There were two parts to the documentary The Hunt for the Anthrax Killer (9pm, 18 August, BBC2) - the hunt, which was interesting, and the anthrax itself, which is rubbish. For the first half, you'd never have guessed how interesting the hunt was because the programme put so much effort into ham- fistedly masking the rubbishness of the anthrax. It did this in the standard fashion - the voice-over vied with the jangly music to see which could be the least affecting and the most melodramatic (the voice-over took it, I decided). There were vast pauses in the middle of extremely simple sentence structures ("Bob Stevens . . . [what luck, here's time to make a cup of tea and small snack] . . . had been murdered"). The word "chilling" was brutally overused (you can be chilled only once - ask an alcoholic), there was a risible attempt to depict an "invisible cloud" of anthrax with silly graphics, some of the information was just tedious ("anyone working with the disease . . . [game of Ludo, anyone?] . . . had to be fully vaccinated") and whoever wrote the script is clearly fresh from the school of the amazingly obvious ("no one knew . . . [here I boiled down the works of Kierkegaard to five bullet points] . . . what the killer would do next"). The problem was this - the disease is not contagious, and only five people were killed. Eighteen people were infected, and then recovered.
Anything - Ebola, smallpox, monkey brains, anything - would be scarier than this. Flu would be scarier than this. "Without speedy medical intervention, thousands could have died," declared the voice-over, only about 20 seconds after pointing out that 50 million people received cross-contaminated post from a New Jersey sorting office, and all managed to survive despite the majority of them taking no prophylactic antibiotics whatsoever. "The epidemic was getting worse," it announced portentously, moving delicately over the relatively low incidence of non-contagious diseases turning into epidemics in the first place. "One of nature's most efficient killers," it said, when in fact, I'm a more efficient killer than this is, and I haven't even had handgun training. The men on the ground tried gamely to load their reminiscences with serendipity - "When we reached the mailroom, we only had one swab left. Thank God, we chose the right area to swab with the swab," was one priceless memory from the Florida outbreak. Absurd! If you're at the top of Everest with only one oxygen canister, then tell us about it. If you've only got one swab, go and get another swab! The only mitigating feature of the whole first half was that the guy from the Centers for Disease Control was called Brad Perkins, as if he'd bought his name from the How To Be American And Not At All Foreign shop. I hate to bang on, but a lot of this was just sloppy writing-by-numbers, and quite masked the more interesting point - that post-11 September, anti-Middle East paranoia was running so high that the FBI paced down the Iraq Must Have Done It cul-de-sac so fast, it hit the brick wall before it even noticed it was there.
The FBI was saved from inveterate wrongness by two things - that anthrax is a curiously immutable disease, and you can trace it all back to one of two families. The first is Iraqi and the second - well, people, what do you know? - is American. This strand was from the nice American family. Second saviour was one Don Foster, a literature professor who reckons that handwriting leaves so many clues, it's practically as idiosyncratic as DNA. He pinpointed almost immediately that the sender was probably American, even though Allah cropped up a lot; he realised that it was likely to be a scientist, owing to the deliberate misspelling of penicillin, and soon we were back in the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, only this time not to ask to borrow special body armour, but to see who could reasonably be arrested. Things became rather messy at this stage. The FBI was now treading on the toes of the CIA, the latter stopped co-operating, a lawyer with a hilarious voice popped up to diss USAMRIID and its work practices, and nobody has been arrested.
But they had arrived at a workable thesis, which was not predicated on towel-heads being evil. Some absolute loon from within the bio-defence community was doing all this to put the frighteners on the government, in order that it would increase research budgets and everyone could have a pretty assistant and a new car. Or something like that. And, neatly enough, the scheme paid off - post-anthrax, Congress tripled the biochemical budget. Frankly, this is all a bit neat and Tom Clancy for my liking, and if I close my eyes supertight, I can see the credits for the film that tells us the real story in 20 years' time. It is probably a government conspiracy of a more sinister hue. But until such time, keep away from scientists. They're bonkers.
Andrew Billen is away