It says something about the tenor of our age that on May 3rd, a two-and-a-half hour interview with David Icke became an international sensation. Nearly thirty years ago Icke was laughed off the flagship BBC TV show Wogan for claiming to be the son of God; he now attracts an online audience of millions. Icke’s prominence was even more remarkable because in the days leading up to the interview, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) had successively campaigned to have Icke removed from Facebook and YouTube for spreading misinformation.
David Icke is now pushing 70. He likes steam trains. His Skype interviews are conducted from an office that looks like it belongs to a local government clerk. Memories of childhood holidays apparently prompted his move to the Isle of Wight in the 1980s. He has absolutely no fashion sense. The aesthetics of his media operation are appalling. ‘Rambling’ is the most generous you can be about the speaking style. He was once a contributor to Vegetarian magazine. This sounds an unpromising profile for a social media phenomenon, but for Icke’s millions of fans; the lack of obvious pretence no doubt contributes to an air of authenticity and integrity. It doesn’t take an enormous leap of imagination to imagine him as a distant relative of a popular former Labour leader; a yet more leftfield Piers Corbyn.
Defining Icke’s work as ‘misinformation’ is both overly generous and somewhat inaccurate. While his interpretation of the Covid-19 crisis is dubious, the assertions it rests on are not obviously false. In the May 3 interview he focused on the discrepancies between the prescient and very exact pandemic simulation carried out by John Hopkins University in 2019 and the inaccuracy of the later predictive models that have guided policy. To me these discrepancies point to a gap between the assumed and actual competencies of the state, a mismatch that has caused politicians in Britain to flit between panicked inertia and overreaction. David Icke’s explanation, however, is that ‘Covid-19’ does not really exist, and that while the deaths are real, ‘the pandemic’ marks the start of a carefully planned attempt to impose global fascism through a number of successive lockdowns.
The Centre for Countering Digital Hate believe that if you ban Icke, his influence will collapse. Perhaps. But it might be wiser to think about what his audience are drawing from him, not least because he spent the last 40 minutes of the interview talking about the importance of people ‘expanding their consciousness’ and ‘following the truth in their hearts’. Deplatforming might work for CCDH against an organisation like Britain First, but it seems an inadequate weapon here. Misinformation is not the correct word for what it is Icke does. There’s a wider emotional theology at work.
In an alternate universe David Icke is celebrated as a working-class hero. Born in 1952, he grew up in a council estate in Leicester and was a ‘quiet lad’ playing in goal for Hereford during their promotion from Division 4 in 1973. He worked his way through local journalism to a slot on Grandstand, then the nation’s blue-chip sports programme. Over the past thirty years he has made films, written books and created one of the UK’s most popular websites: he has two million followers on social media. From time to time he’s attracted high-profile admirers, including Muse and Winnie Mandela. On Desert Island Discs, the US novelist Alice Walker praised Icke’s book Human Race Get Off Your Knees. In abstract, this is a biography of the post-war settlement triumphant, given that he then introduced an enormous audience to gnosticism, quantum mechanics and neuro-psychology. Icke’s success challenges everything we thought we knew about popular appetites for ambitious esoteric knowledge. He has achieved all this while maintaining the world is run by lizards.
Icke’s story can also be read against the disappointments and limitations of the post-war settlement. Icke became interested in faith healing after his football career was cut short by arthritis. He was eventually beaten to the top job at Grandstand by Des Lynham, and internal politics seems to have stifled his progress at the BBC. He had been prominent in the Green movement, but even before Icke announced he was ‘the son of god’ in 1991 the emergence of figures like Jonathan Porritt were cutting into his standing. Icke became messianic, the Green movement became savvier and was ultimately embraced by large parts of the political and financial establishment. Porritt (Eton, Magdalen College) became a government advisor and got a CBE in 2000. Icke being able to point to a past where he feels he was unfairly ignored and prevented from making the most of his talents might also be a source of his relatability.
Icke’s popularity has ebbed and flowed in waves. After the infamous Wogan interview, most commentators wavered between seeing Icke as ‘an amiable eccentric’ and a ‘well-adjusted paranoid psychotic’. Probably the only pundit to predict Icke’s resilience was the journalist Neil Lyndon, who saw that satellite television and the liberalising of media regulations would open up a future for Icke as ‘a kind of TV evangelist’. By 2000 that world had come to pass. The growth of the internet, and the fashion for new age spiritualism, alongside the popularity of TV programmes like the X-files and The Matrix film series reintroduced Icke to the fringes of cultural awareness. Mainstream attention now vacillated between dismissing his resurgence as ridiculous and sensing his popularity was somehow ‘dangerous’. Icke’s political orbit is certainly erratic but it’s also ultimately unflattering. His roots were in Green activism, and while once a fellow-traveller of the anti-globalisation left, he now attracts much greater sympathy from opponents of the ‘New World Order’ from the far fringes of the right. In this context, Icke’s endorsement of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and his determination to expose ‘the hidden rulers of the world’, is straightforwardly anti-Semitic.
Reduced to single sentences, Icke’s ideas sound ludicrous, and your instinct would be to dismiss anyone taking them seriously. But let’s try. Icke’s starting point is that humans are made of fields of energy and that our physical manifestation does not express the underlying totality of reality. This knowledge leads Icke to be extremely sceptical about the nature of almost all observable material reality and any knowledge drawn from it. Having rooted his explanation of the contemporary world in the terms of modern physics he then turns to religious history. Icke draws particularly on gnostic traditions but also references ideas from the Old Testament and the Koran. Having pulled a number of quotations together to sort of demonstrate that reality as we experience it is an illusion, Icke begins to introduce the idea that evil non-human forces (the lizards) are a malign manipulative presence in our world. There is also a strong redemptive arc to Icke’s tale. His talks usually end in a kind of euphoria; love must conquer the demiurge and the lizards who would have us betray our better nature.
One striking characteristic of Icke’s performances is that the rhetorical style is crucial to the successful delivery of the content. His speaking technique depends on the long and slow accumulation of details followed by an accelerating cascade of much bigger and more speculative claims. Presumably this is why, like a tinpot dictator, he often talks for ten hours on end, wearing down his audience with his hard-headed scepticism before suddenly blowing open the doors of credulity. Icke’s world view is revelatory but ultimately static. Built on a series of self-reinforcing statements it converts everything it touches into a struggle for self-mastery. Covid-19 provides him with just the latest example of how the demiurge is entrapping us with false knowledge.
The record-breaking interview on May 3 was the third instalment of a series hosted by the London Real website. Promoted as a free-thinking home for long-form interview, most of the content on London Real can be broadly bracketed under the category of self-help. Interviews with financial advisors, motivational speakers and lifestyle gurus are packaged together by London Real’s founder, a former banker called Brian Rose. Rose seems genuinely energised by the task of spreading London Real’s message to ‘transform yourself’ but on the website you’re only ever a click away from an advert encouraging you to attend a masterclass, sign up for a mentorship course or invest in a new cryptocurrency. It is impossible to tell whether Rose is for real or just a huckster; he has an enormous Presidential portrait of himself on his office wall and often seems to be on the verge of tears. While the ‘interview’ would have been better described as an Icke monologue, London Real promoted it as ‘Rose/Icke III’ as if it was a cross between Frost/Nixon and Balboa/Creed. The mixture of vanity and lack of self-awareness can be grotesque.
However, it is interesting that Icke has now been appropriated by this strange masculine world. There’s a lot about Icke’s thinking that could be classed as dystopian, but his messages can also inspire an unbalanced surging utopianism: explosive self-actualisation mixed with anti-authoritarianism and an almost masochistic sense of social responsibility.
Bien pensant wisdom might encourage you to laugh at, or marginalise, the unbalanced utopianism of David Icke’s followers, believing that when the current crisis fades Icke and his followers will disappear with it. However, because the immediate solutions to the present crisis will likely include a further consolidation of state power, it is surely just as likely that the anxieties his work addresses will grow. Rather than an expression of lumpen inadequates, the David Icke phenomena may be a premonition of potential social cleavages to come. When Icke talks about the world collapsing into ‘a Hunger Games society’, consciously or not he’s tapping into prevailing fears about degradation and impoverishment. This worldview will not respond well to a post-Covid-19 world that will likely see increasing authoritarianism, growing economic strife and fewer opportunities for self-actualisation.
It’s also important to recognise we’re living in a moment where the shape of Britain’s political economy seems to actively encourage conspiracy theories. Once understood as the preserve of political extremists, conspiracy theories now feature in the coverage of any political development inexplicable to the hard centre. In the UK there’s a revolving door between leadership positions in politics, finance and the media that operates to the benefit of a very small circle of people. Fewer people seem to really believe politicians work for the good of us; Icke simply adds on the suggestion that they work for ‘them’. The fact that in a single week of the pandemic Icke was able to attract 320,000 extra followers illustrates that there are massive cultural and educational gaps to be filled, and confidence in the representativeness of mainstream political culture will be damaged further if pointed questions about oligarchic power and the erosion of civil liberties are pushed into the realms of ‘conspiracy’. Fresh investigative formats are required that can confidently embrace topics that are politically ambitious, unexpectedly transcendental and perhaps impolitely weird. Many of the people who watch these videos don’t necessarily swallow it all whole; primarily, they’re engaged in an anxious hunt for deeper information. It is surely a better idea to nurture that search, rather than attempt to bury it or push it away.