Netflix’s Ancient Apocalypse is the best case for publicly funded TV yet

Graham Hancock’s new Netflix documentary, about an advanced ancient civilisation that was wiped off the face of the Earth, has been accused by scientists and reviewers of espousing a ‘dangerous’ conspiracy theory. The value of the UK’s independently regulated broadcasters has never seemed clearer in comparison, writes Louis Chilton

Saturday 26 November 2022 06:30 GMT
<p>Graham Hancock, host of the controversial documentary programme ‘Ancient Apocalypse’</p>

Graham Hancock, host of the controversial documentary programme ‘Ancient Apocalypse’

There are two very different sides to Netflix. On the one hand, there’s the glitz: the prestige-laden films by venerated directors (RomaThe IrishmanThe Power of the Dog). The glossy hit series like Stranger Things or Squid Game. But then there’s the other stuff. Just as crucial to Netflix’s business model – perhaps more crucial – is the streamer’s extensive catalogue of less reputable material. From salacious true crime docs to paranormal investigation series, Netflix is teeming with programmes that fall somewhere between being knowingly pulpy and outright schlock. In a climate where new streaming services seem to launch every few months, adding to the competition and cutting into Netflix’s non-original content catalogue, it’s natural that Netflix would turn to whatever gets people watching. So when a programme like Ancient Apocalypse drops on the streaming service, you might be inclined to think it’s all just business as usual. 

But that’s not necessarily the case. Ancient Apocalypse, a documentary hosted by the writer and repeat guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast Graham Hancock, centres on Hancock’s own spuriously substantiated theories about the existence of an advanced Ice-Age civilisation that was wiped off the face of the Earth by comets and a mighty flood roughly 12,000 years ago. Experts have branded the subject a pseudoscientific conspiracy theory; much of the programme follows Hancock’s own fruitless efforts to be taken seriously by the archaeological establishment. The Guardian branded the series “the most dangerous show on Netflix”, while historian Greg Jenner referred to it as “absolute nonsense which fails at the most basic level to present convincing evidence” – and yet the series has sat in Netflix’s Top 10 list for several days, currently resting at No 7 across all of film and TV at the time of writing. The documentary has raised concerns over Netflix’s own complicity in disseminating dubious or misleading information. More than this, however, it has made a compelling case for the value of the UK’s publicly owned broadcasters.

With the BBC and Channel 4 increasingly under threat from a hostile government, the very future of public broadcasting remains uncertain. Calls to abolish the licence fee seem to grow louder every year and plans to privatise Channel 4 are already in place. The rise of streaming services has cast doubt on the inherent value of the Beeb; it has struggled to compete with the sheer scale and reach of Netflix or Disney Plus. But as Ancient Apocalypse has shown, the BBC has something that Netflix sorely lacks: accountability. 

The question of accountability extends beyond Ancient Apocalypse, of course. Whether it’s a drama series about Jeffrey Dahmer condemned as “exploitative” by the serial killer’s victims’ families, or polarising stand-up specials featuring offensive jokes about the Holocaust or trans people, Netflix has thrown itself into controversy with gusto, time after time. But who is holding it accountable for these decisions? As a streaming service, Netflix isn’t even subject to the same regulations that regular UK TV channels are: when viewers are offended by something on traditional TV, they can always complain to the broadcasting regulator Ofcom. Because Netflix is based in the Netherlands, it falls outside of Ofcom’s jurisdiction. (Ofcom suggests that people with grievances either contact Netflix directly or get in touch with the Dutch Media Authority, the Commissariaat voor de Media – but these avenues seem less likely to yield any kind of material change, as opposed to Ofcom, which is both domestic and independent.) Netflix too often seems to operate under the amoral ethos of the free market: if people will watch it, that’s reason enough to make it. 

That’s not to say that the BBC and Channel 4 are completely without sin, of course. The BBC – in particular, BBC News – has been criticised for a perceived right-wing political bias in recent years; its handling of transgender issues has been condemned by LGBT+ rights activists on multiple occasions. Channel 4, meanwhile, has earned a bit of a reputation for tasteless stunt commissions, such as the recent cancel culture debate programme Jimmy Carr Destroys Art. It’s worth noting that Hancock previously presented two Channel 4 documentaries espousing his controversial pseudoarchaeological theories, 1998’s Quest for the Lost Civilisation and 2002’s Underworld: Flooded Kingdoms of the Ice Age. Two decades is a long time, however – it’s hard to imagine the current iteration of Channel 4 platforming this kind of thing uncritically.

The BBC, meanwhile, scrutinised one of Hancock’s theories in the 1999 Horizon episode “Atlantis Reborn”, prompting Hancock and his Belgian collaborator Robert Bauval to complain to the Broadcasting Standards Commission. The organisation ruled in favour of the BBC, with one caveat – that Horizon had unfairly omitted one aspect of Hancock’s argument. The following year, a revised episode, titled “Atlantis Reborn Again”, was broadcast, featuring augmented counterarguments from Hancock and Bauval. In this incident, we can see the benefits of the BBC’s process laid out clearly and simply: rigorous and transparent accountability, both to the documentary’s subjects and to the viewing public. 

There is, clearly, a burgeoning market for conspiracy theories: one need only look at the popularity of Rogan’s podcast (which has regularly seen guests promote false information and conspiracy theories, leading to a high-profile boycott of the podcast’s distributor, Spotify, earlier this year), or Russell Brand’s YouTube channel (in which he promulgates outlandish theories on everything from vaccines to the Russia-Ukraine war), to see that’s the case. Perhaps Netflix jumping on the pseudoscience bandwagon was an inevitability. But it’s a stark reminder of exactly what’s being lost in television’s pivot to privately owned streaming services. It’s an issue that’s threatening to swallow social media platforms whole, too: how exactly the spread of (mis-)information is regulated. Modern companies must start drawing from the lessons of the past – it might help to understand why the BBC has lasted as long as it has.

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