Why would anyone believe this rubbish?
Sunday 29 June 1997
Note the weasel "yet". For this was not a programme of sceptical enquiry at all. Rather, it was a show of almost obstinate credulity. Now there is an argument that says we shouldn't care about this millennarian pap appearing on prime-time TV. No one who wasn't already a bit doolally will take it seriously, and for most viewers it's just an assembly of diverting curios. They watch, and pass on. There is so much stupidity in the world, that another bit won't make much difference.
When it comes to drama I think this argument holds. But with programmes that claim to be factual, I am not so sure. There is a language of TV journalism and enquiry that (polls suggest) most of us have come to trust. To use it in the service of quackery, is - at best - to debase the currency. At worst it could lead the vulnerable, the stupid or the desperate into harbouring false hopes, or into the clutches of charlatans.
The first McKenna item concerned a faith healer. Grigori Antyuhin is "a fully qualified physician from Russia" (in pseudo-science, words like "qualified", "research"and"study" are used with wonderful solemnity), who now practises in Milwaukee. He has enjoyed "incredible results" with his technique of just looking at a patient and then diagnosing the illness. No biopsies, X-rays or -scopies are required. Like his namesake - that other great Russian healer, Rasputin - he sees right inside. Orange means healthy organs, purple means inflammation and green means go, but only if the road is clear.
In fact Grigori doesn't need to meet the sufferer at all. "To convince the sceptics" (do they mean me?), he sat in a distant room and, using only a sheet of paper with the name and date of birth of the patient, he performed. His diagnostic accuracy (unchallenged) was supposedly 85 to 90 per cent.
Next we had that old chestnut, the Martian rock that looks like a face. "Could it really be the result of natural erosion?" asked McKenna, with sudden uncharacteristic scepticism. Yes, of course it bloody could. How many places on earth are called "Bear Rock"? Had this "face" looked like Mount Rushmore, it would have been a different matter. But it didn't.
But no, with the help of an "image-processing consultant" (a what?) we embarked upon a paranoid fantasy about Nasa trying to suppress pictures from the Viking probe so as to protect us from the possibility of life in space. Nasa, of course, is unlikely to sue for libel.
Robert Bauval, "Egyptologist", then took us on the next leg of the journey. "If the monuments on Mars turn out to be artificial, then we have to explain who bult them," said Bauval. And the answer must be that they were "either built by Martians, or by an extra-terrestrial civilisation from outside the solar system". As must, of course, the "similar" monuments in Egypt.
In this farrago of total tosh, not one sceptical voice was permitted. The whole thing could have been dismissed in five minutes, but then, there would have been no show, would there? The important question is this: do Mr McKenna and his team believe all this stuff themselves? Do they really think that Antyuhin has a 90 per cent success rate from remote diagnosis?
I challenge Paul McKenna right now (I know you're reading this Paul, so you can't escape): should you or any of your family fall ill - rather than being whisked to some hugely expensive private hospital and being probed by very eminent and conventional doctors - will you agree instead to be diagnosed from afar by Dr Antyuhin, and to act on the diagnosis? If you will, then I'll accept your sincerity (if not your common sense). If not ... I invite readers to draw their own conclusions.
And while we're about it, here's a question for Series Editor Desmond Wilcox (aka Mr Esther Rantzen), of Man Alive Productions. Do he and Esther consult faith-healers themselves, and did they teach their own daughters that the pyramids were built by Martians? No? Well, if it's not good enough for him, why the hell does he think it's good enough for the ordinary people of Britain?
When I think (bitter experience, this) of the hurdles that current affairs, consumer and science programmes have to jump before making assertions; of the standards of evidence that they have to meet, then this rubbish - showing few signs of any such constraint - makes me want to weep. Take it off and give the money to charity.
The same (though with caveats) goes for We Are Not Alone (ITV, Wed & Thurs), which gave barely qualified credence to most current UFO nonsense. Once again the seminal sentiment, expressed by a participant was that, "I believe that we don't know what we don't know yet." Yep, there's that "yet" again. And we also don't know what is not there to be known. But that doesn't make it in any way knowable.
The suggestion is, of course, that we do know that there is something, because we've seen it. Dr Steve Greer, Director of the Centre for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (and therefore the man least likely to say, "There's nothing out there; now sack me") told viewers that "10 per cent of Americans have seen these things, and a similar number in England". Really? 5.6 million Britons have seen UFOs? (McKenna claimed this week that "a university study shows that six out of 10 people have experienced ESP".) I don't think so.
Many of those who have seen UFOs are abducted by aliens, who whisk them up from Falkirk, give them the once over, usually (according to an expert), "ending up concentrating on the reproductive organs". This prompts the thought that, for all their technological sophistication, these aliens must be bloody stupid if they have to kidnap thousands of Americans every year, just to keep on examining and re-examining their pudenda. "For chrissake, baldy", you want to shout, "it's still just a dick!"
It is interesting that any phenomenon that anybody saw was always "the size of a jumbo jet". UFO's (C5, Sun) helped to explain this by introducing a man with a hat with lights on - a millennium sombrero - who stands on hills in Nevada at night and switches his headgear on. This chap discovered that many who had seen the circle of lights, had reported encountering an object at least 50 feet in diameter.
He would certainly appear on the very first edition of my new programme devoted to the supernatural, UFOs etc. This sure-fire ratings winner will be presented by Jeremy Paxman, entitled It's All Bollocks, and I hereby offer it to the BBC's Alan Yentob for a small consideration.
Another possible presenter is Antoine de Caunes, the extraordinary Frenchman who fronts Eurotrash (C4, Fri). I had caught moments of this programme in the past and mistakenly thought it to be semi-pornographic trash, like The Girlie Show. Then the new Channel 4 boss Michael Jackson revealed that it was in fact a work of ironic genius, simultaneously poking fun at the English obsession with boobs, and the European love of glitzy, cheap TV.
So I sat down and watched it properly and discovered that it was, well, a work of ironic genius after all, and de Caunes a genuinely talented presenter. No, really. Which just goes to show what a trendy Groucho Club wimp your reviewer is, and how easily influenced by the Sultans Culture. Thus liberated, however, I was free to enjoy the fiftieth Eurotrash, and particularly the visit of that ironic genius Melinda Messenger to Latexa, the continental manufacturers of PVC lovewear and of plastic, er, aids. "This is ze latex vagina," explained a Belgian, holding something that looked like an orange clam. "It is for ze mans. Especially for ze mans who lives alone."
Especially for ze mans who lives alone and watches Paul McKenna.
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