The BBC’s disinformation and social media correspondent, Marianna Spring, is a woman for whom the words “sucker for punishment” were invented. Polite, cheerful, dedicated, she has spent the past few years tracking down online hooligans and conspiracy theorists in award-winning radio series such as Death By Conspiracy?, Disaster Trolls and Marianna in Conspiracyland. And now she’s back once again on Radio 4, to marshal yet more strange internet people into answering sensible questions. Or to try, at least.
Her new series, Why Do You Hate Me?, is about online hate, a subject she knows well, as someone whose inbox is constantly overflowing with bile. In fact, her inbox is where she has found these stories, selecting the most interesting to investigate. Her purpose? To see if she can bring the internet abusers together, to resolve their conflict and broker some real-life understanding. Yep, she’s an optimist.
It’s quieter than her usual fare, this show. Episode one is strong, because it’s weird. Spring meets Julia, a young Polish woman who last year set up an Instagram account called @iammadeleinemccann because she really thought she might be. (Spoiler: she isn’t.) This is the first interview Julia has agreed to, and Spring is rightly kind to this shy, mixed-up woman, who had a traumatic childhood and found herself flailing to understand her past. “No one took me seriously,” Julia says. “I didn’t feel listened to.” Her Instagram account had more than a million followers, many of whom were terribly abusive (she has deleted it now).
However, it becomes clear that Spring hoped to include a response to Julia from Gerry and Kate McCann, Madeleine’s parents, perhaps even a face-to-face conversation, now that Julia realises that she isn’t the missing Madeleine. But the McCanns don’t respond in person, though a representative says they accept Julia’s apology. As Spring says herself, why should they? Everything they do is seized on by the tabloids, plus there’s still an active police investigation into their child’s disappearance.
Episode two is sweet but low-key. Northern Irishman Stuart had the bad luck to be at Jason Aldean’s 2017 concert in Las Vegas when a random shooter fired more than 1,000 automatic rounds at concertgoers, killing 60 people and wounding hundreds. Understandably, Stuart found this hard to process, and, once home, went on social media to rant about it, where he met “Weg”, a man who scoured police documents about the shooting and used them to posit reasonable – or not – explanations as to what “actually” happened, usually along the lines of the shooter being a government agent of some sort. “It was what I was supposed to be doing with my life at that time,” says Weg, once Spring has tracked him down (no easy task).
Spring persuades Weg to meet up with Stuart. And they have… a reasonable and warm conversation. Which is reassuring – not all conspiracy theorists are lunatics! – but not the most compelling audio. Why Do You Hate Me? doesn’t have the firecracker dynamics and revelations of some of Spring’s earlier series; a more conciliatory approach is built into its very premise. Still, her reporting is as excellent as ever, and episode three, which concerns Sadiq Khan having his voice used in an AI fake, sounds intriguing.
More great investigative journalism in the gripping but very shocking short podcast series Patient 11, from Sky. This tells the tale of Alexis Quinn, a former GB youth swimmer who was treated unbelievably appallingly within the UK’s mental health system. After a breakdown, Quinn voluntarily went into an NHS respite facility for three days, only to be sectioned for three and a half years. Not only was her autism missed (for years!), leading to her being restrained and put in solitary confinement; she was also put on mixed gender wards, and sexually attacked.
Eventually – like a movie – she breaks out. Quinn tells her own story, and is clear and admirable throughout. And Sky, in collaboration with the Independent, uses her case to ask questions of our entire mental health system, using freedom of information requests to uncover some horrifying statistics: almost 20,000 complaints of sexual assault, abuse and harassment within mental health facilities since 2019. This is a national scandal. Every UK politician should listen to this podcast.
And yet more digging, this time further into the past. Benjamen Walker’sTheory of Everything has long been one of the most interesting podcasts out there, an aural representation of how his big brain works, which is by connecting things. You could almost call him a conspiracist, but Walker is more art and philosophy than politics and paranoia. Although in his new miniseries, Not All Propaganda Is Art, he’s sort of both.
He turns his enquiring mind to the 1950s, when the CIA tried to influence how ordinary people – and not just Americans – thought about political systems. After the second world war, the agency wanted everyone to be pro-democracy and anti-communism. How it went about this was through soft power: trying to get artists, film-makers and writers to create works that would persuade people that the American Way was the best way. Walker looks at three writers – Richard Wright, Kenneth Tynan and Dwight Macdonald – and discovers that they all, at some point, were writing for publications sponsored by the CIA.
I knew of Tynan (massively influential British theatre critic at the Observer; first person to say “fuck” on British TV), but African American novelist Wright and US political writer Macdonald were new to me. Walker works hard to establish that they were all connected, and all funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA-funded front, and he does it well. Though I’m unsure how significant this all is in 2024, these programmes are fascinating insights into a time when intellectual thinkers were deemed important enough to be worthy of government attention. Worthy, even, of government money. Strange days indeed.