Discover more from The Mill
He ran a popular Manchester United fanzine - then he started spreading Covid-19 conspiracies
A fascinating long read charts his journey. Plus: Plans for Manchester's first 70-storey tower block
Dear Millers — welcome to this week’s briefing, which features a veritable cornucopia of stories, reads, recommendations and updates, including:
New plans for Manchester’s first 70-storey tower block.
A long list of local police officers being investigated for sexual offences.
And an eye-opening story about a man who used to run one of the most popular Manchester United fanzines and then, during the pandemic, discovered a web of conspiracy theories that took over his life — and his Twitter account.
Before we get to that: a warm welcome to our brand-new members. The community is now 1854-strong after an incredible 193 new members joined this month. It’s our biggest month of growth since we turned on paid subscriptions in September 2020, and it means we can push ahead with some expansion plans (more on that soon). We’re now chasing down the milestone of 2,000 like starving hyenas, so if you know someone who might like what we’re doing, please do share this email and they can sign up right here.
Why have we had such a good month? Partly, a few of our stories — notably this one about Ancoats and New Islington, and this one (members-only) about a row over football in Chorlton — have really popped off. On top of that, we’ve had great coverage from Radio 4 (“the Mancunian movers and shakers pay attention to The Mill”), the New Statesman and Press Gazette — plus, last night Joshi appeared for an hour on Darryl Morris’s show on Times Radio.
This weekend’s profile of Salford mayor Paul Dennett — the man who some believe will succeed Andy Burnham — got a great response. “I am really astonished at the standard of in-depth journalism being put out by The Mill,” wrote one commenter called David Winkley. Margaret Hutt wrote that the piece “gave me new respect for a man who clearly digs into the financial webs with mathematical insight. This engenders confidence that proposals he makes are fact based and do-able.” Not everyone loved the piece — on Twitter, the ex-journalist John Hodson said he was “deeply undecided about whether I find the underlying scepticism (which ran through a similar Mill piece on Burnham) comforting or disquieting. Is it fence sitting, a bid for tacit impartiality or just a deep distrust of politicians? Or am I overthinking?” He and Joshi chatted about that on Twitter.
In our latest podcast, we discuss a big week for The Mill and whether levelling-up is “on life support”. Plus, we hear from Keisha Thompson, the youngest-ever artistic director of Contact Theatre, and try to understand the gender-based drama at Wigan’s World Pie-Eating Contest. Listen for free now and please do tell your pod-cast listening friends to give us a go.
Coming up this week, we have an excellent writer’s edition by Jack Dulhanty, who has been discovering amazing things about what one of his relatives was up to in the First World War. Then on Thursday, we have a piece about an ambitious, expensive effort to transform an unglamorous town near Bolton in order to attract young professionals. Last week, we sent members a great story by Mollie about the University of Manchester students refusing to pay their rent this month, and a very popular piece about why so many councils are buying failing local shopping centres. If you’re not a member yet, join up now to read those stories, support our growth and get invited to our three upcoming members’ events, in which we will be chatting to three fascinating authors.
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🌥 This week’s weather
Our forecast is from local weatherman Martin Miles, who says it will be mild and windy this week with occasional bursts of sunshine.
Tuesday 🌦 Windy with bright spells and scattered showers. Winds will gust over 35MPH, especially overnight and into Wednesday. Max 8°c.
Wednesday 🌦 Windy with frequent rain and hail showers. Max 8°c.
Thursday ☁️ Breezy, damp and mostly cloudy. Max 9°c.
Friday 🌥️ Mostly dry and very mild, with a few bright spells. Max 12°c.
Weekend ☁️ Remaining mild and mostly dry with variable cloud cover.
You can find the latest forecast at Manchester Weather on Facebook — daily forecasts are published at 6.15am.
The big story: How a Manchester United superfan found Covid-19 conspiracies
Top line: A fascinating new story from the Economist’s 1843 Magazine reports on the story of John-Paul O’Neill, a lifelong Manchester United fan and former editor of the fanzine Red Issue. Over the pandemic, Red Issue’s Twitter output stopped being about football and instead became dedicated to uncovering a global conspiracy. Let’s dive in.
Context: O’Neill became a contributor to Red Issue — applauded for its cynical, acerbic coverage of United — at the turn of the millennium. He was strongly anti-Glazer (the family that bought United in 2005) and, like many United fans, felt football had become too commercial.
By the time the pandemic began, O’Neill was Red Issue’s editor and controlled its Twitter account. The 1843 Magazine piece captures how quickly O’Neill became convinced by conspiracy theories surrounding the virus and the government’s response.
In April 2020, Red Issue derided “wacko” theorists who called the virus a hoax and posted satirical memes about weaponised 5G waves.
By September, the account began to question restrictions and made references to Orwell’s 1984.
At the start of 2021, Red Issue was sharing the same theories it had renounced barely a year earlier. Calling on “pliant little sheep” to come to their senses, and calling the vaccine “snake oil”.
“O’Neill’s journey into covid denialism didn’t occur in a sudden flash of realisation. It was more akin to a stumble through the fog,” writes the author of the piece, Jack Shenker. What O’Neill first saw as government incompetence he began to see as government corruption. He began using buzz words like “shill” and “sheep” and describing a “cabal” of elites arrayed against ordinary people: “Covid is just one branch of the wider agenda. This is just the beginning.”
The Great Reset: O’Neill has become a Great Reset theorist, which means he believes a group of elites, likely led by Bill Gates, used the pandemic as an opportunity to grab power while subduing the global population with lockdowns.
“Gates is at the centre of everything that’s going on,” says O’Neill. “From the start of the pandemic, he was popping up everywhere. Why? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that you can’t ask that legitimate question without being branded a conspiracy theorist.”
O’Neill doesn’t consider himself a conspiracy theorist, a term which often elicits images of fringe members of society living in motorhomes and wearing tinfoil hats. In fact, many of his beliefs are shared by large sections of society. Research by Oxford University found that 40% of British adults thought Covid was part of a power grab by elites looking to take control of society.
Real conspiracies: The piece notes these ideas are made much more believable by real conspiracies, “from banks fixing interest rates on a grand scale during the Libor scandal to carmakers tampering with the emissions tests on their vehicles. Every time one of these scandals breaks, ordinary people are reminded that they too are probably being screwed over all the time.” Shenker writes:
This story is written across Manchester’s skyline, where in recent years a forest of high-end residential towers has soared even as the percentage of homeless people climbed to among the highest in the country.
Curtains close: By July 2021, O’Neill signed off from the Red Issues Twitter account, which many followers felt had lost its way. In his final tweet, he wrote: “It’s been emotional. Goodnight, and good luck,” before sharing a song by The Doors, a countercultural rock band, called “The End”.
Home of the week
In Rochdale, a countryside cottage with fireplaces, stone walls and exposed wooden beams is on the market for £290,000. It’s a short drive away from the local village, with easy access to Manchester and Leeds.
Your Mill briefing
Nearly 100 bad apples? Kate Green, the newly-appointed Deputy Mayor for Policing in Greater Manchester, says it is “very, very disturbing” that 98 GMP officers (1.2% of the force) are facing allegations about sexual offences. The figure was reported at a police and crime panel last week: 84 of the 98 are under investigation, with the remaining 14 facing misconduct hearings. Green told BBC Radio Manchester: “If we've got one officer responsible for this kind of behaviour, it means everyone loses trust in all of our policing.” Separately, GMP has today apologised for failing to properly investigate a woman’s complaints that she had been forced into modern slavery and prostitution by an abusive husband.
Manchester’s transforming skyline is one of the most striking features of how the city is changing, but we ain’t seen nothing yet. Renaker — the builders of your favourite big glass towers — are partnering with SimpsonHaugh — the designers of your favourite big glass towers — to announce another very big glass tower. In fact, it’ll be the biggest yet. Manchester’s first 71-storey tower will be included in the next stage of Renaker’s Great Jackson Street masterplan, which will feature four more towers, two of 47 storeys and two of 51 storeys.
The time for devolution has come, according to the Guardian’s editorial page, which notes that “Later this year, a fleet of distinctive yellow and black buses will begin to make their way through Wigan, Bolton and parts of Salford and Bury.” The paper says Andy Burnham’s Bee Network is a sign that devolution has been embraced across party lines but calls for politicians to go much further. "Meaningful devolution requires fiscal as well as political firepower,” the paper says. Read our recent long read on this, about how “the dead hand of Whitehall strangled Britain”.
Struggling staff at Royal Bolton hospital are now being given breakfast packs to help ease cost-of-living pressures. The hospital’s workforce director James Mawrey says the packs have been given out discreetly to those who need them most, and have been “extremely well received, but by small numbers”.
And finally: Manchester Museum has received a donation from Savannah Wisdom, a social inequality charity, to fund a new Social Justice Manager role for the next four years. The museum, set to reopen next month after a £15m renovation, says the role reiterates its commitment to understanding and meeting local needs, and will “drive forward its work on family poverty, inclusion and social mobility”.
Our favourite reads
There are plenty of great anecdotes in this sketch about last week’s Convention of the North, but the piece makes the point that Michael Gove, secretary of state for levelling up, might be out of solutions. Jonny Ball writes: “His problem is that for all his solid performances and his clear diagnoses, his verbosity is falling flat in communities where life is getting measurably harder, households budgets are increasingly squeezed and inequalities are expanding fast.”
How Covid has changed young Britons’ lives — The Guardian
We enjoyed this insightful piece from the Guardian’s Covid Generation series, where people reflect on how the pandemic has changed them. There’s a very interesting comment from Lily Smith, a 19-year-old from Manchester, who says: “I used to take an active interest in politics but since Covid, I’ve had enough of politicians, experts and authority. I just do what’s best for me. I think a lot of other young people are doing that as well, because we sacrificed so much and we got nothing back to make up for what we lost. They’ve shown no compassion for us.”
On the Picket Lines of Britain’s Shattered National Health Service — The New Yorker
“Britain is a sea of strikes,” writes Sam Knight. “There is a Web site, StrikeMap.org, where you can scan the country for picket lines — for train drivers, driving instructors, court staff, bus drivers. Forty-nine strikes in Sheffield. More than a hundred around Manchester.” This long read focuses on the grievances of NHS nurses and the spiralling effects of low pay and overwork on patient treatment.
Our to do list
🏳️🌈 (Un)defining Queer, curated by a group of people who identify as LGBTQIA+, traces queer histories and narratives in the Whitworth’s collections, focusing on redressing omissions “that have existed as a result of heteronormative museum practice.” It’s free to visit, and runs until December.
🎭 The Nature of Forgetting, a lovely theatre production that follows Thomas, a man with dementia who experiences a sudden rush of memories coming back to him as he gets ready for his birthday party, is showing at the Lowry for one more night. It’s performed in the tradition of visual theatre, a type of production that relies on body language, music, dance and visual art as means of communication. Book tickets here.
🏛 Last chance to visit Manchester Jewish Museum to listen to their immersive sound installations telling eight stories of Jewish Communities during the Second World War. We recommend visiting in person to explore, but you can also listen online here.
🎶 The history of music in Wigan is Northern Soul to some, and brass bands and percussion to others. A new exhibition at the Museum of Wigan Life brings together a range of styles and influences for a celebration of the borough’s rich musical history. It’s free.
📚 In 2021, comedian Robin Ince escaped the pandemic by going on a tour of a hundred bookshops in the UK. When he returned, he wrote a love letter to bookshops. So it’s fitting that the next stop on his tour is at Blackwells on Oxford Road, where he’ll be discussing that obsessive journey and what he discovered about Britain. Tickets are £5.
For our glitteringly well-informed weekend to do list — which we send out every Thursday — hit the button below to join us as a member.