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7/7 Bombings: The Ex-Guardian Journalist Who Accidentally Fuelled 7/7 Conspiracy Theories

04/07/2015 23:36 | Updated 04 July 2015

To mark the 10 year anniversary of the London 7/7 terrorist attacks, HuffPost UK is running Beyond The Bombings, a special series of interviews, blogs, in-depth features and exclusive research reflecting on how Britain has changed since.

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Like 9/11, the outbreak of Ebola last year and whether aliens have ever visited earth, 7/7 has been the subject to theories that claim clandestine, nefarious powers are covering up the truth.

In the last 10 years, that blogosphere has proven a haven for people to share and question information being provided about what really happened in the 2005 terror attacks. The details of each theory vary, but most of them have suggested the bombings were carried out by British authorities themselves.

Classic conspiracy theories thrive off the void created by a lack of official information. But 7/7 conspiracy theories initially seemed to be fed by the very high level of information released by the authorities after the explosions in 2005, especially when aspects of that were later disproved or corrected - and many were.

Former journalist Mark Honigsbaum's reporting on the day of the bombings accidentally fuelled a conspiracy theory.

On July 7, 2005 Honigsbaum was working for The Guardian and rushed to the scene of the Edgware Road bombing. As chaos and confusion reigned, he was told by two survivors that the explosion appeared to have come from below the tube carriage they were in.

He filed an audio report for the newspaper, detailing what survivors had told him they believed had happened. He said that it "was believed" there had been an explosion "under the carriage of the train". Under the pressure to report witness accounts at a speed, he had no time to verify them.

As it soon became clear to Honigsbaum when he interviewed people closer to the explosion, the attack was actually a suicide bombing and the explosives had there been detonated from within the carriage, not beneath it. But weeks later, he explains that his original incorrect report had "taken on a life of its own". It had become the basis for claims posted online, saying the official account of the bombings was wrong. One of them said Honigsbaum's account showed how "Black Ops" were really behind out the attacks.

Honigsbaum was frustrated by the experience, but he is not surprised that such theories persist. Conspiracy theories may conjure up a frightening world in which dark powers manipulate events, but Honigsbaum, now a medical historian, says they can actually provide comfort to those who propose them.

"I'm a historian," he tells The Huffington Post UK. "If you study history, you know that the past isn't necessarily, or [is] very rarely, a guide to the present. Everything is chaos. That's a very discomforting thing... It's far more reassuring to think that everything does have some sort of purpose," he says.

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Conspiracy theories can, in fact, suggest stability behind chaos, he says: "The idea that these cataclysmic events could happen at any time, that despite all the progress of all the safety systems we've built... All the ways of surveilling the world or threats of nuclear attack or jihadists coming across the border... We're still actually not able to predict and prevent everything."

"That's a very disconcerting thing so people much prefer to take comfort in the thought that there are dark powers who actually know everything, but for their own nefarious purposes and are deliberately obscuring the rationality, which must be there, under these chaotic events."

Theories that blame governments for terrorist attacks on their own people offer a "vulgar critique" of the world that purports to reveal "the real operation of powers," he says.

A year after 7/7, Honigsbaum wrote an article revisiting the conspiracy theories. It featured a woman who, confused by emerging, conflicting details in the days after the event, set up a blog to "ascertain the facts", asking: "There are so many unanswered questions that just don't make any sense."

"[She] was so disconcerted and upset, [events like these] affect people's psychological equilibrium," Honigsbaum says.

The internet has made discussion networks easy to set up, and boosted people's ability to pour over the minutiae of a huge amount of information around such public events.

"The more transparent governments and corporations try and be, the more conspiracy theories [claim] 'ah, but they're not telling us everything'. That transparency itself becomes a veil or it unveils new facts that can be bolted on to the conspiracy theory," Honigsbaum says.

"Every fact can be interrogated... and holes can be picked in it. [Conspiracy theories] survey all the evidence that's out there and they cherrypick the ones that fit the narrative."

David Videcette, a former detective who worked at the scene of the bus bombing in Tavistock Square on the day, and investigated the case afterwards, said the speed of the 7/7 investigation and the amount of information it uncovered also gave ammunition to those formulating conspiracy theories.

He told HuffPost UK: "People become obsessed with old information and wonder why it has been discounted when they don't know what is going on behind the scenes... Especially if it has to be kept secret in matters of national security. This is especially relevant with the internet - it can be a very convincing medium for amateur sleuths."

He said that conspiracy theorists can unearth "small truths in the holes in reports of events" but said his experience showed such mistakes were down to human error.

"Panic, rush and trauma during events means that witnesses are in shock, journalists have to hit tight deadlines quickly and emergency services don't always know the full picture early on and may announce info that hasn't always been fully checked," Videcette said.

"From 20 years of interviewing witnesses, I know that what we think we see at times of stress is not always what we actually did see. The mind can play tricks and things can be said at the time by all parties: statements which are afterwards held as truth, but at the time were unverified, [or] announced or printed too early due to immediacy of events."

july 7 2005 london memorial

The 7/7 memorial is cleaned on the ninth anniversary after it was defaced

Researchers at the University of Cambridge studied conspiracy theory as a social movement and concluded those most likely to believe in conspiracy theories had a "deep distrust in all political institutions and the rejection of the political system as a whole".

The Huffington Post UK spoke to one 7/7 conspiracy theorist, who believes a 'deep state network' including elements of MI5 and the Metropolitan Police colluded to carry out the attacked. He declined to be named or quoted, but strongly dismissed the Cambridge research and said he himself was actively engaged in mainstream politics and voting.

Speaking to Honigsbaum in 2006, 7/7 survivor Rachel North said of conspiracy theorists: "They just take these small anomalies, which is what you will get in any rolling, multi-sourced news investigation, and make it into evidence of a conspiracy."

North, who published a memoir about surviving the bombing of one of the trains, was attacked and slurred on blogs by people who claimed she had never even been on the carriage. But she acknowledged that not all conspiracy theorists around bombings behaved like this.

North campaigned for an independent public inquiry into 7/7. She told Honigsbaum in his 2006 book: "Some [conspiracy theorists] are fairly well intentioned, if eccentric, others hugely offensive. I worry that they are making all of us look like conspiracy theorists and/or traumatised people who shouldn't be taken seriously."

Those who believe in conspiracies around one event are not always united in their approach. Division within the 7/7 conspiracy movement became apparent last year when the phrases "four innocent Muslims" and "Blair lied, millions died" were daubed of the Hyde Park memorial to the 52 people who died in the bombings, on the ninth anniversary.

The act - presumably carried out by conspiracy theorists - was nevertheless condemned by the group Justice For July Seventh, which promotes "alternative hypotheses" to what happened on the day.

Calling the vandalism an "idiotic stunt," it wrote: "Such ill-considered and blatantly offensive antics can only serve to cause upset, inflame emotions and further confuse the issue of what happened on 7/7 while smearing the good name and good standing of the July 7th Truth Campaign and our research."

A decade after the bombings, the movement of people dedicated to disproving or casting doubt on what most people believe has lost steam. The conspiracy theorist in email contact with HuffPost UK said it has "shrunk, without a doubt".

But Honigsbaum says this does not mean the end of the theories themselves. "Conspiracy theories, once they start to take over, they take on a life of their own."

Drawing on his new career as a historian of viruses and pandemics, he said: "Unlike a real infectious disease, which can be neutralised by a vaccine, you can never get rid of conspiracy theories. It lives forever: it just circulates forever."

How was Britain impacted by the 7/7 bombings? Join the @HuffPostUK conversation on Twitter with #BeyondTheBombings

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