David Icke and Gareth Cliff.
David Icke and Gareth Cliff.

Perhaps the funniest part of Gareth Cliff’s new show on eNCA is the backdrop of fake encyclopaedias that some rebellious wag has chosen for set design. If you wanted a metaphor for the shallowness of the show’s intellectual rigour, you’d be hard pressed to find one better. And even more deliciously, on the episode I watched, the words on the encyclopaedias appeared to be reversed, highlighting the fundamental fakery.

The show’s title is also pretty funny. So What Now? could be the mating cry of the entitled citizen, forever demanding reassurance and whining about wanting things.

A while ago, Cliff invited conspiracy theorist David Icke onto his show. Introducing his guest, Cliff described Icke as "having some controversial opinions".

At the risk of unconsciously parodying the start of a very bad wedding speech, let me say: the dictionary defines the word controversy as "a discussion marked especially by the expression of opposing views".

Apparently it’s vital to democracy and freedom and stuff, that people have the chance to decide for themselves about several "controversial" issues.

Is it OK to hate Jews, and to blame them for the creation of the coronavirus? Is it OK to decide that the coronavirus doesn’t exist, and that if it does it’s spread by 5G technology, so it’s OK to beat up mobile technicians and set fire to mobile infrastructure? I don’t know! Can we ever know? You decide for yourself. That’s freedom, buddy. I didn’t invent it.

Some people on social media proffered a defence of Cliff’s decision to host Icke, by claiming that he would use his Superior Intellect™ to demolish Icke’s arguments. That never happened, of course, and in fact Cliff very openly laid out his own rationale for his decision. "I need to put a disclaimer upfront. You have been banned from social media platforms, and even from appearing on television internationally, for putting out what has been reported as harmful information," he said.

"Now some of what you say may sound crazy to some people, some of it makes sense to some people, but I’m a proponent of free expression, even if I don’t buy it, and everyone gets to decide for themselves."

Here’s a summary of some of Icke’s views (some of which will "make sense to some people", apparently), from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). They form part of a letter the organisation wrote to social media platforms asking them to ban Icke’s accounts.

On YouTube, Icke claimed that a Jewish group was behind the coronavirus (I’d say "falsely claimed", but hey — apparently you can decide that for yourself), and that it isn’t possible to catch a virus from shaking hands.

On Instagram, he (falsely!) claimed that 5G mobile networks left people unable to absorb oxygen.

And on Twitter he falsely claimed that Germany was moving to "legalise rape" for Muslim men.

According to the CCDH, "during this time, we have seen a spate of arson attacks on 5G masts, which Icke has claimed are being erected under the cover of lockdown.

A recent academic study suggests that belief in conspiracy theories, of the type promoted by Icke on your platforms, makes members of the public less likely to follow the official guidance to wash their hands regularly, stay at home, and socially distance."

Cliff’s intent was never to counter any of Icke’s views, but only to portray himself as a swashbuckling defender of freedom. In one revealing, sickening bit, in response to Icke characterising the coronavirus as nonexistent (he later calls it "a pandemic hoax"), Cliff says: "We won’t have time to interrogate this in any detail," and asks him: "With you being banned from so many platforms … how can we find the balance, in your opinion, between blocking perceived harmful narrative and allowing actual freedom of expression? And who gets to decide, David?" (Yes, he did say "perceived" harmful narrative.)

Oh dear. The idea that Cliff, the master of indignant open letters, could ever be a match for the seasoned Icke is laughable.

Take this bit. "The reason I was keen to have you on," says Cliff, narrowing his eyes meaningfully, "is that there seems almost a perfect storm for this ‘suppression of information’, conspiracy theory stuff." (Cliff uses his fingers to put air quotes around this, as he does with "fake news".)

"It looks like the world is ripe for all this to take root at the moment, because people just don’t know who to believe, right?"

Seriously? People don’t know who to believe? Icke’s solution is, go and research it yourself. Don’t believe the experts, don’t believe Icke — go check it out.

The fact that this means Cliff’s for-profit misinformation is now just functioning as marketing for Icke’s for-profit disinformation — with all the potential for harm that this creates — doesn’t appear to bother Cliff. Bros Defending Freedom™ is what counts here — and the bottom line.

Social media platforms profit from hosting Icke too, says the CCDH. "His audience of over 2-million followers could be worth up to $23.8m in annual revenue, primarily generated by advertisers seeking to reach Icke’s fans as well as the money Icke and his collaborators spend to reach a wider audience."

Cliff then unashamedly co-opts Icke into a defence of his choice of guests. If I get to decide for myself which bit of Icke I believe in, he says, "why is that so threatening to some people?"

Icke — who by this stage can’t believe his luck at being interviewed by someone whose idea of a probing question is: "Do we [SA] feature in any of your work?" — actually lays out for Cliff why it’s so damaging to give a platform to proponents of hate speech and disinformation.

Cliff, grunting along approvingly, doesn’t realise Icke is talking about himself, and how disinformation thrives when people like Cliff give it a platform. "If you are trying to sell a story … why are you trying to do that? Because you’re trying to control perception, because from perception comes behaviour. How do you control perception? You control information that people receive, because that controls perception."

That this is a refutation of Cliff’s own formulation — "If you push these things underground, they only get more and more powerful" — doesn’t seem to occur to the oblivious Cliff.

When Icke says Covid-19 doesn’t exist, Cliff responds: "There are people who are dead, it comes across as particularly insensitive."

That’s it. That’s Cliff’s refutation of the dozens of "facts" Icke has at his fingertips — facts that "prove" people are being paid to falsely claim that cause of death is the coronavirus, but that nobody can demonstrate it’s true. It’s insensitive.

Gareth Cliff has hit a new low by giving a platform to sinister conspiracy theories

Cliff’s conclusion (and you can imagine the heroic music swelling up in the background before the closing credits) is: "I’m pleased to have given you a place to tell your story, and to explain your position, because so many people would rather shut you down. But I think maybe there are many of us who are left more confused than when we started this."

Let me get this straight. You’re pleased that you have made people confused about whether the coronavirus is real, or whether "Bill Gates owns the World Health Organisation"? Why is that a good thing?

In Cliff’s sign-off to his audience, he says: "Well, I hope you’re as confused as I am."

What are you confused about, Gareth? What? Please give an example of one thing Icke said where you can’t decide on its veracity? There aren’t two sides to this story, there’s truth, and then there are lies.

If Cliff were a journalist (and I don’t think he’s ever claimed to be one, in his defence), he’d be trying to achieve clarity here, and trying to convey facts. But as someone who makes his money from sensationalist pandering, it’s in his interests to give misinformation a platform, to privilege "likes" over lives, and to pretend that it’s a crusade for freedom that he is fighting on behalf of all of us.

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