The Claire Byrne Clown Show

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Many Irish people will be familiar with the old English phrase to describe an atmosphere of complete chaos: “It’s Bedlam in here”.

Fewer, perhaps, will be aware of where the phrase comes from. In the 1300s, London’s first hospital for the mentally unwell was opened – St. Mary’s Bethlehem hospital, better known as Bedlam. In the late 1400’s, around the time of Henry VIII, the hospitals’ Governors decided that one way to raise revenue for the hospital would be to allow the public to pay ten shillings for the privilege of coming in to be entertained by the sight of all the lunatics. In Thomas More’s book “the four last things”, he writes that “thou shalt in Bedlam see one laughing at the knocking of his head off a post”. For the wealthy and privileged of the time, a trip to Bedlam was much like a trip to the cinema for us today.

The principle of Bedlam, though – “observe thee these lunatics and tremble” – continues to this day and is one of RTE’s favourite magic tricks. We saw this, yet again, on Claire Byrne’s weekly circus, this past Monday Night.

Claire primed her audience well for the segment, warning them darkly that a lot of what they heard might be “disturbing for people to hear”, because “a lot of it is based on false information”. We were about to see, we were told at one point, somebody who “doesn’t believe Covid exists”. That turned out to be untrue, of course, but there was no apology for it.

Aside from anything else, this is a horrendous way to treat a guest: Rather than challenging her directly, Byrne simply denounces her as a dangerous lunatic before the public is allowed even to see her. It’s the broadcasting equivalent of a sign at the zoo: “Warning: Dangerous Animals”:

The lady in question, Jean Murray from county Meath, was carefully selected. Earlier that afternoon, the producers on Claire Byrne had contacted several people and interviewed them. One such person, having told them that he did not believe in conspiracy theories, but simply opposed the lockdown, was politely told he would not be needed. We can’t be sure, of course, that he was being recruited for exactly the same segment, but the person concerned certainly feels that they had a lucky escape, and that the whole point of the segment was to find a person and hold them up to the public as crazy. There was no other segment on the show, he points out, for which he would have been a fit. They were actively recruiting somebody to show off to the country as a crazy person.

Jean Murray – the eventual victim – is almost certainly a very nice, decent, kind person, albeit a person with some fringe views. RTE decided to hold her up explicitly as a subject of ridicule – a dangerous, deranged person with crazy notions. They did this, remember, when they had any number of options if they genuinely wanted somebody to come on their programme and oppose the continued lockdown, or any other element of Government policy. But that is not what they wanted: They wanted to portray people with anti-lockdown views as crazy, deranged, and dangerous, and Jean Murray was the collateral damage.

Later in the show, of course, Jean Murray’s apparent condition was discussed by “experts”, much in the way a surgeon might take a group of junior doctors in to examine a leper, and then question them about potential treatments. DCU “expert”, Eileen Culloty, was asked for her verdict, and recommended an intervention at an early stage, if, for example, someone was “asking questions”:

“Asking questions”, then, is a bad sign. A good citizen, the message seems to say, doesn’t ask questions.

All of this is so despicably dishonest, so utterly without decency, that it’s hard to put it into words. For the guts of a year, this presenter and her team have platformed some of Ireland’s biggest, and most consistently wrong, conspiracy theorists. This was the programme, after all, where the host took to broadcasting from her garden shed, so dangerous was Covid. It is the programme which has repeatedly inflicted Zero-Covid panic-mongerers on the public, warning of deaths by the tens of thousand and the need for constant vigilance and semi-permanent lockdown. It is the show that had scientists walking around in giant bubbles to demonstrate a potential method of covid protection. If you take any kind of sceptical view of this stuff, then you need not hope to get a fair hearing. It is a circus, not a current affairs programme – and we’re all paying for it.

There are, of course, people in Ireland who believe things that have no basis in science or fact, but they are not simply limited to those who believe that 5G is some form of international conspiracy, or that Bill Gates is controlling the world. They also include, for example, people who believe that wearing face masks outdoors is necessary, or those who believe that it is a good idea to lock the country down for years and years to come on the “precautionary principle”. They include people who will on the one hand promote the covid vaccine, and on the other hand tell people that they are not safe even after they take it.

One set of lunatics, of course, is invited on to Byrne’s show and held up as an example of rational thought and scientific prudence. The other set are portrayed as a threat to the very fabric of our society. It is not journalism. It is propaganda. This is a presenter so tuned in to one side of the debate, and one side only, that she did not know, just a week ago, who John Ioannidis, one of the most prominent epidemiologists in the world, was.

The irony here, of course, is that Byrne and her producers probably believe that they are the modern equivalent of the Governors of Bedlam, inviting people in to observe the insane. The truth, though, is that they are not the Governors – they are the patients.

Once you realise that, you might start to see things a little differently.

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