The Coming Storm - Podcast.
22nd January, 2023.
(The podcast and short video versions of this review are below, you can also find the links to listen on Apple, Spotify, Amazon at the bottom of this page - you can also search your usual podcast platforms.)
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.
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.
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.