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Who Trolled Amber?

12th April, 2024.

who trolled amber.jpeg

Although we might think our little bubbles of politics, celebrity headlines, or influencers of choice are bouncing around independent of each other; but Who Trolled Amber? is a podcast that takes a forensic approach to showing how these bubbles are merging and growing and who knows when they might pop.

Using the one of the most talked about court cases of recent years as a starting point, this series takes a worrying look at what might be in our future and how we can see it developing right now.

I am a big fan of Tortoise Media and their commitment to slower news in terms of taking the time to thoroughly investigate stories and speak to a wide range of people connected to get a well rounded picture. However, the title of their latest podcast series “Who Trolled Amber?” did not really appeal - I wasn’t interested in what from an outside brief glance looked like a tawdry Hollywood gossip case with some unpleasant characters. I wasn’t #TeamJohnny or #TeamAmber - my knowledge was limited to a wayward Captain Jack Sparrow impression and knowing that Depp has a well documented history of substance misuse and turbulent relationships. It turns out that journalist and producer Alexi Mostrous had a similar disinterest when he was first approached about covering this story too. But when he was told about the scale of the suspicious online tweeting, the curiosity deepens.

 

However…this podcast isn’t really about the court case; and in the end, it isn’t really about the frankly slightly bewildering fact that MILLIONS of really similar sounding tweets from suspicious accounts were sent criticising Amber Heard. As the podcast speaks to digital forensic experts who can dig into the source of the data, a picture starts to emerge of industrial scale misinformation that is worldwide. And you don’t need to be in the public eye to be affected by this. 

 

There is a brilliant format to these longer series by Tortoise where they carefully introduce their topic and main characters and ensure that all the context is laid out and background information is there to put us in the picture and provide a sturdy foundation for the investigation. And then we’re taken on a diligently curated tour of the main events and players with insightful stop offs with experts or people significantly related to what occurred. In this case, that involves setting up the background to the legal cases of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp (handy for me and to also get the legal background) and then off to Florida to unpack the data behind the online abuse.

 

And at around the halfway point of this 6 part series, we’re suddenly plunging off to new territory as we dive down into the murky world of state sanctioned - or at least nominally supported - troll farms that can command tens of thousands of online accounts to swing public opinion, court cases and - in a big year for them - maybe elections?

 

The series expands out to cover how so much of our online life is now open to manipulation or just outright fakery. Whether that is something as old fashioned as people with egos and a love of cash being paid to shout an opinion that favours someone else, or a more modern tactic of using paid for accounts to falsely inflate something to become a trending topic and skew the public discourse. It’s a shame - but understandable - that some of the central characters here refuse to answer questions or give interviews. Sadly, avoiding scrutiny and instead carefully sculpting their own message free of facts is becoming an increasingly common tactic for anyone wanting to manipulate opinion online. 

 

Tortoise and Alexi Mostrous are adept at lowering the hyperbole - even with such globally significant topics - to take a cool headed and rational path through a tangled jungle of deception. Whether enough people can be as rational with emotive topics and misinformation dominating our social media discourse is another matter entirely.

 

All episodes of Who Trolled Amber? are available to listen to right now. I also strongly recommend checking out Tortoise’s other series whilst you’re there.  

My biscuit rating?

A Tuc original - might not seem that exciting or tempting from the outside but has a variety of tastes and textures and is surprisingly satisfying and moreish.

Seven Deadly Psychologies

5th January, 2023.

The seven deadly sins get a bad rap don't they?  But what if they have their uses? And why do we have these emotions if they're so deadly anyway? This thoroughly entertaining series brings together the science and the social aspects of each "sin" that will have you looking at your own emotions in a new light.

Seven Deadly Psychologies

It seems like the New Year is an ideal time to think about the sins, right? Greed and gluttony are the obvious ones but then maybe you've also been envious of what other people have been doing, or getting; or perhaps you've been keen to show off what you have been up to and buying? Or was there a family row that made you angry? Did you just hibernate, and now can’t get going again from your sloth state? Maybe just the hint of Valentine’s Day and spring ahead is already creating some lusty stirrings…

January is prime real estate for marketing people to tap into these emotions and guilt can be a huge motivating factor for some wild promises of diets, gyms, and new beginnings.

It’s often a time to think about abstinence and denial after a time of indulgence - banish the booze, cut the carbs, bin the biscuits - the horror! - and exercise those demons in more ways than one.

 

In the new podcast series Seven Deadly Psychologies, Becky Ripley and Sophie Ward tackle each of the seven sins in order: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. 

 

Each episode is under 30 minutes and it nips along with a spry sense of humour as we get the neuroscience and biological background via scientist Anna Machin, and then some social history and real world examples and testimony. And in each episode there is some carefully considered reflection on what you might be able to try if you feel that one of these emotions is having a detrimental effect on your day to day life. 

 

It is genuinely fascinating and every episode had me at least once making the “ooohhhh” sound of enlightenment. One example of this is how neuroscientist Ian Robertson explained the different factors around sloth and the environmental factors that can induce this - almost like a paralysis. This was another one where the advice and potential steps you could take are really logical and practical - it's useful to know that a little confidence trick on your brain can work wonders. 

 

Unlike some quick listicles or opinion pieces that are published around this time of year, there are no easy answers and it’s a welcome addition that they tackle some myths - the couch potato gene for one -  and misconceptions and provide some fresh perspectives alongside the science.

 

Producer Becky Ripley and co-host Sophie Ward have crafted one of those special series here that you want to share with others and it is one I know that I’ll revisit. This is a great example of how you can have chemistry and fun from likeable and engaging hosts without them needing to waffle on for 10minutes of “banter” before we actually get started. Although I’m looking forward to listening to this again, I really do hope that they have an idea for another series and that it gets commissioned pronto.

 

All seven episodes of Seven Deadly Psychologies are available now via BBC Sounds and you can find the link below. You’ll be forgiven your gluttony if you binge them all in one go…

Seven Deadly Psychologies: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001sm83

My biscuit rating?

Chocolate chip shortbread - filling and rich with drops of fun and joy.

People Who Knew Me - Podcast

5th August, 2023.

People Who Knew Me

“People who knew me think I’m dead.

There, I said it.”

If you could leave behind your life and become someone new, would you do it? This thrilling and emotional drama series will have you questioning your own moral choices.

14 years after faking her own death on 9/11, Connie is living in LA with her teenage daughter and having to face unto her secret past when she is diagnosed with cancer.

I’m going to be a little bit vague with plot details as I think the less you know, the more you’ll get drawn into this powerful drama.

With three strands of a story all teasing “what’s gonna happen next?”,  the ten 15 minute long episodes zip along gaining momentum and upping the stakes. 

A top cast and an evocative soundscape bring the emotions and suspense expertly to your ears and it made me feel like I was right there more than most dramas. Sometimes, it was uncomfortable to be right there and I’ll give you a heads up right from the beginning that at times this is quite graphic - so maybe not ideal for the school run in the morning.

Rosamund Pike and Hugh Laurie.

If the set up in People Who Knew Me is reminiscent of a Hollywood drama, then it has an A-List cast to match.  Rosamund Pike is Connie, who we are introduced to living in LA as she adapts to her cancer diagnosis. Through her - to begin with reluctant - conversations with fellow patient Hugh Laurie, we begin to realise that worrying about her future is possibly preferable to confronting her past.

People who knew me think I’m dead,” is the opening line we hear from Connie as she addresses Emily - the person she used to be - when she feels compelled to revisit her actions back in New York 14 years ago. This effective device of talking to her past self helps both us, the listener, and Connie the character. For us, we can all maybe relate to referring to our past selves as if they are a different person (granted, me thanking past for me for remembering to buy wine is a bit different to this situation) and helps us understand the distance Connie has put between her new and old life. 

 

It also helps Connie deal with the guilt of her choice: It wasn’t me. It was her. Look at the life she had, the decisions she made. I’m the one who has made a life.

 

This unpacking of her previous life as a one sided conversation with her past self is the first of the three strands. We are the other side of the divide in the confessional box as Connie talks to Emily about the build up to the day she “died” and through unpacking the past she explains - justifies - what she did. She is no “easy to warm to” likeable protagonist - but she is very real. So real in fact that I did at one point forget it was a drama and became convinced it was based on a true story. I found the descriptions of a life that is so evidently disappointing subtly moving - I feel many people experience that but just wash the indigestion of disappointment down with a dose of wine or scream therapy and get on with it. There are work, family, and personal ups and downs in Emily's life and we inch closer and closer to finding out “what made this woman run away?”

 

The first strand unpacking the past plays out alongside the present day events as Connie attempts to come to terms with her cancer diagnosis. Rosamund Pike imbues Connie with a weary, yet angry denial of what she is facing. The light to this shade comes in the form of sunny Paul, voiced with real bounce and heart by Hugh Laurie. At first, firmly given the cold shoulder but gradually Connie thaws and one of the most heart wrenching scenes underpins the third strand: what - if anything - is Connie going to tell her daughter about her health and her past? Because we find out quickly that Connie’s daughter - Claire - has no idea that there is a secret other life her mother has hidden from her. Can she now risk leaving her daughter with no family? Or is the risk that by revealing the truth, she will lose her anyway?

 

The three strands are expertly and evenly interwoven together and the picture of a woman dealing with the one decision she made years ago - that felt like the only choice she had left - is revealed. Each strand is at risk of fraying your nerves and I was genuinely unsure about what was going to happen at every step of the way.  Despite the at times sombre or troubling plot, there were moments I was caught unaware by an involuntary laugh at humour found in unexpected places. Which is something I’ve learnt to cherish over the last three years…

 

Based on the novel of the same title by Kim Hooper, this adaption is honed into a sleek emotional thriller by writer director Daniella Isaacs. I wasn’t surprised to find in my little bit of digging that Isaacs has previously written for the stage as there is a real flow to the dialogue and the use of sound as a stage - it starts bare and is only encroached on by something necessary to move the story on or reveal a feeling, a thought. So the dialogue is given uncluttered space and pauses, and then coloured by relevant ambient sounds such as a closing door acting as punctuation. 

 

Metaphorical as well as real doors opening and shutting is very much a theme and it will have you question what choices you would make in a similar situation. 

 

One choice I implore you to make is to seek out this excellent show. People Who Knew Me is available now on BBC Sounds and all good podcast providers. 

My biscuit rating for People Who Knew Me is:  CHOCOLATE ROUNDS.

They feel luxurious and a treat and you’re not sure you deserve their quality - you do. Savour it and enjoy the combination of tastes.

Now, I mentioned these biscuits to someone the other day and I had to show them a picture as they didn’t know what I meant. So, if you're not sure - here's a picture. They are a round with a hole in the middle of shortcake  biscuit - oh my the crunch - covered in cement thick chocolate. Top tier biscuit.

Chocolate rounds

Witch: Podcast series BBC Radio 4

21st July, 2023.

Have you ever said a silent or whispered wish? Or maybe you have a little routine that’s like a ritual? Then perhaps - like me - you’ve inadvertently been exercising your magic.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what “magic” is and what it can mean after listening to this series. And before I get into reviewing it, I’m gonna give you a heads up that until you listen to this show - you’re probably going to think I am being a teensy bit over the top. Well, ok,  lot over the top.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what “magic” is and what it can mean after listening to this series. And before I get into reviewing it, I’m gonna give you a heads up that until you listen to this show - you’re probably going to think I am being a teensy bit over the top. Well, ok,  lot over the top.

But…I can’t remember a podcast series ever having such a profound effect on me than this one.

I saw the podcast series Witch recommended on social media by writer Melissa Harrison and didn’t even read any blurb or listen to any trailers and dived straight in. Based just on the title and gorgeous folksy artwork I was kind of expecting a light jaunt through history and perhaps some interviews with people who are carrying on some witchy Wicca like traditions. 

 

And yes, we meet some modern witches but it is far more varied, and deeper and at times shocking than I was expecting. From kitchen Witches to sisterhoods, to an architect who uses the wheel of the year and the phases of the moon to help him plan work and lifestyle changes. Do you want to hear how greed and capitalism radically altered communities and sidelined the role of women? No problem.

How about why the witch trials were not as prevalent in northern Scotland and Wales and Ireland? Cool, got you covered.

Why does digging in soil help your mood and what magic helps elite athletes or why do big businesses pay hundreds of thousands for their own witchy guides?

You get all of that and more as thoughtful, inquisitive, and genuine host India Rakusen and her team create a spellbinding series with each half an hour episode artfully exploring different aspects of what “Witch” can mean.  There is revelatory insight into how the words “witch” and “hag” have been corrupted and she also reveals what “gossip” originally meant - I’ll let you experience the joy of hearing that one but it will definitely make you rethink how it is used.   

The series is sprinkled with beautifully surprising moments like that and part of its charm and joy is that Rakusen is warmly inquisitive and open with everyone she meets. This gentle curiosity opens up far more dialogue than some other journalists who might utilise a more challenging or antagonistic approach. There is real rigour and depth as historians and academics are nudged to help unpack something of a mystery centuries in the making. Because at it’s heart this series takes preconceived ideas of hat a witch is and uses it as a way to explore how a drive to industry and material wealth led our society away from its connection to community and nature and how this redefined the role of women within these new societies. 

India Rakusen

It also sounds fantastic: the original music by The Big Moon and sound design by Olga Reed is a perfect brew and they help add depth and character to the stories we hear and people we meet. The trips to watery graves and icy rivers make this an immersive listening experience and the use of sound actually makes this one of those series where you really don’t want it to be a TV show as it is such a treat for your ears.

 

A couple of things happened after listening to this podcast series that have never happened before to me. Firstly, I incorporated new rituals into my everyday life that have stuck and have made a difference to my well being. I’m super curious if it has had this effect on other listeners - please let me know if that’s you! And secondly, I finished the final 13th episode and went right back to the beginning to listen to it all again. This is a series that made me think, but more importantly it really made me feel - whether it is the centuries old murders or injustices or the joy of learning about the effect of nature and “awe” on our brains - it was an emotional as well as educational experience. The horror of some of the history is contrasted with the present day joy of the people we are introduced to that have embraced the natural world in their everyday lives - there were times when I was listening as I wandered the countryside and I just beamed with a sense of happiness for others.

 

My biscuit rating? Look, this needs its own category as it can’t just be one biscuit: it is like your very own selection pack of all your favourite biscuits. A tasty cookie of history, a delicious sciencey shortbread, and a chocolate bourbon of mystery and much more.

 

You can read more about the series and find the link to listen by clicking here.

Biscuit rating:  A MAGICAL SELECTION BOX

All your favourites in one place and you can't help but keep going back for more. 

The Coming Storm - Podcast.

22nd January, 2023.

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Like a Quantum Leaping news detective, journalist Gabriel Gatehouse tracks down the seeds for the January 6th insurrection in Washington;  from Witch manuals in Medieval Europe to online conspiracy forums via a suspicious suicide in 90s Virginia.

It is a compelling thriller that acts as both a lesson and a warning.

And the story isn’t finished yet.

I love a good conspiracy theory. Well. I used to. Back when they seemed relatively harmless; almost laughably implausible. In the last decade or so they have become more pernicious, a tendril of ivy that has crept through the rafters and been allowed to grow in the dark until it threatens to do some real damage.

Slow news is good news.

The Coming Storm is a BBC podcast by journalist Gabriel Gatehouse and producer Lucy Proctor that on the surface is about the background to the Capitol Insurrection in Washington DC on the January 2021. Whilst the repercussions of that day still reverberate in the news and the courts in the present, this series takes a deep dive into history.

You know those sport documentaries about a team’s title winning season? And how it isn’t about that moment of lifting the trophy but all the matches along the way, and the incidents within those matches, and even the preparation before the season started, and what had happened in previous years? Well, it’s the same here - the insurrection on 6th January is the trophy being lifted but for whom is it a success and who were the coaches and players making it happen and the supporters driving it forward?

There are a number of questions that drive this series and what I love is that it is considered and takes its time - there are no rushes to judgement or click bait headline conclusions. It is an admirable demonstration of what “slow journalism” can achieve compared to the type of media that is in such a hurry to attract eyeballs and outrage.

This type of series is not just entertaining, it is important.

Witch hunts.

We are asked to consider the rise of the Witchcraft trials prompted by the vast distribution of the book Malleus Maleficarum. First published in 1486, this treatise on witches and a guide for hunting them was propelled across the continent by the rise of the printing press.The comparison that is made to the rise of the internet in providing a new method to more quickly spread information is intriguing - I could probably go for a whole episode on this alone.

 

When we come back closer to the present, the turn of the millennium proves to be a crucial. Clues are presented to us and placed on a metaphorical evidence board like in the police procedural dramas I love so much. In 1993, the suicide of Vincent Foster - a friend of the Clintons -  is a lightning rod for suspicions that last for the next quarter of a century.

 

1997 sees the publication of a book called The Sovereign Individual, co-written by William Rees Mogg - father to British MP Jacob Rees-Mogg. The Sovereign Individual is revered in some quarters and heralded as a guide book to making money from the freedoms and opportunities made real by the rise of the internet. The Clinton presidency and 9/11 are also significant as we move to the proliferation of online chat rooms and the profitable nature of wild conspiracy.

Thriller.

At times I was caught up in this in a similar way to when I watch an excellent thriller movie and there are numerous fascinating characters we meet along the way. Perhaps my favourite is towards the end when Gatehouse goes to meet some people he hopes can help resolve a worrying thought about his own sanity. It also reminded me of the Joe Pesci moment in JFK, “It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma!”

 

The Coming Storm is full of cinematic moments that would grace the most well crafted thrillers, notably a key moment in a meeting about online misinformation that takes place at Facebook headquarters with senior staff and a concerned politcal group.  At this meeting, there was a power cut, and in the gloomy and hot surroundings a decision was made that would have a profound effect on the type of stories would see at the top of their newsfeeds.

 

QAnon gathers momentum. Even by 2020 Facebook didn’t have a robust way of dealing withfalse or misleading information trending so high.

 

There is another moment that for me would be a significant moment if Oliver Stone were directing this like JFK. Gatehouse goes to speak to Annunzita Mary Rees-Mogg (daughter toWilliam and brother to Jacob) to find out more about her father’s work. It is worrying and surprising in ways you don’t expect.

 

It is an impressive feat of structure and editing to produce a series that has so many strands, so many ideas and yet it is always coherent, always compelling. A large part of this is due to Gabriel Gatehouse's assured style. Gatehouse is an accomplished host, interrogating his own thoughts and conclusions as much as the words of his subjects. He leads us into the middle of controversy and scandal but steps back to observe it and weigh the value of what he hears and what he is told. His producer, Lucy Proctor, plays a vital role in the unfolding drama as the confidant, the Scully who prevents him from becoming Mulder by providing reason, a sounding board and a source of support and agile questions.

Thankfully, those involved continued the series at the end of 2022 and hopefully there will be more to come. Although the title might need to be altered, as you can’t help but feel that perhaps we are already in the storm.

The Coming Storm: Podcast series on BBC Sounds.(https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/brand/m001324r)

Biscuit rating: Shortbread.

An adult choice that is filling, worthy and a solid biscuit.

From the outrageous to the outrage.

There is a frequent call back to his dismissal on the scene at the Capitol Building on 6th January of a striking figure leading at the front of the crowd. Gatehouse sees and speaks to Jake Angeli - the man referred to as the QAnon Shaman - you might remember him as the figure with the horned hat and painted face; the man who Jamiroquai’s Jay Kay publicly denied was him. Gatehouse uses him as a cipher for the odd details you might dismiss as being too outrageous. When he was reporting at the Capitol that day, he decided not to record an interview with this this particular outrageous detail as he thought he wouldn’t be important - just a sideshow.  Really, he acts like a clue.

And in this way Gatehouse has constructed The Coming Storm more like a whodunit that spirals. It is this thrilling mystery aspect that makes each episode a page turner - what could possibly be revealed next?

 

Indeed, that is the feeling at the end of the series - what next? Because this is clearly not the end of the story.

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