Tuesday, 18 August 2009
News of the latest UFO files released by The National Archives has travelled around the world.
I spent most of yesterday dealing with calls from the national and international media and shuttling between BBC, ITN, Channel 4 and Sky News studios in London to comment on the significance of the new files.
Public interest in the contents has been unprecedented and once again, most of the UK media have treated the topic in a serious and mature way.
Yesterday morning I was able to explain the historical importance of the files to Evan Davies on BBC Radio 4's prestigious Today programme, which in itself is a measure of the impact the release has had.
The Rendlesham forest incident was discussed and a short interview with one of the key witnesses, John Burroughs, was used. This in itself was significant because Burroughs said he was unconvinced the incident was of an extraterrestrial nature - he suspects it was some kind of military experiment.
For once it was good to hear an alternative viewpoint expressed coherently and lucidly, rather than the usual tired debates about whether you "believe" or "don't believe" (who cares?).
Coverage was extensive in the national and regional press, with leading articles in The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Independent and Scotsman.
BBC News Online ran a lead article and a more in-depth look at the connection between UFO sightings and science fiction in popular culture.
My comments on this link were picked up by most of the media, which in itself demonstrates how easy it is to plant an idea and watch it germinate.
As I had hoped, most of the commentators recognised that I was not suggesting UFO sightings were caused by "people watching too much sci-fi". What I'm saying is that the link with imagery in popular culture is more subtle than that: people see UFOs (whatever they are), but usually they tell only close friends and relatives. When UFOs are in the news - TV, film, whatever - they are more inclined to report them to outsiders (i.e. police, newspapers, MoD etc).
This effect, I believe, is reflected in the figures showing numbers of reports received by the MoD from 1959 to present. But it must be remembered these statistics are distorted by other factors, and most importantly this is raw data as virtually none of these reports were subject to a proper investigation.
Most TV news bulletins mentioned the link to UFOs in films and TV in the stories published yesterday and by the afternoon the key highlights had been picked up by leading agencies such as PA, AP and CNN.
Bear in mind, all this positive coverage was a direct outcome of the months of work and advance preparation that goes into each one of these releases.
Without the context provided by the highlights guide, video/podcasts and media briefings, the specifics of the content would be lost in the feeding frenzy that follows the opening of the files.
But the results that came in yesterday certainly made all the hard work worth its while.
In the first 24 hours since the release (at midnight on Sunday), some 240,000 people across the world logged onto http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ufos to download the files.
Almost half of these were in the UK, with Germany, the USA, Sweden, France and Italy making up the remainder.
And the latest figures from TNA show that since the UFO files release programme began in May last year, there have been almost 2 million downloads from the site.
It's hugely ironic that while the so-called "disclosure" campaign continue to call for the release of "evidence" they believe is being hidden about UFOs, here in Britain open government and freedom of information has already arrived.
Somewhere around 10,000 pages of information have already been "disclosed" and, like it or not, what "truth" there is lies in here, not hidden away in a some dusty hangar somewhere.
There will always be people who have decided in advance what they think is the "truth" and because they can't find it in these files, decide it must therefore be hidden away in more top secret files somewhere else.
But this is the type of conspiracy mongering that has got UFOlogy precisely nowhere over the past 60 years. It simply hands a weapon to those who dismiss the whole topic as the province of the deluded and the paranoid.
The opening of the UFO files has given the subject much needed credibility.
Let's make the most of it.
Saturday, 15 August 2009
A close encounter with a “lemon-headed” alien and its scorching heat-ray forms the highlight of the 4th collection of MoD UFO files released today.
As the UFO consultant for The National Archives (pictured right) I’ve prepared a special videocast and a highlights guide to help visitors navigate their way through 4,000 pages of new material.
The guide and videocast, which is also available on YouTube, can be downloaded from www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ufos
All 14 files can be downloaded, free of charge, for the first month from the dedicated UFO page set up by TNA.
The official website also includes a link to a flier for my new book The UFO Files – The Inside Story of Real Life Sightings. The book is published by TNA in September and covers the key sightings and official commentary drawn from the British Government archives from WW1 to the present day.
But what does this fourth tranche of MoD papers contain?
Well, the collection includes a hefty correspondence file (DEFE 24/1970) containing letters to MoD from MPs and a number of well-known UFOlogists between 1985 and 1995. There are complete dossiers on classic cases such as Rendlesham, the ‘Cosford incident’ and the Belgian UFO flap, along with six whole files packed with UFO sighting reports.
The UFO reports files (DEFE 24/1959-1961, 1974-76) contain details of more than 800 individual sightings reported between 1993 and 1996, a year in which 609 UFO reports were logged by the Ministry’s UFO desk - the second highest total on record. In fact, there were more sightings during 1996 than all three previous years added together.
As I have explained in the official press release, the most likely explanation for the unusual spike in numbers during 1996 and 1997 was that public awareness of UFOs and aliens was at an all-time high. Those years were the culmination of a period in which images of UFOs and aliens had saturated popular culture.
During 1994-95 The X-Files TV series, shown on BBC2, was regularly pulling in 6 million viewers. In 1996 the release of the movie Independence Day, with its themes of hostile aliens in flying saucers and links to Area 51 and Roswell, was massively anticipated by the media. At that time I was working as a journalist on an evening newspaper and was personally responsible for at least three major features on UFOs and aliens.
In addition to the film and TV coverage 1996-97 saw the release of a host of new books and media articles on UFOs and alien abductions. In the UK Graham Birdsall’s UFO Magazine became a news-stand publication and at least three other short-lived UFO titles were launched on the back of the X-files craze.
Aside from 1996, the busiest year on record for UFO sightings reported to the MoD over the past half century was 1978 – the year Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released. (MoD received 750 UFO reports in 1978, but 110 of those were directly related to the re-entry of the Russian rocket body, Cosmos 1068, on New Year's Eve).
But let's get back to those lemon-headed creatures and their heat-ray.
What is easily the stangest report uncovered by this 4th tranche of files came from Staffordshire Police who investigated a story told by two frightened youths who claimed they narrowly escaped abduction by a UFO occupant.
Late on the night of 4 May 1995 the two ran into Chasetown police station in a state of excitement, calling on officers to come outside “and view a UFO that was still visible.” A PC and sergeant duly went outside and saw red and white lights in the sky which they believed was an aircraft.
The police said both youths “appeared upset and shocked” so they asked them to go home and write a detailed account of what happened. They returned the next day with hand-written statements that were sent to the MoD’s UFO desk.
The youth’s names have been redacted from their accounts, but they describe how they were walking along Rugeley Road, Burntwood, shortly before 11 P.M. when they both felt what one described as an “intense burst of heat”.
Their skin glowed red and both were left gasping for air as sweat poured from their bodies. Then they saw the apparent source of the heat – a dark, silver disc-shaped object hovering about 40 ft away from them above a nearby field. The underside of this UFO appeared to be glowing red.
As they watched in amazement a lemon-shaped head appeared between them and the UFO and both heard a disembodied voice call: “We want you, come with us.” Not surprisingly, they both ran for their lives!
The aftermath is even stranger. On 6 May the two youths returned to the scene with police and pointed out the field where the UFO had hovered. Inquiries at the scene failed to discover any other witnesses, but one resident said a local farmer was spraying his crops at the time of the alleged UFO incident. The farmer confirmed this information and said "he did not see any persons in the field, speak to anyone or see anything unusual."
Full details of this weird incident, including the police report and the youth's hand-written accounts, can be found in DEFE 24/1961 (pgs 191-207).
A UFO armed with a heat-ray also figures in a second story, independently reported to MoD by police in Cheshire 14 months later (see DEFE 24/1976, p180).
In this case a young man saw a “very bright yellow light” hovering near a footbridge on his route home in Widnes at 2.30 A.M. one morning. As he walked away it appeared to follow him and he broke into a run. Looking back, he saw the light had moved over a nearby cemetery. Then he heard “a high pitched sound (like cats wailing) and saw beams of light come down from it striking the ground.”
On reaching home he persuaded his father to return with him to the scene. At the location where the light beams hit the ground they found “four railway sleepers smouldering with a large hole 4” [inches] diameter burnt through one of the sleepers.” A police officer called to the scene reported the hole in the sleeper “does look rather odd” and was “still smouldering” five hours later. He could find no evidence of accelerants at the scene.
In their brief report sent to the MoD, Cheshire police described the young man as “a sensible sort of lad and genuine”.
This appears to be one of the very few UFO incidents recorded in the MoD files where physical evidence was left at the scene of a "close encounter". But, as per normal, there is no evidence that anyone took samples from the scene or followed up this intriguing story.
In fact, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest these two incidents were subject to a follow-up investigation of any kind. Like the other 800 sightings that form the basis of this release, these reports were simply filed away and forgotten.
And bear in mind these files would, pre-2005, have remained "secret" for 30 years under the old Public Records Act. The very fact they could not be opened to the public back then simply encouraged people to suspect the Government was trying to hide "the truth".
Now we can see what that "truth" actually is: they don't have a clue what UFOs are and are not hiding any big secrets about aliens.
Remember this is the British government, is that really surprising? But the truth, as John Keel once said, is the hardest thing to sell.
The files and website are open to the public from Monday, 17 August and look certain to generate another flurry of media interest in UFOs.
48 files from a total of 160 held by the MoD have now been released in digital form by The National Archives. The transfer of files from MoD to TNA is due to end in 2011.
The famous file on the Rendlesham Forest incident has been re-released to the public today as part of the fourth tranche of MoD UFO papers opened by The National Archives.
A historical note (DEFE 24/1948 p4) explains how it emerged into the public domain as one of the first UFO files released under Britain's open government initiative.
Back in February 2001 it was my application using the 'Code of Practice' - a precursor to the UK's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) - that first persuaded the MoD, after years of stonewalling, to release the 190-page case file.
Even then, after months of negotiating, the MoD continued to with-hold five documents for spurious reasons and in September that year, after I appealed to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, 2 more were released.
UFOlogist Eric Morris, who died last year, continued to fight for the release of the remaining 3 documents, which included a background briefing and correspondence from former MoD official Ralph Noyes. These were finally released on appeal in November 2002.
During August 2001 I passed a copy of the Rendlesham file to Richard Norton-Taylor, defence correspondent for The Guardian, who was the first to break the story.
At the same time, scans of the most important papers were uploaded onto flyingsaucery.com, a website I set up with Andy Roberts earlier that year (these can still be seen on the UK-UFO website, run by Joe McGonagle).
But in September 2001 the UK UFO Magazine (now defunct) published an article by Georgina Bruni, 'The Rendlesham Files', that was billed as a "World Exclusive". This claimed that a different sequence of events had actually led to the release of the file.
In her article Bruni maintained the breakthrough had actually come about as a direct result of pressure on the MoD from Lord Hill-Norton, who had tabled a number of Parliamentary questions about UFOs in the House of Lords during 2001.
She claimed the Rendlesham file was first sent to Lord Hill-Norton by Baroness Symons, Minister of State for Defence Procurement, in May 2001 and added: "After a written request to the MoD I received my own copies of the file nine days later."
Although I was not mentioned in the article, and there was no reference to the Guardian, the implication seemed to be that I was simply jumping on the bandwagon and trying to take credit for something I had no real involvement in.
How ironic then, as a result of our Freedom of Information Act, I can now prove this version is completely untrue.
As the cover note attached to the file released today confirms, the documents were - as I already knew - first released to me under the cover of a MoD letter from UFO desk officer Janet Turner, dated 11 May 2001 (see the copy of the actual letter which I have uploaded to this blog). This release came after seven months of negotiations with the 'UFO desk.'
Before the FOIA arrived it was difficult to obtain precise details of what actually went on behind the scenes and at the time I did not dispute Bruni's claims. But in 2005 I asked Janet Turner’s successor as MoD UFO desk officer, Linda Unwin, if she could check the accuracy of the claims about Lord Hill-Norton's alleged role in the release of the file.
Unwin later confirmed in writing that Hill-Norton actually "played no role" in the release and, added: "You were the first person to request a copy of the Rendlesham file and this is what led to the release of the file."
She added that, in fact, Lord Hill-Norton was unaware the papers had been released until Turner suggested that MoD should now send them to the noble Lord because of his long-standing interest in the Rendlesham incident.
This decision is documented in an internal MoD minute dated 17 May 2001 - again obtained using the FOIA - where Turner writes to the Parliamentary Enquiry branch:
"The papers we hold on this incident have recently been released to a member of the public [David Clarke] who requested them under the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. Although Lord Hill-Norton has not actually asked to see these documents, as they are in the public domain, it may now be appropriate to make them available to him."
A second copy of the file was subsequently sent to Hill-Norton by Baroness Symons on 16 May. Eight days later Hill-Norton, clearly surprised to suddenly receive the file which he had not asked for, wrote back to say: “I fear that my poor sight will not let me read the papers you sent me, but I shall pass them to a thoroughly reliable UFO researcher.”
The identity of the "thoroughly reliable UFO researcher" remains a mystery. But Linda Unwin later confirmed that when "other members of the public" learned the papers had been released - seemingly after a two month delay - MoD began to receive further requests for copies.
By then, of course, someone else (me) had done all the hard work for them.
Further MoD correspondence on the Rendlesham papers from 2001, released to Andy Roberts under the FOIA, include a copy of a fax sent by Georgina Bruni from a London address to the MoD on 9 July 2001. This was clearly around the time at which she first learned the Rendlesham papers had been released, two months after the date given in UK UFO Magazine. Her fax requested a copy of the file and added:
“I understand that Baroness Symons recently sent copies of this material to Lord Hill-Norton, and that the MoD has also released it to a member of the public”.
Although Georgina’s name is redacted from the fax, a little investigative journalism revealed the London telephone number it was sent from and this was confirmed by the MoD reply, dated 18 July, which opens with ‘Dear Ms’.
Georgina's book, You Can't Tell The People, was published in November 2000, six months before the release of the MoD file. But the book had been promoted as “the definitive work" on the Rendlesham incident. The urgent tone of the fax suggests the writer was a little peeved the papers had not been sent to her before publication.
Nevertheless, despite being aware of the true identity of the "member of the public" whose work actually led to the release of the file (from the article in The Guardian on 28 August 2001), both Bruni and her friend and writing partner Nick Pope henceforth continued to insist that I played no role in its release.
The afterword of the second edition of Bruni’s book, published in 2001, contained a new chapter, 'The Release of the Rendlesham file'. Again there was no mention of my role in the release, and Bruni was now taking full credit for herself. The chapter opened with this claim:
"I have no doubt that these [documents] were released because of pressure put on the British Government regarding the case presented in the hardback edition of You Can't Tell The People, which resulted in questions being asked in the House of Lords."
To this day, Nick Pope continues to promote this misleading version on his website. In an article called ‘The Rendlesham Forest Incident’, he writes: “I should first pay tribute to Lord Hill-Norton and Georgina Bruni whose tireless efforts over the last few years have culminated in the release of these documents”.
Later, for good measure, he adds: “...with the release of the Rendlesham files Georgina Bruni has achieved a significant breakthrough for UFOlogy.”
I'm not looking for medals or praise - just the truth, which is now out thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.
It would be a simple matter of courtesy, or good manners, to acknowledge the role I played, even in passing, or at least set the record straight now the facts are clearly documented under FOIA and indisputable.
Sadly, Georgina died in 2008 so is unable to explain why she felt it necessary to publish an incorrect version of her role – or more accurately, lack of – in the release of the Rendlesham file.
Wednesday, 12 August 2009
The Chinese lantern craze fuelled a tabloid UFO campaign during last year’s silly season and this year they were back.
During the summer armadas of lanterns 100 strong were photographed hovering over Lincolnshire, Merseyside and parts of Holland. Newspapers saw the story as light relief from the tedium of MP’s expenses. Keen to keep the mystery alive the Mirror proclaimed: “These spooky orange lights in the sky have the country baffled” whilst the Mail headlined with “Invasion of the orange aliens” (4 July). The lanterns were everywhere.
In June they lit up the skies over the Glastonbury festival and shortly afterwards a spate of false alarms involving “red flares” along the south coast were traced to more lanterns. This led coastguards to urge beach party-goers to contact them before they liberated any more orange aliens.
In August contributors to The Guardian debated the alleged environmental impact of the lanterns, hinting that a ban might be on its way. Their sale has already been prohibited in Vietnam and in three German states following the death of a 10-year-old boy in a house fire sparked by a lantern. In a separate incident a couple celebrating their marriage set fire to two houses in Dieburg, causing £200,000 in damage.
A story published by The Independent on 28 July quoted the National Farmer's Union and RSPCA as raising concerns that cattle could be harmed by eating the metal wires that hold the candles in place after the lanterns fall to the ground.
But the managing director of Sky Lanterns, which has been selling the darned things for seven years, pointed out that as with any other product it was ultimately up to the customer to behave responsibly when liberating them.
Banning the sale of these mini-hot air balloons, which bring joy to many people and produce beautiful displays in the night sky, would seem to me to be a massive over-reaction. After all they were first used in China during the 3rd century and are still released in the Far East to celebrate special occasions and as a symbol of good wishes.
"Sky lanterns" have become increasingly popular in the UK since 2002, but here they have sparked a rash of tabloid UFO headlines of the "Flat Earth News" variety. The tabloid obsession began with one widely-publicised sighting by the crew of the South Wales Police helicopter, who reported a "near-miss" with a UFO last summer.
The "UFO", captured on the copter's camera, appears to be just a few inches in length and there can be little doubt it was from a flotilla of 30 lanterns released from a wedding reception nearby earlier in the evening.
When will the tabloid lantern bubble burst? Maybe it already has. The novelty factor the lanterns provided is now wearing paper thin. Last summer hardly a day passed without The Sun’s alien invasion headlines. This year the stories are fewer and attempts to suggest some "mystery" remained looked increasingly desperate.
Either the UFO fleet had returned home, or someone realized there was only so many times you can run the same story before the public loses interest.