TV REVIEW: Apocalypse No! Graham Hancock’s “Ancient Apocalypse” [NETFLIX]


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Mr Hancock has demeaned his reputation on television in order to make a large amount of cash for good causes, including, his critics say, himself, and, critics also allege, his book rewrites history, but that is enough about Matt Hancock, former Secretary of State for Health in the Government of disgraced party organiser Boris Johnson, who is recently returned from a triumphant third place in ITV’s “I’m a Celebrity, Get me out of Here”. Instead we turn from a soon to be former politician eating arse in the jungle of the Springbrook National Park, New South Wales, to Graham Hancock, an author who is boosting sales by talking out of his arse in a lavish new six part series for international, hyperdiffusionist streaming service Netflix.

Out of his arse, that is, according to most mainstream archaeologists.

You know the ones?

The “experts” who spend entire careers studying the past, who write peer reviewed papers for journals of record and who argue the toss with each other if someone has the temerity to question a cherished theory with new “evidence”.

Not that all of Mr Hancock’s new series on Netflix is disposable pseudoarchaeological trash of the kind that is beloved of some network commissioning editors [Factual], like Mr Hancock’s son Sean who is Senior Manager of Unscripted Factual at [checks notes] Netflix.

For one thing Ancient Apocalypse is a thoroughly professional product and the series looks great.

Mind you, with the budget to visit locations across the planet from Indonesia to Washington State, via Cappdocia, Malta and the Bahamas, and with access to a location unit and drones recording it all in HD, it would take an utter TV incompetent, with no knowledge of how to shoot landscapes during the golden hour, to mess it up, and production company ITN are Pro’s.

[I can vouch for that as I once appeared in one of their earlier shows, “Mudmen”. No pseudo archaeology there. Just Thames Mudlarks, series presenter Johnny Vaughn and the late, and much missed, finds specialist Geoff Egan of the Museum of London.]

Indeed, if one of Mr Hancock’s mainstream archaeologist bêtes noires were to remove the soundtrack and re-voice the show with an evidence based archaeological narrative about the sites visited Netflix could have a perfectly respectable example of History [factual] on their hands.

As it is the former foreign correspondent doesn’t quite have the manic hair quality of communications graduate and former body building promoter Giorgio Tsoukalos, who now produces and fronts the [much cheaper looking] “Ancient Aliens” franchise, but what Mr Hancock loses in memeability he gains in softly spoken British gravitas.

It is this presentational style which makes his regular “I’m really, really annoyed that mainstream archaeologists won’t take me seriously,” commentaries all the more telling, and, to the sceptic, even more hilarious.

Indeed, so performative and repetitive are these rantettes about the iniquities of the alleged Big Archaeology conspiracy to do down Mr Hancock and his theory that one is reminded of Just William’s Violet Elizabeth Bott.

She is the spoilt Home Counties brat who regularly drew attention to a perceived injustice by pwomising lispingly that “I’ll thcream and thcream ’till I’m thick”.

In the face of this special pleading the objective viewer half expects Mr Hancock to threaten to hold his bwef until the Society for American Archaeology agrees to debate with him live on the Joe Rogan Experience.

Of course, as was once said about Hollywood, the only “ism” TV producers believe in is plagiarism [allegedly], but in this case, the only potential victim of the plagiarist is, [checks notes again] Graham Hancock himself.

In fact there are just enough changes of emphasis and new sites visited in Ancient Apocalypse, for Mr Hancock to avoid having to sue himself over accusations that he is merely repackaging the same heated leftovers of Ancient Greek allegory and Senator Ignatius Donnelly’s 19th century white supremacist inspired fantasies of “White Gods” in the ancient Americas, as he has been publishing in print to the tune of over five million copies of his books sold, and in various TV series and specials, since 1992.

Nonetheless, in the case of Mr Hancocks pet theory about the world wide wanderings of pre-historic priests, he has effectively been physically abusing that particularly lucrative deceased equine since at least the last years of the twentieth century.

Then the self same peripatetic Ice Age priest proposal was examined in detail by the BBC’s prestigious, serious science strand “Horizon”, in a documentary called “Atlantis Reborn”.

After the programme aired on 4 November 1999 Mr Hancock and his then collaborator Robert Bauval, did not so much party like it was said year, but instead complained to the then TV regulator, the Broadcasting Standards Commission, that their arguments had been misrepresented by the BBC on no less than ten grounds, including that their own capacity as researchers and their good faith had been questioned.

The subsequent adjudication by the BSC found that on one ground only was there some unease and that the producers at the BBC should have included an argument in rebuttal of a single line of criticism, otherwise, the investigation concluded, the producers had acted in good faith in their examination of Mr Hancock and Mr Bauval’s theories.

The BBC then re-edited the programme to take account of the BSC’s adjudication, and broadcast the resulting programme as “Atlantis Reborn Again” a year later on 14 December 2000.

As required by the rules of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the broadcaster also contextualised the programme by reading on air the complaint and the adjudication, all of it, the single ground which was upheld and all the others which were not, including the complaint from Mr Hancock that,

“The programme had created the impression that he was an intellectual fraudster who had put forward half baked theories and ideas in bad faith, and that he was incompetent to defend his own arguments.”

The adjudication with regard to that complaint was that,

“[The Commission] finds no unfairness to Mr Hancock in these matters.”

This might explain why there is no visit to the Giza plateau in the new series.

Sphinxes on the Giza plateau, or on Mars as described in Mr Hancock’s 1998 book “The Mars Mystery”, are notably absent from ITN’s tour itinerary.

Among all this regulatory fun and academic to and fro, well mostly “to” as Mr Hancock has scarecely even bothered to address the fro of the fact based arguments against his theory, there is a fascinating question going begging about a series which the Society for American Archaeology has requested the streaming platform Netflix reclassify in its advertising and programme guide as Science Fiction.

That is what has led an award winning journalist to this point- apart from the opportunity to be flown around the world with a TV crew and flight cases of HD cameras and drone tech in a way which can only enhance the chances of a follow up series and increased book sales.

It couldn’t possibly be that, like the former hotelier, convicted fraudster, and “Ancient Aliens” regular talking grin, Erik Von Daniken, Mr Hancock has discovered there is more money in pedalling conspiracy theories to the wishful of thinking and terminally gullible, than earning a more orthodox crust as a dead tree media hack?

In Mr Hancock’s case that crust was earned exposing the alleged misbehaviour of the United Nations and powerful aid agencies which he did in a well regarded book, “Lords of Poverty-The power, prestige, and corruption of the international aid business”[1989] written while he was working as East Africa correspondent for the respected Economist magazine.

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Not that his own perception of himself has changed since his career began in the 1980’s, as Mr Hancock makes clear in the first minutes of episode one of Ancient Apocalypse.

“Well I’m Graham Hancock.” he says in a stark studio interview setting which the producers make to look as if he is answering an interrogator’s questions, rather than the actuality that he is cueing up his own arguments.

Emily Maitliss and Prince Andrew on Newsnight this ain’t.

“I don’t claim to be an archaeologist or a scientist.” he continues,

I am a journalist and the subject I am investigating is human prehistory.”

Elsewhere on his own website he states of himself, in the third person,

“He has become recognised as an unconventional thinker who raises controversial questions about humanity’s past.”

Elsewhere on the website in a comment on a BBC documentary about his work he describes his role as that of,

“…a reporter and synthesizer.”

“I admit it’s a theory —a speculation.” as Mr Hancock might say.

Or might not?

We will return to that later.

In which case lets take Mr Hancock’s framing of his series at face value by engaging with it as the investigative journalism he claims it is, and not the archaeology which he says it is not.

And, as Mr Hancock is British born and educated, let’s compare the content of “Ancient Apocalypse” with the British National Union of Journalists code of conduct [the same code by the way which thePipeLine follows in researching and writing its news stories].

Most clauses in the NUJ code are either uncontroversial, or are not relevant to Mr Hancock’s work, dealing as they do, for example, with protecting sources, and how to handle interactions with children and vulnerable people.

Equally, under Clause 10 he is also allowed to promote his own work- something which as we can see, currently with the assistance of Netflix, Mr Hancock is supremely good at.

Similarly in a Clause 4 moment, clause 4 of the Code requires that a journalist Differentiates between fact and opinion.

No problem there. As noted above, Mr Hancock has made clear repeatedly his theory is framed as a journalistic investigation resulting in a journalistic opinion, not an archaeological thesis peer reviewed in a journal of record.

We will leave aside for now the issue of the contention of many archaeologists that Mr Hancock’s “facts” are not in fact “facts” in the conventional academic sense, but are instead a towering, and teetering, edifice of if A then B assertions, or “alternative facts” as Donald Trump’s press secretary Kellyanne Conway once famously told the White House media corps.

However, other clauses of the code of conduct are more problematic.

For example, Clause 1 states that a journalist “at all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed.”

Fair enough: Under the Code Mr Hancock has an absolute right to put his point of view, although it is debatable if trying to sell the idea of a conspiracy among archaeologists worldwide to do down his “speculation”, thus at best calling into question the good faith of the freedom of expression of those archaeologists, and at worst trying to cancel those evidence led opinions in the eyes of his followers, is consistent with the requirement of the clause to uphold all freedom of speech.

However, it is clauses 2 and 3 which cause the most difficulty for Mr Hancock and to ITN Productions, which is best known for providing highly regarded news programmes to UK commercial television and public service broadcaster Channel 4.

Together these clauses state that a journalist strives to ensure that information disseminated, “is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair,” and a journalist “Does her/his utmost to correct harmful inaccuracies.”

While Mr Hancock would no doubt continue to argue that he is trying to open the minds of the academic establishment and restore the memory of his alternative Prehistory, to his critics in the archaeological community the accumulation of allegations of misrepresenting known archaeology, and failing to correct errors regarding the known and published history and archaeology of sites from Indonesia to Turkey when such errors in his work are pointed out is hardly honest, accurate and fair.

Neither has Mr Hancock responded in any meaningful way to the growing criticism, not that he himself is a racist, but that his work has been adopted by alt-Right conspiracists including some who are racists.

He has also been accused of placing the names of some of his critics in the social media cross hairs of his, sometimes aggressive, true believers, thus exposing them to potential harm.

Most recently he published an e-mail on his website which, while redacting the name of the recipient at ITN Productions, included the full e-mail address of the official at the Serpent Mound in Ohio who put their name to a letter informing ITN and Mr Hancock that they would not be allowed to film inside the monument.

On his website Mr Hancock presented this refusal as censorship and objectively, as presented by ITN Productions, the decision does appear to play to Mr Hancock’s conspiracy theory.

However, journalists at the Columbus Free Press provided context lacking in Mr Hancocks accusation. Namely that the Ohio History Connection, which manages the mound, had been burned by an earlier incident when a new age “scientology-like” group called the Collective buried artefacts on the sacred site in 2012, and also by association with an episode of Ancient Aliens on the increasingly satirically named History channel.

Neither does Mr Hancock note that, according to Jeffrey Wilson, the Admin of the Friends of Serpent Mound Facebook group, who was interviewed by Hancock, OHC had also refused permission to work on the site to National Public Radio, two US Network affiliates based in Cincinnati and a Native American production company making a series about traditional culture called “Red Earth Uncovered”.

In the latter case, Mr Wilson claimed, permission was refused because the series had previously included a programme about oral traditions related to crypto zoological favourite the Sasquatch.

We will see if Mr Hancock and ITN recut the episode to add this context and convey the Ohio History Connection’s position more honestly and fairly as the Code requires.

Finally clause 12 of the NUJ code states that a journalist must avoid plagiarism. In which case Mr Hancock, and his publishers, must be grateful that the work of Plato, Ignatius Donnelly, James Churchward, and the cultural narratives of numerous indigenous societies are fully in the public domain.

So where does this PR trick to make archaeology vanish in a swirl of verbal smoke and mirrors actually come from?

It might best be called the “Nazi War Diggers Gambit”, named after the attempts by Clearstory Productions, the producers of the eponymous series, to deflect attention from its egregious depictions of dangerous practices with unexploded munitions and the unethical handling of human remains [see thePipeLine passim].

In their PR push back Clearstory argued that their series could not be criticised as bad conflict archaeology because the participants were not doing archaeology at all , but “Battlefield Recovery”, the bland title with which the series was rebranded in a desperate attempt to salvage the company’s investment from a train wreck of catastrophic publicity, and the cancellation of the scheduled broadcast by the National Geographic Channel, which had commissioned it.

However, remember that line,

“I admit it’s a theory —a speculation”?

It sounds as if it could have been spoken of the entire Ancient Apocalypse experience by Graham Hancock, or his producers ITN Productions?

In fact, while it can be read as an accurate paraphrase of Mr Hancock and ITN’s framing, it was actually spoken almost fifty years ago in 1974 to Richard R. Lingeman of the New York Times, by that pioneer of trousering large amounts of cash by misrepresenting archaeological evidence, “Ancient Aliens” very own Erik von Daniken.

Even Mr Hancock’s and ITN’s explanations, like, his opponents claim, his theory, aren’t original.

There is one other material factor to consider, which is also absent from Ancient Apocalypse.

Graham Hancock has made no secret of his long term partaking of cannabis in, what he has described as, most of its usable forms.

He now explains that such was the negative effect of his cannabis use on his work and home life that he has subsequently switched to the Amazonian shaman’s favourite ayahuasca, which contains a natural hallucinogenic, describing his journey into altered states of consciousness in a Tedx talk during the course of which he admitted,

“But the basic truth is for twenty four years I was pretty much permanently stoned.”

This perhaps places in context Mr Hancock’s observation in “Ancient Apocalypse” that when it comes to his theory of pyramid selling priests,

“Perhaps the extremely defensive, arrogant and patronising attitude of mainstream academia is stopping us from considering that possibility?”

Or to put it another way…

Archaeologists would understand Graham Hancock’s theory of a lost civilisation in the Ice Age a lot better if they would only chill, consult a shaman, and do more hallucinogenic drugs.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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