British television viewers were last weekend introduced to Alex Jones, the bombastic and cartoonish peddler of conspiracies to gullible Americans. Jones appeared on the normally polite BBC current affairs programme Sunday Politics to rant in an amusing manner about the Bilderberg group. That’s the supposedly secret shadow world government which had been holding its annual meeting in Watford, a small town outside London.
The show’s host Andrew Neil and professional conspiracy mocker David Aaronovitch gently derided Jones, which only seemed to wind him up further – he started yelling about a Nazi plot to create the euro and suggesting US security officials had threatened to behead him.
It was all rather entertaining. Then the show ended, I switched over to the news and caught the latest on the secret US plans to listen to our phone calls and read our emails. Conspiracy theories are far harder to knock down when you find yourself starting your rebuttal with the words, “Well, yes, the US government may have secretly read your Gchat, but…”
Precisely what the National Security Agency may or may not have had access to is still unclear. The NSA has been unwilling to answer any questions and, given its track record when it comes to telling the truth, even if they had we wouldn’t necessarily know much more.
And that is the big problem: it’s not what it was doing, it’s what it said it was doing. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, was absolutely clear earlier this year. When asked during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing whether the NSA collected “any type of data on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans”, he replied simply: “No, sir.”
Transparency is a very easy word to say when you’re running for office. Barack Obama used it a lot when he was a mere senator. Transparency is far harder to implement, it seems, once you’ve won an election and spy chiefs suggest it’s best to keep things quiet.
Harder, but no less important. For the more free governments hide, the easier it is for the less democratic to employ similar methods.
The British Library is currently presenting an exhibition on propaganda, which features posters, films and artefacts from the 16th century to the present day, looking at the ways in which governments, protest movements and organisations have tried to manipulate, persuade and sell. One image stands out. It was produced in 1971 by the Soviet Union. The cartoon is called Freedom American-style. Two police officers peer out of the eyes of the Statue of Liberty, a white truncheon dangling down to give the impression of a tear.
The Soviets had the KGB; its satellites had the Stasi, StB and the AVH. Wives spied on husbands, children on mothers. Here they are questioning the freedoms of Americans. And here are Alex Jones and the conspiracy theorists saying, “Yeah, told you so.”
Steve Bloomfield is Monocle's foreign editor.