BOOK REVIEW: A State Of Fear by Laura Dodsworth
Pinter & Martin; paperback, £9.99. Published 17 May 2021
By Jon Dobinson – 8 minute read
IN HER INTRODUCTION to ‘A State Of Fear’, Laura Dodsworth writes, “We don’t like to believe we can be manipulated, let alone that we have been manipulated – this book may hurt.”
Hurt it will, pitilessly exposing by turns the damage that fear has done to us over the past year, the way that terror eclipses reason or common-sense, and the way it has been weaponised to control us by the Government’s behavioural scientists. If you care about the future of liberty and democracy in the UK, this book will not help you sleep at night. It may however find a place at the top the pile on your bedside table: its hard-hitting chapters read once with shock and maybe, for some, a degree of incredulity, but then referred to again with increasing belief and conviction as a new revelation, campaign or headline brings home a key theme or passage.
It’s well researched and rigorously factual, but passion and anger shine through every page. They turn it from a dry analysis into a page-turning thriller in which we repeatedly discover ourselves as protagonist, victim, or supporting cast. The anecdotes and observations resonate with moments from our own lives over the past eighteen months, making personal the revelations about the polished levers and engines which generated them.
In a book about fear, perhaps the most frightening point of all is just how easy it now is to control a democratic society through the levers of behavioural science. Without debate or public consent, the Government has built capabilities in department after department to control how we think, feel, and act subliminally using cutting-edge psychology, research and communication. The advent of Covid-19 turbocharged these teams, which were headed by the SPI-B behavioural science committee and handed almost unlimited power and money. As the discipline with the greatest representation on SAGE, behavioural scientists carried more weight in the pandemic even than virologists and medical experts.
Likely anticipating the charge that she has succumbed to the dark theories of those who smell conspiracy in every action of Government, Dodsworth has rigorously researched and checked her claims. What emerges is comprehensive, informative and authoritative: page after page rings true and makes one nod as an anecdote of the past year strikes a chord.
Dodsworth vividly illuminates not just the effects fear has had, but how it influences us and why we are so prone to these extreme reactions. The expert insight and personal testimony show both how fear was created and how it took control of the population, often driving victims to extremes of behaviour that they view in hindsight as totally out of character.
Little here is speculative: the book deals in what we can see and know of events over the past year. It draws on highly-placed sources, though sadly many of those with real inside knowledge are quoted anonymously as they were too frightened of losing their careers to go on the record. This inevitably raises questions over the credibility of their claims, but it’s impossible to dismiss what they say because the substantiation is robust, the evidence convincing, and it so often chimes with personal experience.
At one point, a source in Government is quoted as saying,
“Hancock is quite paranoid and a total ‘wet’. He’s a real panicker.”
This will surprise few people – we can all see Hancock’s shortcomings – but these moments of recognition are important in building our understanding of the way in which politicians moved so quickly from championing freedom to enforcing repression. ‘The fear spread from the health department to the other departments and they all fell under the spell of the SAGE scientists foretelling doom’.
This was a different kind of fear to that felt by the public: fear not of the illness itself, but of its political fall-out. Politicians were terrified of failing in any step which might later be found to have saved lives. The virus might not represent a deadly threat to the vast majority of British people, but it could certainly be lethal to their own prospects for electoral success.
An insider tells Dodsworth that ministers fear ‘they’ll get hauled through the press for their own mistakes and that’s worse for them than ruining people’s businesses.’
This spectre still stalks Whitehall. I’m told that from March 2020 onwards, any Civil Servant minded to reject tough restrictions has simply been asked, ‘what will you tell the Inquiry?’ Few are brave enough to resist that threat. Yet it only works one way – deaths and suffering from Covid-19 may bring retribution. Deaths and suffering caused by restrictions are so unimportant to the decision-makers that they have not even bothered to consider whether the harm of measures may outweigh the benefits. Recovery has been campaigning since its launch for the coming Covid-19 inquiry to be comprehensive, investigating the full impact of the measures taken, positive and negative: this is why it’s so important.
We now know beyond question that the consequences of the Government action will be devastating for many, from the thousands who have not been treated or diagnosed with cancers over the past year to the millions whose livelihoods have gone. The mental health impact alone has been enormous and experts warn that some will bear the scars for life – including many children. This is vividly brought to life via the personal experiences which preface each chapter of the book.
Yet fear sells above all else. Broadcasters have enjoyed unprecedented viewing figures while Covid-19 has raged. An Ofcom report in September found that the average UK adult spent 6 hours 25 minutes watching content in April 2020 – up by an hour and a half from 2019.
That kind of power over eyeballs brings huge influence and profits, so broadcasters who gorge on drama and sensation grow fat. The reporters who provide it win pay rises and awards. For them, the best scientist is not the most accurate or eminent expert, but the one who produces the most wild and exciting prediction: the one which will really get viewers scared.
Reporters rush from No.10 conference to Covid ward with breathless anticipation of a child at a theme park racing from the dodgems to a rollercoaster. It’s what happens next that matters: the next scary number, the next variant. Checking whether the last prediction came true is dull. Boring old cancer and heart disease may be the bigger killers, but they’re old news. No-one has pushed a camera in the face of the grieving relatives of a cancer patient who was turned away for treatment or a worried oncologist. If you want to be heard, you have to talk Covid.
The pressure on Government is no longer to do what is best for the country, but what is best for the story. Over and over again, this leads to poor decision-making. Leaders are rewarded not for good policy, but for media-friendly sound-bites. Today, the business of Government has become less about doing what is right and more about doing what will play out best on the airwaves. Managing the opinion of the country has become more important than managing the country. Behind closed doors, our leaders have taken the logical next step.
Dodsworth reveals how successive governments have assembled a vast interconnected machine for producing and weaponizing fear with the explicit aim of controlling behaviour. Those who operate it argue that their intentions are good.
It’s the old paternalist thinking with a high-tech upgrade. People can’t be trusted to make the correct choices if they are given access to information and left to decide for themselves. So they must be subliminally ‘nudged’ in the right direction (or, during Covid-19, bludgeoned). Information which might disrupt the narrative is suppressed. Those who choose for us won’t admit the possibility that they could get it wrong. We, the ordinary people, are fallible; they are not. As Dodsworth says,
“Nudge is clever people in government making sure the not-so-clever people do what they want.”
All this was already happening prior to Covid-19. Yet it was little studied. A colossal machine was assembled out of public sight without any consideration as to the ethics and consequences, since those involved saw their goals as good and the ends as justifying the means.
As Dodsworth finds, its workings are wrapped in shadow. Attempting to dissect its component parts, she identifies some of the departments involved, but beyond confirming their existence, no-one in Government will answer her questions. In a book which contains many shocks, not least is how much of all this is being hidden from us in our supposedly free and democratic society. Not only are our strings to be pulled without our conscious knowledge, the details of how and why we are being manipulated must be hidden from us, lest we see through the tricks and hold the puppet-masters to account.
Behavioural science regards the mass of humanity as no more than rats in a maze, to be prodded down one alley and forbidden another. The scientists wish to control the rats: they do not accept that the rats should have any control over them.
These are disturbing claims, but the more they are researched, the more substantiation can be found. For example, she refers to the questionable role of Ofcom in enforcing a distorted narrative across the broadcast media, citing the guidance issued to broadcasters on 23 March 2020. This says that any report featuring content around Covid-19 which ‘may be harmful’ will be subject to statutory sanction.
As she points out, these comparatively innocuous words in practice force broadcasters to censure a huge amount of critical content, even where it is accurate, especially where it tends to calm fears or reassure people, since fear has been used to maximise compliance with restrictions.
An online search reveals that this was followed by additional Ofcom guidance on 27 March 2020, which is chillingly explicit. For example, it prohibits the broadcasting of ‘medical or other advice which… discourages the audience from following official rules and guidance.’ There’s no ambiguity here. Ofcom is telling broadcasters that they cannot allow informed, expert opinion, no matter how accurate or important, if it conflicts with the official guidance. This is extraordinary.
It gives added bite to her central point: ‘any regulator charged with upholding freedom of expression – as is the case with Ofcom – should proceed to restrict that freedom only on a closely reasoned basis. That is something Ofcom has manifestly failed to do.”
In the process, it has turned our theoretically impartial broadcasters into mere cheerleaders for restrictions. She argues that what they report is no longer news: “There is a word for only sharing information which is biased and used to promote a political cause: propaganda.”
Could the BBC have done more to preserve its integrity? When reporting restrictions were imposed on it during the Gulf War, it prefaced reports with a reminder that restrictions were in place. It could have done the same here, alerting viewers to the controls on pandemic reporting. It chose not to do so and therefore the public is unaware that anything has changed.
Her interview with Piers Robinson, Co-Director of the Organisation for Propaganda Studies, concludes with the stark warning, ”It is not inconceivable that we are walking into an absolute nightmare in which freedom of speech and debate become significantly curtailed.”
It’s one of many moments in the book where you catch yourself thinking, ‘can this really be happening?’ It’s hard to believe that we have lost so many freedoms without a whisper from the supposed parliamentary Opposition, or that a leader who has championed our liberties so loudly in the past has moved so decisively to remove them.
‘A State Of Fear’ is essential reading if you want to understand how majority backing for the uniquely repressive response to Covid-19 was engineered so quickly. It’s a deeply troubling tale. However, it raises broader concerns about a world in which the combined power of psychology, technology, media and research are increasingly being used to dictate our choices without our knowledge or consent.
These questions go to the heart of our humanity and the kind of world we want for ourselves and our children. How many of us really want to live in fear, even if it means we are protected from our own misjudgements? Can governments be trusted with subliminal tools so powerful that they can instruct us what to think? With ‘A State Of Fear’, Laura Dodsworth has launched a vital debate.
Recovery formed last October to campaign for the Five Reasonable Demands for good government during Covid-19, a moderate, balanced alternative to the Government’s damaging approach to Covid-19, which experts have warned will end up costing many more lives than it saves and the Government itself says has already cost the country as much as the entire Second World War.
For Recovery’s campaign against fear go to: www.timeforrecovery.org/fear