Living Newspaper Clippings: Transcript of Katherine Soper and Daniel York-Loh in conversation

This is the transcript of the recorded conversation between writers Katherine Soper and Daniel York Loh, recorded as part of the Royal Court Living Newspaper Clippings series. This conversation was recorded in February 2021. 

Daniel York Loh: Hi, I’m Daniel. I was one of the writers on Edition 1. And I’m here along with

Katherine Soper: Katherine, and I also wrote on Edition 1. It’s kind of amazing, because we obviously went to see it on the same night. It was like the first or second week of December, I think. We both chose to wrote write about things that shaded into the conspiracy theories cropping up in 2020, and QAnon. Then three weeks afterwards, the insurrection in the Capitol happens. So you were probably thinking about the same thing I was at that point!

Daniel: Well I was, it’s been on my mind, constantly, I think for the last year, we’re kind of in an age of fear, and where the truth, I don’t know what it counts for anymore, I really don’t.

Katherine: The funny thing is because at some point, I was trying to think when writing this piece for Living Newspaper actually, I was trying to think to myself, what is the difference between QAnon and all of the pandemic conspiracies versus like, the sort of conspiracies that lie dormant for decades on end, e.g JFK was murdered by the CIA, and that sort of thing; Princess Diana was murdered, 911 was an inside job. One of the things that I was thinking about is that, conspiracies just tend to take on the kind of anxieties of the age that they’re conceived in. At one point, and this was also in the run up to the election, I watched a clip of John McCain in 2008, really firmly shutting down a woman, a Republican woman who was saying that Obama was an Arab and expressing fear about it. I was watching and thinking, that seems like another age now, that seems more than 12 years ago.

Daniel: Totally, I always think those ones about JFK and Princess Diana, I think those are things that I mean; I’ve kind of bought into those things. Those are things that people wondered about and people would look at, and sort of investigate. But these seem to be about a kind of fevered hatred, fear, prejudice. I remember one I saw in Britain, in our last election, when they went to the BBC went to a Brexit party rally, somewhere and this guy turned around to the BBC reporter, and he said to the BBC, “You’re horrible people… you’re Marxists” And I thought, do you even know what a Marxist is? I mean, are we talking about someone who’s read Das Kapital? Because I tried to read it once and it seems to be all about sewing machines. If worker one is producing this much, this much thread and worker two, you know. I just thought the way that word had become weaponized to demonise something -I don’t know what – that they would say left wing, I just don’t know. The idea that the BBC is full of communists.

Katherine: Especially when you consider that like, people at the BBC are not really able to express many political opinions because of the fact that it’s state subsidised. It’s really strange. I partly think that birtherism was one of the huge like, kind of things that laid the groundwork for what we’re experiencing now. The fact that so many people, republicans really, were so happy to go along with that and fanned the flames of it. I read this quote about birtherism that I thought was so fascinating, saying “it was from the beginning, an answer looking for a question to justify itself” that it wasn’t actually, ‘this weird thing has happened,  now we’re looking for reasons why it might have  happened because it seems strange.’ It was always scrambling for a fact that didn’t exist, it wasn’t actually predicated on anything other than the fear of Obama as a figure. But then that tribe that was developed over those years has railroaded into the fact that now we do have some kind of world event going on, that’s hard to explain that’s changed people’s lives in ways that we can’t even understand. When you put the two of them together, it’s this perfect storm.

Daniel: Completely, I find it shocking that every night in the news now, I mean, you know, a certain well known actor who decided to reinvent themselves as, some sort of right wing political figure a few months ago was saying, “let the news cameras into NHS hospitals” and it’s interesting, now, every night on the news, we have really, you know, loads of really traumatic footage, and doctors and nurses literally in tears. And every night, they seem to be saying, “Look, look, this is real. Please, no, this is real.” The relatives who’ve lost people saying “this is real.” We’re having to kind of put that out there.

Katherine: Yeah, I think it’s that thing where, lots of people I know, who I think are perfectly sensible, would potentially be a bit worried by the idea of “I’ve heard that all the hospitals are actually empty”. It’s one of those things where if you aren’t an expert on lots of these sorts of things, and you don’t know actually how it’s working, you’re not necessarily very qualified to actually assess the meaning of a particular fact or misleading piece of information, but then that you go back to the same thing of ‘we’re all sick of experts’.

Daniel: Yeah, I’m just going to say that it started in this country with that one didn’t it.  The idea that you just decry that idea that people know things? I would argue that a lot of media has done this thing where in trying to be very impartial, they literally give equal credence to. If I was sat there talking to a financial advisor about stocks and shares and stuff, I wouldn’t think my opinion was of equal, I just wouldn’t.

Katherine: If one opinion is actually incredibly extreme, and you try and find the centre, so to speak, you’re still going to end up somewhere far more extreme than what you think the centre actually means. When I was like, working on my piece, I was kind of thinking a lot about, I’m sure you were to having listened to yours, I was kind of thinking about in what ways would I actually be vulnerable to conspiratorial styles of thinking myself and like you said that in the past have heard the things about JFK, Diana, and so on, and things you thought, oh, there might be something to that. Like, I remember when Grenfell happened, and seeing screenshots of people’s texts being like ‘there are way more bodies than the government is letting on’ its way, it’s hundreds more or something.’ I honestly thought “God, that seems possible to me” but the reason that chimes with me is because I don’t have the trust in the government, like the government that we have right now, to trust that they wouldn’t actually just sweep it under the rug, particularly people of the demographics that were affected by Grenfell. Even though when you step back, you do think it would be pretty unlikely for that not to actually come out over the next few years, and the kind of destruction and the kind of impact that a revelation like that, you would hope would have on the government would mean that they wouldn’t be likely to do that. But I think when I remembered that I have been very open to that idea with that, which was just hearsay at that point. I realise it is just that thing where it’s, it’s all about what door is actually the one that appeals to you.

Daniel: Yeah, it’s interesting that you mentioned Grenfell, because I live just around the corner from it. And I did hear and read from some sources, I would have considered very reliable, that there were a lot more. I was not inclined to disbelieve it, look at it that way, because it probably did play into my biases and suspicions. But by the same token, to get to that level of utter conviction about it, which is what I see a lot. And I thought, you know, it’s interesting in your piece, I thought one of the things that was really chilling about it was the kind of build between the two people, you know, going “Well, yeah, they are like this and that”, and it just builds and builds and builds. And I think there’s, there’s something about being in kind of echo chambers with people who think like us.

Katherine: Yeah. And it’s, it’s that thing where it can become a bit of a truism of being like, “oh, people who are isolated, are more attracted to this and that”, but we don’t necessarily think about why that is, in more literal terms. When you’re literally cut off as everyone has been this year from seeing people you know and love, from seeing people who might kind of keep your feet on the ground a little bit more, the kind of human need for a tribe, I guess, means that you are far more inclined to spend more time searching for those connections and getting into that place of belonging. And again, it’s the thing where people who are in communities where civic institutions and communities have broken down to begin with, that human instinct and that need for a place of belonging for your own tribe, leads you into kind of very unhealthy distortions of that.

Daniel: I think so. And I wonder as well, if just the fact that we’re not going out and interacting with people means not only do we not see the people we love or like, we also don’t see the people we’re maybe not that inclined towards and they can get kind of demonised and dehumanised to a far greater extent than they might do normally. 

Katherine: I’ve seen in much more miniature ways, those online communities really go off into the stratosphere, like, sometimes when people are fans of a TV show, they’ll all convince themselves and convince one another, that the romantic leads are in love in real life, but they’re being kept apart because they’re meant to be married, but actually, it’s just beards that fit the people they’re married to, it’s all fake. It’s just that thing where it’s that kind of feedback cycle where other people saying, “Oh, yes, that seems plausible to me”  and egg you on and then you egg them on, when there isn’t a voice in the room to actually say “This all seems absolutely crazy.” It snowballs and snowballs…

Daniel: Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of that on Twitter and stuff, I’ve come off Twitter for the time being.

Katherine: I’ve tried on Twitter a few times in the past, but I can’t even work out how to interact with people, I think I get scared by being too public. Weirdly, I kind of think the reason I like writing things is because I can write about a lot of stuff I’m really interested in, not in my own person, and whatever I put out into public has a kind of, like, veil drawn over it in some weird way.

Daniel: I think the problem with Twitter is you end up, and I certainly fall into that trap of writing things that aren’t that considered sometimes – so you’re struggling to make sense of something considered sometimes, or something inside you or in the world. And you kind of lash it all out there. It’s almost like releasing your first draft, you know. Remember that thing, when you first start writing, you manage to write one thing, and I actually did this, I sent this to people, you know, I mean, and then you look back afterwards and you think, that was horrendous man, I should have never sent that to anyone. I think it’s quite common. We all do it. When we first start, we go “yeah, clearly, clearly a work of genius.” And then and then you look back and go,”Oh, my God,”. There’s a lot of things that come out unfiltered when you’re writing and you really need to kind of get a sense and sort them out and shape them a bit better. Sometimes you need to be unfiltered. You need to have a character saying something that’s unfiltered, that there’s a certain kind of, I don’t know, there’s a certain kind of wave you can push out there, which is not, which can be very…what’s the word… destructive or something? 

Katherine: You need to be able to be unfiltered not to, too many people at once.

Daniel: Completely. Yeah, I think there was a James Graham podcast I saw, he said, you know, you send your first draft to about two people. There’s two people in the world you should be able to trust. That is the problem with Twitter, you’re putting out not even a first draft to a potential audience in the tens of thousands, who will get hold of it and judge you, and get angry with you. It’s a bit like, getting drunk in a bar one night and saying something stupid, you know, I mean, but it’s there forever, and that’s a real problem.

Katherine: The thing that I’ve always struggled with it a bit, is that it’s by its nature, bite sized, even when it’s a really long thread, it’s having to put things into these tiny little chunks. I feel as though the way that things actually are, can’t necessarily be put into chunks the way that like, we think, shouldn’t necessarily be in these pithy soundbites.

Daniel: Yeah, completely. And that’s why in a way, it’s a brilliant campaign tool.

Katherine: You’re right, that does make a lot of sense.

Daniel: I totally made use of it in terms of activism. But then you see someone like Donald Trump making total use of it. People like Katie Hopkins, Tommy Robinson made total use of it. They’re no on there anymore.

Katherine: I’ve really thought about what is the point at which face to face, political campaigning is going to be viable again, that’s something that we’ve lost for the time being. And that’s actually in some ways one of the most useful forms of it. There isn’t so much a case of like of misleading the framing of the facts, which then gets like retweeted a million times around the world that and neglects that kind of human element.

Daniel: There’s so much about the media these days. I remember reading about Clement Attlee, who was, you know, supposedly one of the great Labour leaders, one of the great Labour prime ministers… I mean, I’m not old enough to remember Clement and apparently, he was devoid of charisma, he was really, really dull, dry, but you know a very measured politician who thought about things and introduced some great policies, but I just don’t know if that’s like you say, I don’t know if that’s viable anymore.

Katherine: People talked about that with Gordon Brown. They said he was a politician to the radio age. When you put them up next to Cameron, one of them’s a bit more shiny, and well buffed, and clearly, Etonian.

Daniel: Yeah, I know. I don’t know if you read this thing about the Labour Party yesterday, this  leaked report that their new strategy is all about flags and and patriotism. And, you know, and I notice that now, it’s very interesting when you see politicians being interviewed now, Tory and Labour, they’re all sat in front of the flag.

Katherine: Again, it’s that weird thing where how do we unify ourselves, and a flag is one way as long as we understand the flag to mean a good thing.

Daniel: Completely. There’s a kind of push into nationalism, very much so.

Katherine: It’s that thing about where is the line? How do you allow people to love the country they’re in and embrace the country we’re in… and keep that at bay? One of the things I wonder is whether the hopeful influx of Hong Kong-ers, is going to be something that is beneficial in the future.

Daniel: Don’t even get started on that!

Katherine: I know, I was going to say that we’ve got so little time left already.

Daniel: I saw a Telegraph article on Twitter about that, and the replies underneath were off the scale, because it’s open to something like, hundreds of thousands, maybe a million. So the ethnically Chinese, which I am, in Britain would suddenly go from being a tiny ethnic minority to being quite a sizable one, which is obviously going to kick in. Interestingly, I will say something about this about China as well, because in Edition 2 of Living Newspaper, my friend Sian, who’s from China, her piece was very much about the same sort of thing we were writing about, with what happens in China, and I read a whole article about this. There 20, 30-somethings who are very concerned about their parents and their grandparents because of what they’re reading on social media, and they’re literally trying to find these kinds of herbal cures for illnesses and stuff like that, and all sorts of conspiracy theories and stuff like that. It’s the same thing going on all over the planet. It’s really interesting. Yeah, I opened up that big can of worms there just. as we’re about to finish!

Katherine: Well at some point, we’ll have to actually just have a long conversation, not a recording, hashing out all of this stuff

Daniel: But not hashtagging it

Katherine: Exactly