My brush with Bilderberg

Claims of global conspiracy seem far-fetched but Bilderberg does represent an immense networking and lobbying opportunity, says Nelson Jones. The concerns of rabble-rousing Texan radio host Alex Jones may be risible but those of Labour MP Michael Meacher

I'm sitting in a field near Watford on a glorious summer evening. Just visible across several rolling acres of exquisitely landscaped parkland, nestled discreetly among the trees, is the Grove Hotel, where up to 150 of the world's most powerful and influential people, including George Osborne, Henry Kissinger and Google's Eric Schmidt, are holding confidential talks. Ed Balls is there as well.  Over here, cordoned off in a heavily-guarded "protest area", are at least ten times that number, the majority of whom believe that the guests in the Grove (aka the Bilderberg group) are up to no good, although the precise nature of their 60 year old conspiracy varies according to who you ask.  

It's a relaxed, even cheerful event, despite the crush of numbers (by mid-afternoon, the venue was full and hundreds have reportedly been turned away) and despite the serious implications of the global conspiracy being hatched half a mile away. There are provocative tee-shirts (the best slogan being "Kissinger my ass"), protest banners denouncing the New World Order, a man holding a ventriloquist's dummy and a rap artist wearing stick-on pointed ears. There's some security theatre, but the police and G4S are on their best behaviour, with the result that only rhetorical anger is on display. People are here to expose the Bilderberg group, even to laugh at it, not to destroy it.

Right now (it's shortly after 6pm) Alex Jones, the rabble-rousing Texan radio host now notorious for his outburst on Andrew Neil's Sunday Politics show yesterday, is leading the crowd in a chant of "We know you are killers" aimed in the general direction of the Grove. Jones's belief, which he has just outlined with much conviction though no discernible evidence, is that the shadow world government (as represented and perhaps constituted by the assembled Bilderbergers) is in the advanced stages of a strategy to halve and then enslave the world's population. "They are literally putting cancer into your children's food," he warns the crowd, who seem to be receptive to the message. Many of them will have heard it before: Jones's Infowars broadcast claims an audience of five million listeners. But if Jones's audience really believed what he was telling them one might expect them to be more visibly disturbed.

(Jones's subsequent meltdown on Sunday Politics divided opinion among Bilderberg-watchers. For some, he had blown a precious opportunity and given respectable conspiracy theorists a bad name. Others, however, saw it as a clever stratagem to gain maximum publicity - an aim in which it undoubtedly succeeded, although publicity is far from being the same as credibility.)

If Jones and his fellow headliner David Icke represent one extreme of the anti-Bilderberg tendency, the presence of Labour MP Michael Meacher suggests that concern isn't confined entirely to UFO believers and people who smoked too much dope in the 1960s. Meacher's beef was with the intrinsic lack of accountability involved with what he calls "leaders of Western finance capitalism" meeting in secret. "They want to have complete frankness, serious policy making, they want to concert their plans - which are pretty brutal,"  he complained, to wild applause.

And here, for me, lies the paradox of this event. Billed by the organisers as the "first ever Bilderberg Fringe festival", it is in many ways indeed fairly fringe ("Tinfoil-hatsonbury," one wag calls it). Speaker after speaker earns cheers for denouncing 9/11 as in inside job, calling global warming a scam and warning about plans to microchip the entire population. People I speak to are eager to discuss pyramid power, satanic ritual sacrifice and the global elite's dependence on something called "monatomic gold". Easy pickings for mainstream journalists after a dismissive vignette, as is the presence of Jones and Icke.  In the absence of information from the actual conference, and with no pictures of arriving delegates beyond a procession of cars with blacked-out windows, it's difficult to portray Bilderberg in a serious light.  

Yet newsworthy it surely is. Claims of global conspiracy seem far-fetched, (Kissinger, yes. Mandelson, even. But Ed Balls?) but Bilderberg does represent an immense networking and lobbying opportunity, three days in which top bankers and corporate executives are holed up with influential politicians and international civil servants including the IMF's Christine Lagarde. Alex Jones's concerns may be risible but Meacher's are not. Even if the Bilderbergers aren't secretly running the world, or for that matter deciding anything of substance, there is symbolism in their gathering, and in David Cameron's acceptance on Friday of an invitation to join them.  

Beyond the conspiracy pantomime lurk very real concerns. Concern over the way the international financial system, post crash, seems to have been rigged in favour of the banks and the plutocrats. Concern over the increasing possibilities of state surveillance of individuals, as shown this very weekend with the news about the US authorities' PRISM programme, not to mention the ongoing debate over the Home Office's proposed Communications Data Bill.  Concern about the impact of globalisation. Concern above all about the growing chasm that seems to separate a feather-bedded elite from a mass of the population whose jobs and incomes seem ever less secure.

That this year's Bilderberg conference has attracted so much media attention and so many protesters is testament to decades of obsessional pursuit by Alex Jones and fellow conspiracy theorists. For decades, even during the postwar years when they were genuinely influential, the meetings received no publicity at all. But it also suggests that their ideas are becoming mainstream. Icke had the air of a man vindicated after years as a lone voice in the wilderness, as well he might: last week he announced a plan to launch his own internet TV station and public donations poured in.  

Even the conference organisers are much less secretive than they used to be. Where once those involved would deny very existence of the event, these days an agenda and a list of delegates is released on an official website. And if this new openness comes in part from exasperation at the crazy claims that have been made down the years about Bilderberg, it must also reflect an understanding that in the 21st century secret meetings of highly influential people are bound to attract suspicion and deserve to attract scrutiny. If Bilderberg and similar gatherings have up to now been of interest only to an eccentric fringe of conspiracy theorists and "researchers", that is a media failure and not the fault of Alex Jones.

A banner draped over the security barrier outside the Bilderberg meetings. Photograph: Getty Images
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder