The media feeding frenzy that greeted the release of the final tranche of British UFO files was a fitting end to my involvement in one of the most successful Freedom of Information projects in recent years.
#UFO files began trending on Twitter early on Friday 21 June as blanket coverage of the files release was rolled out first in UK media including BBC News, ITV, Channel Four, Five News, Sky News, Al-Jazeera and later in the USA (with stories featured on NBC News and in the Washington Post, New York Times and Huffington Post).
“…whatever you believe about UFOs and alien life, you can now see for yourself what constitutes the ‘evidence’ and make up your own mind. This is freedom of information working to inform and educate the public.”
In total the Ministry of Defence have now released 209 files and approximately 52,000 pages of information on UFOs and related mysteries. This sobering fact leaves those still calling on governments to make full disclosure about their knowledge of the alien presence on Earth looking increasingly sidelined.
Of course, conspiracy theorists will continue to dismiss the real ‘disclosure’ as a whitewash because its contents do not support their preconceived beliefs. And their suspicions will be encouraged by those who make a living from UFOs such as Nick Pope and Tim Good, the latter interviewed by Sky News here, because it is in their interest to keep the mystery alive and kicking.
Pope is on record as saying there should be “full disclosure” of all information on UFO matters held by governments across the world. Yet he has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that MoD papers relating to him remain permanently hidden from the public on the grounds of “privacy”. A judgement published by the Information Commissioner in 2010 revealed that Pope had written to MoD asking them to with-hold these papers permanently.
How ironic that after 52,000 documents have been disclosed the only files now being permanently with-held are those written by his superiors at the Ministry of Defence. The reason these papers are being with-held is because they contain information about Nick Pope’s “conversion” to UFO believer that followed his alien abduction experience in Florida in 1991. This happened shortly before he joined the ‘UFO desk’ when he claims he had little or no interest in the subject.
More recently, Bob Sheaffer’s Bad UFOs blog reveals how Nick Pope has been paid by computer games companies to promote stories about secret government plans to thwart alien invasions. Despite this conflict of interest he shamelessly continues to make spurious claims about aliens posing a threat to earth’s defences and hints darkly that ’…much of the best material has not been released’ by his former employers.
Unable to debate rationally and facing the loss of both status and credibility, he has decided the best tactic is to portray me as a “useful idiot” who is parroting the MoD line on UFOs as having no defence significance. He fails to appreciate the delicious irony that this is the very same line that he himself articulated whilst employed by the MoD. Is he a ‘useful idiot’ too, or just an idiot?
Anyone who has followed my Freedom of Information Campaign to persuade the British government to release their entire archive of UFO material will know how far from the truth this caricature actually is.
In reality, from 2000 onwards my FOI campaign made me a thorn in the side of the MoD to the extent that after seven years of constant pressure they relented and decided to transfer all surviving UFO papers to The National Archives.
But instead of hailing the disclosure as a breakthrough, conspiracy nuts have portrayed it as a cover-up because the documents do not provide any support for their beliefs.
As my sociologist friend Ben Radford notes in his article ‘What Keeps Conspiracy Theories Alive?’:
‘Conspiracy theories, by their nature, cannot be conclusively disproven since any evidence contradicting them can be dismissed or ignored as part of the conspiracy itself. Because it’s never “case closed” the door for further discussion and inquiry is always left open.’
‘The truth‘ sought by those who believe in flying saucers is hidden in plain sight in the testimony and beliefs embedded within the files themselves. Interviewed by journalists from around the world during the past seven days, it became obvious to me that the arguments I have been making about UFOs as a modern myth - a social and cultural phenomenon – were slowly being taken on board, as if something had clicked into place.
Both The Times and The New York Times, for instance, led their coverage on the fact that MoD could no longer justify spending public money on its UFO unit after 60 years of finding no evidence ‘to suggest an extra-terrestrial presence or military threat.’
Jasper Copping, writing in the Daily Telegraph, wryly noted that, ‘in the end it was not the aliens that overwhelmed the “UFO desk” but a rather more mundane tormenter – Chinese lanterns.’.
And the fact that public awareness of UFOs – and ‘encounters’ with them – waxes and wanes in response to the popularity of films and TV shows like Close Encounters, was picked up by the Daily Mail and by Richard Norton-Taylor in The Guardian, who quoted me as saying:
“There is evidence that some people were encouraged to report their observations to the MoD and to the press, which could be a direct result of increased public awareness during the period that the first UFO files were being released by The National Archives. I believe this demonstrates that UFOs are very much a social phenomenon.”
The idea of UFOs as signifying more about our our beliefs and anxieties as human beings rather than providing hard ‘evidence’ of extra-terrestrials also became the subject of questions put to me by Justin Webb on BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
And the link between UFOs and religion came up yet again when I appeared on the BBC’s Politics show with Andrew Neil and former LibDem MP Lembit Opik, who who has now come out as a ‘believer’ in aliens.
But my favourite quote of the whole two day media event came from The New York Times as follows:
“Dr Clarke, who has approached the UFO phenomenon from a sociological perspective, noted that many UFO sightings came from the Scottish city of Glasgow between 10 pm and midnight – around the time the pubs are closing.”