The Eamonn Holmes 5G debacle shows the danger of failing to apologise

After appearing to support a coronavirus conspiracy theory, Holmes released a statement that sounded like an apology — but leaves room for doubt.

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In yesterday’s episode of ITV show This Morning, hosts Ruth Langsford and Eamonn Holmes spoke to the former Watchdog journalist Alice Beer about scams, conspiracy theories and misinformation being spread online in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic.

Beer described one popular conspiracy theory, which claims that the rollout of the new 5G mobile networks is somehow causing Covid-19, as "incredibly stupid". The idea that a slightly different radio technology — one which has not been widely deployed — could cause a pandemic of viral infections is glaringly obvious nonsense, but Holmes had more to say.

“What I don’t accept," he contended, "is mainstream media immediately slapping that down as not true when they don’t know it’s not true… It’s very easy to say it is not true because it suits the state narrative. That’s all I would say, as someone with an enquiring mind.” 

The clip was quickly posted to Twitter and came to trend on the platform for the better part of the day, as users decried Holmes's apparent support for the idea and reporting sending complaints to ITV calling for the presenter to apologise or be sacked.

In today’s episode of This Morning, it looked as if Holmes was ready to give that apology. To camera, he said: “I’d like to clarify some comments that some of you may have misinterpreted from me yesterday around conspiracy theories and coronavirus, and this involved the roll out of 5G… Every theory relating to such connection has been proven to be false and we would like to emphasise that. However, many people are rightly concerned and are looking for answers, and that’s simply what I was trying to do, to impart yesterday. But for the avoidance of any doubt, I want to make it clear there is no scientific evidence to substantiate any of those 5G theories.”

Some viewers will be satisfied that this puts an embarrassing incident to bed. Despite the lack of a real apology and the onus put on viewers for “misinterpreting” his “enquiry” that the 5G conspiracy theory might be valid, many people will hear “no scientific evidence” and move on.

But the people who believe conspiracy theories will hear a different version, one which concentrates more on the latter half of Holmes's statemtent — the “however”, and the assertion that "answers" to the question remain elusive. 

This bait-and-switch language pays lip service to the truth while leaving the credulous and the paranoid free to interpret the explanation as they wish, in a situation where interpretation is not necessary. People are not rightly concerned about 5G, they are wrongly concerned about it; people are looking for answers, yes, but these answers exist and are universally available: Covid-19 is a disease caused by a virus. There is no “simply” in suggesting that this might not be the case.

Encouraging an audience of 1.8 million people to question the way this virus spreads, what causes it and the methods the government has put in place to contain it is not "enquiry". It is arguably an even more dangerous form of vandalism than attacking mobile network infrastructure.  

Holmes could easily have said these things, actually said sorry, and left no room for any interpretation. But instead, he said just enough to placate his employer — and just enough for conspiracy theorists to hear “you might be right”. When a household name fails to clearly reject misinformation on a major broadcast network, they offer powerful help to the people who spread it.  

Conspiracy theories are inevitable when we deal with global crises. As the psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman writes, "The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little." The 5G theory is an attempt to create a simple story about a complex disaster, and a visible enemy (mobile phone masts) that can be attacked, when the most effective measures against the real virus – staying home and limiting human contact — do not have the same sense of direct action.

It’s easy, too, to see how a mainstream broadcaster could let things like this slip through. In normal life they do what they can to satisfy their audience, giving wiggle room in their statements, refraining from heavy-handed dogma, and avoiding complaints from viewres who might be angry to see their strange ideas squashed on national television.

But in a pandemic, broadcasters shoul be unequivocal about anything that could make room for their viewers to suspect that there is something happening under the surface that the “state narrative” isn’t letting out, and that there is something more to the story than “this isn’t true, and there’s nothing more to say”.

Holmes is not the first celebrity to stoke this fire. He has added himself to a rapidly growing list of public figures who have either openly peddled the 5G theory or tiptoed around it. ITV is also not the first broadcaster to give airtime to such theories; Ofcom is also investigating London Live after it broadcast an interview in which the conspiracy theorist David Icke expounded his views on coronavirus last Wednesday.

But Icke, who has claimed that the Royal Family are shapeshifting lizards, has a long reputation as a fringe theorist. Eamonn Holmes is a mainstream celebrity with a far larger platform. What might seem like minor semantics in the language he chooses to use can have a real influence on how large numbers of people think and behave. Until broadcasters clamp down on how their presenters treat conspiracy theories around coronavirus, these will only continue to spread.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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