most people were unconcerned. But I did hear people talking on the streets about what was happening. Most of what I heard was obviously untrue, but they were citing reliable sources such as ‘a guy I know’ and ‘some woman’. This was less than an hour after we’d been kicked off the underground. I rang home and spoke to a friend who was staying with me and she was watching it on TV and although she knew a bit more than I did (that there’d been an incident) she knew nothing more than that. Eventually I used my Palm Treo to access the internet and read the Guardian blog which carries an unedited feed of information that’s coming into the paper’s news desk. There were a few more ‘facts’ on there but essentially it seemed the events were less dramatic than 7/7. That didn’t stop the stories I could hear from those around me, however. And I knew that it was those stories which would probably be reported as news on TV because the sad fact is that in an age of rolling news, when you have to fill your airtime with nothing but specualtion (laughably prefaced with the words ‘It’s dangerous to speculate at this time but…’) then rumours are all you’ve got.

(The question that occurs to me, however, is why did I implicitly trust the Guardian’s website more than I trusted any other source? One of the paper’s mottos is ‘Speech is free, but facts are sacred’, if that’s anything to go by).

Anyway, back to the Fortean Times. It carries an image from a recent Minsitry of Defence exhibition of WW2 paintings. It’s ‘Premonition’ painted in the 1930s by German exile Walter Nessler. It showed, with remarkable foresight, the effects of the blitz on London, years before it happened. (The example above is poor quality – the actual painting is remarkably detailed).
But the reason people are looking at it again is that the painting makes a great play of the city’s public transport and two buses are depicted with numbers: 30 is the number of the bus that was blown up and the other ’77’ is the date of the bombing (the painting even has a blemish between the numerals making it look like 7.7). It makes you think for a minute, but there’s a boxout near the painting in the magazine about the numerology of the 7/7 bombings and how the number 7 crops up so frequently (7/7/2005, for example contains three sevens: 2+0+0+5 being the third). But all these permutations, like the accompanying ones for 9/11 are quite ludicrous as they depend on some odd combinations of numbers and mathematical trickery. Like the eyewitnesses to the shooting mentioned above, all they prove is that the human mind likes patterns and rationality, even if the result is something far from rational.

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