Monday, 27 December 2010



The best urban legends never fizzle out and the Curse of the Crying Boy keeps returning to my inbox year in year out.

Stories about a cheap print of a crying toddler that eerily survived fires unscathed first spread through the UK in 1985. In my definitive article, originally published by Fortean Times, I traced the genesis of the legend to a news story published by The Sun (right) in September that year. This told how firemen in Rotherham, Yorkshire, could not explain how the print had escaped from a fire that gutted a terraced house.

During the ‘80s it emerged that more than 50,000 versions of the print were sold in the UK alone and news of the curse led hundreds of people to report house fires where a crying boy painting survived. Since then stories about the “cursed” painting by Spanish artist Bruno Amadio – actually one of a series by different artists – has become an internet phenomenon. Elaborate legends have appeared online, seeking to explain who the boy was and why the paintings are cursed.

The story was resurrected in October 2010 by comedian Steve Punt for an episode of his BBC Radio 4 series Punt PI, for which I’ve become a regular source of weird and amusing legendary. In his mission to pour cold water on the flames, producer Laurence Grissell managed to bag an interview with legendary former Sun editor Kelvin McKenzie. It was McKenzie who set the crying boy hare running. He was also the editor who presided over tabloid inventions such as the ludicrous 1986 page one splash, “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”.

In suitably playful mood, McKenzie admitted that the Crying Boy legend was born on a slow news day when a filler sent by a regional news agency caught his eye. The fact that firemen – rather than credulous members of the public – appeared to confirm this unlikely tale was enough for him. It was, he said, “as if a light went on”.

Not only did he and the tabloid create the Crying Boy phenomenon, but McKenzie personally fanned the flames, encouraging worried readers to send their prints to The Sun HQ for destruction on a Hallowe’en bonfire. When quizzed by Punt PI, McKenzie admitted he was a superstitious man who personally refused to allow a copy of the print to be installed on his office wall. But when asked whether there was any truth to the story, he said:

“Who knows…[but] there comes a point when you research a story too deeply – as you keep on asking more and more questions about it - the story actually disappears and before you know where you are we are all sitting there, its ten to five, we haven’t got a front page lead and the story’s just collapsed. So some stories are just too good to check.”

Too good to check or too good to kill?

Remember that the next time you read a headline proclaiming Atlantis has been discovered or the alien invasion fleet has been spotted hovering above your neighbourhood!


Back in July in a blog post titled “Where are the UFO Whistleblowers?” I asked why, despite the massive leak of secret war logs to Wikileaks, not a single hint of US government contact with UFOs or ETs had emerged - despite decades of claims by conspiracy believers.

An answer to this question became all the more pressing when, in November this year, a further 250,000 US state department cables emerged dating back to the 1960s. Shortly afterwards the mercurial Julian Assange revealed during a Guardian Q&A session that Wikileaks is plagued by what he described as 'weirdos' looking for the smoking gun that will confirm their beliefs. In a statement that will not endear him to the UFO disclosure brigade, Assange said they had not satisfied a Wikileaks rule that documents must be bona fide and not self-authored (which eliminates MJ-12 and other obvious fakes). But he hinted that “in yet to be published parts of the Cablegate archive there are indeed references to UFOs.”

Now bear in mind the fact that in 1993 the US general accounting office identified some 3,067,000 people who had clearance to information classified secret and above (Guardian, 29 November 2010). We should not therefore be surprised to find at least some passing tongue-in-cheek reference within diplomatic traffic to the more bizarre UFO legends that regularly circulate in the media and on the net.

The anticipation was short-lived. On 17 December the Guardian revealed, in a follow-up, that Assange was merely poking fun at UFO buffs. “Despite what [he] said…there are no references to aliens in the cables,” they said. “We searched for aliens and UFOs (“visitors” and “non-terrestrial officers” too, thanks, UFO-minded readers).”

Which returns me to my original question: where are the UFO whistleblowers?


2010 may have been the year of Wikileaks but it was also a great one for the disclosure of genuine government UFO archives. Just before Christmas the Royal New Zealand Air Force published electronic versions of nine files containing details of UFO sighting reports dating way back to the great phantom airship flap of 1909. You can download these files in PDF format.

This was not a “new” release, as claimed by some news outlets, as paper versions of these files have been available from The National Archives in Wellington, New Zealand, for a number of years. But few researchers have the time or resources to travel halfway across the planet to consult them, or can afford to order paper copies.

The RNZAF release is just the latest move by governments across the world to provide free and unrestricted access to historical UFO papers that have been hidden by unnecessary secrecy for too long. During the summer the Brazilian Air Force joined the fray by releasing a mass of UFO records to their country’s archives, following the example set by France, Britain, Denmark and Ireland in the past three years.

In Britain the on-going programme to transfer all surviving Ministry of Defence UFO files to The National Archives - for which I'm acting as consultant - saw the release of a further 42 files during 2010. The next 12 months promises to be another bumper year as the British disclosure project reaches its finale with just over one hundred remaining files being prepared for release.

The factors that led to the release of official UFO files release in Brazil, New Zealand and the UK are identical. And it is not to prepare the population for news that we are being visited by extraterrestrials, as some continue to falsely claim. The reality is that the military and intelligence services of all three countries have no interest in UFOs or the people who believe in them. They want to wash their hands of the whole messy business by literally making UFOs history, following the recommendation of fellow sceptic John Rimmer.

The most effective way of doing this is to place all their surviving records in a historical archive, where the subject clearly belongs. This allows them to direct all future inquiries to the archives and avoid wasting further public money responding to inquiries about a subject that has no defence value, in their view. This was clearly the reason behind the British MoD's decision to close their UFO Hotline in November 2009 and transfer all remaining papers to The National Archives.

The release of all these files comes in direct response to public interest stoked by the media and the UFO industry itself. It reflects open government, nothing more, nothing less. It does not indicate any international secret knowledge of ET presence or contact as claimed by some of the more credulous UFOlogists. As anyone who troubles themselves to actually read the files will realise, the opposite is actually the truth. Governments know no more about UFOs and ETs than the average person in the street.


In November the media got excited about a “mystery missile” filmed off the California coast near Los Angeles. The scare drew comparisons with the ghost-rocket flap that gripped Scandinavia in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The images, captured by a CBS news helicopter crew, appeared to show the vapour trail of a missile rising from the ocean 35 miles offshore. Conspiracy theorists were delighted when the Pentagon said it knew nothing about a missile launch and further fuel was added when former Deputy Secretary of Defence, Robert Ellsworth, hinted that it might have been deliberately fired from a US Navy submarine “to demonstrate, mainly to Asia, that we can do that.”

As the mystery grew, further footage of mystery missiles emerged from elsewhere in North America. But revealed the “missile” was simply the contrail of an aircraft flying directly towards the camera crew, with the image distorted by a trick of perspective. Although the contrail is actually five miles high, it appears to touch the ground because of the curvature of the Earth. Many other examples of “contrail scares” are known across the world.

US sceptic Bob Sheaffer believes this might explain the famous Swedish “spook bomb” wave of 1946 that immediately preceded the modern flying saucer era. Writing on his splendid new blog Bad UFOs, Sheaffer notes that despite the facts about the Californian footage being on plain view, the story has now morphed into a mystery that refuses to be debunked.


As the first decade of the 21st century ends, so UFOs retain their place as the most important modern myth. Myth is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary not as a false belief but as “a traditional narrative sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated”, much like Bible stories and traditional beliefs common to all human history.

The continuing strength and popularity of the UFO myth was underlined by the results of a survey conducted by the Royal Society and published in December. The poll of 2,000 adults found that 44 percent “believe that extra-terrestrial life exists” and men, perhaps unsurprisingly, have the most faith (46% say they believe). By contrast, 28% said they did not believe in ET and the remaining 28% simply couldn’t be sure. In my view the latter position is the only most honest position to take.

Of course there is a huge difference between the possibility, or in my view probability, that (a) life of some kind exists elsewhere in the universe and (b) the existence of intelligence life that has the level of technological sophistication and motivation to visit Earth. (a) and (b) are completely different concepts, with the latter involving a chain of unlikeliness so strained that even the most optimistic cosmologists find it hard to credit. But it is not impossible. Time will tell. But history shows that simply because lots of people believe in something, that does not make that something true.

Sunday, 21 November 2010


“…An industry whose task should be to filter out falsehood has become a conduit for propaganda…” Nick Davies, Flat Earth News

The media tends to regard UFO stories as light entertainment rather than hard news. Proof of this was provided by the widely reported Flat Earth story that aliens had interfered with US and Soviet nuclear weapons during the Cold War (published uncritically by the Mail, Express and Telegraph in September). If that claim wasn’t remarkable enough, we were then asked to believe both governments had – despite their massive Cold War differences - collectively and successfully concealed the extraterrestrial threat from the public ever since.

Extraordinary, if true. And anyone who suspected this was either April 1st or a poor re-working of the script from Independence Day should think again, because “upstanding, dry former military chiefs who were trusted with our nuclear security” said so (Daily Mail, 27 September).

But cut through the spin and it becomes clear there was and is no senior credible military source. The story originates from a publicity-hungry American UFOlogist, Robert Hastings. Hastings worked as a lab technician before retirement and now devotes himself full-time to pushing the UFO Disclosure agenda via books and lectures. He appears to have no particular expertise other than an obsession with proving a link between UFOs and nuclear weapons.

Hastings feels it is his “patriotic duty as an American citizen” to break the international cover-up and bring The Truth to the attention of the public. Let’s be clear what Hastings believes: according to the Daily Mail, he claims “Earth is being visited by beings from another world who for whatever reason have taken an interest in the nuclear arms race”.

Fair enough. Hastings is entitled to believe what he likes. But it’s equally fair for me to compare his beliefs with those of other ‘independent thinkers’, as Patrick Moore calls them, who have – at various points in the past 60 years - tried to persuade us that aliens are coming here to follow ley lines, to collect water from our reservoirs or drill holes in livestock.

The idea that flying saucers have been coming here in increasing numbers since we first tested nuclear weapons is nothing new. It was a common theme in the writings of contactees such as George Adamski and George King at the opening of the ‘flying saucer’ age. They were equally obsessed with drawing links between UFO sightings and the Cold War arms race. During the 1950s warnings were channelled by these individuals and the quasi-religious sects which they founded, warning that Martians and Venusians were concerned by our nuclear experiments.

In my view, Robert Hastings is simply following in the footsteps of Adamski and King but dressing up his beliefs in a way that appeals to “scientific UFOlogists” of the 21st century who would not want to be associated with contactee cults.


In September Hastings hired the Washington Press Club as a platform to reveal his “evidence”. It consisted of testimony from a tiny group of ex-military “credible witnesses” who have joined the ET/disclosure bandwagon.

One of Hastings’s key witnesses is Captain Robert Salas who claims that on one occasion in 1967 a UFO hovered directly over a nuclear weapons store at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. Salas maintains that as a direct result of this incident ten Minuteman nuclear missiles malfunctioned. Taken at face value, Salas’s story sounds impressive. But virtually every evidential detail has been questioned by James Carlson, whose father Eric, also a Captain in the USAF, was present during the incident. Carlson senior insists that UFOs had absolutely nothing to do with the failure of the missile system and his son has published factual evidence that points to a complex equipment malfunction. There is also clear evidence that Salas has changed his story on several occasions.

Hastings and Carlson jnr are now locked in an online flame war over Salas’s claims and the interpretation of statements made by a third USAF officer, Walt Figel. Carlson says Figel’s testimony is consistent with his father’s evidence that no UFOs were involved. Hastings has published tape transcripts that suggest Figel was told about a UFO sighting by technicians working on the missiles. But reading the transcript one cannot escape the impression that Figel didn’t take the story seriously and regarded it as a leg pull of ‘the dog ate my homework’ type.

The whole story is so riddled with contradiction and ambiguity that it is impossible to say anything more than "not proven". But you can read Carlsons’s dissection of the claims made by Salas here while Hasting’s detailed rebuttal can be followed here.


Another of Hastings’s “credible witnesses" is Col Charles Halt, of Rendlesham forest fame. Halt’s story has grown over the years from a straightforward sighting of “unexplained lights” (his words) in the forest near RAF Woodbridge, Suffolk, into something that resembles a script for a science fiction film.

In the space of three decades “unexplained lights” have been transformed into intelligently controlled craft of ET origin whose occupants “directed laser-like beams of light down into or near” the nuclear weapons store at nearby RAF Bentwaters. Like Hastings, since retirement Halt has become convinced the US and UK governments – including his own former colleagues - are conspiring to hide The Truth from the public.

Again, this type of claim can sound convincing to those who are impressed by military ranks and titles. For those unfamiliar with the minutiae of the Rendlesham legend, or too lazy to critically examine the evidence it can be easier just to follow the herd and churn out another Flat Earth story. But anyone who puts the Rendlesham legend under the a critical microscope will realise that Halt’s claims simply do not stand up to scrutiny.

Like Salas, Halt’s testimony has grown and become more elaborate in the constant re-telling, encouraged by his UFOlogical minders. Like Hastings and the others, he is now part of the UFO Disclosure movement and appears to see every new development through the lens of his belief in a conspiracy to hide evidence of ET visits. For that reason, he cannot be described as a “credible witness".

Furthermore, as I have revealed in New Light on Rendlesham, Halt’s former boss, the RAF Bentwaters base commander Col Ted Conrad, has gone on record to say he was in direct radio contact with his deputy as Halt’s experience in the forest unfolded. Conrad says he had trained Security Police on patrol looking out for anything unusual. But despite “a sparkling, clear, fogless night with a good field of view in all directions” they saw nothing. Neither was anything unusual reported by RAF Air Defence radars. That led him to conclude there was no hard evidence that required further action.

Even worse, Halt’s own laconic official account of the events, set out in his famous memo to the British Ministry of Defence makes no mention any threat to base security or the nuclear weapons store. By his own account, after several hours spent pursuing UFOs through the forest he simply turned around and went home to bed, leaving lights still visible in the sky as dawn broke (which strongly suggests they were bright stars as identified by astronomer Ian Ridpath).

Having failed to persuade his own superior officers in the USAF chain of command to take his story seriously Halt waited a further two weeks, until the British base commander Don Moreland returned from Christmas holidays, before he informed the Ministry of Defence.

Halt’s memo was dated 13 January 1981 and described events that took place on 27/28 December the previous year. The memo contains no mention of UFO interest in the weapons store at Bentwaters, nor does it highlight any perceived threat to British sovereignty. For that very reason the British authorities chose to ignore it. Yet incredibly Halt is on record as expressing puzzlement as to why no higher authority, British or American, took the story seriously or instigated a full investigation.

Hastings makes a big deal of the fact that Halt waited until retirement from the USAF in 1991 before he revealed, on a US TV show, that he saw UFOs shining beams upon the weapons store at RAF Bentwaters. Apparently he was concerned about the impact this might have on his career.

So we are asked to believe that Halt, “an upstanding dry former military chief” neglected to mention a possible direct threat to a frontline NATO base either to his own superiors or the MoD, because he was concerned he would not be taken seriously.

But he then expects us to take him seriously when he reveals this same information on a TV programme 11 years after the event?

If the evidence for aliens interfering with nuclear weapons is so good – then why does Robert Hastings pick such poor examples to prove his case?

The bottom line is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In both the Malmstrom and RAF Woodbridge cases there is absolutely no evidence.

What we actually have is a mass of deeply conflicting and contradictory testimony concerning ambiguous events that happened decades ago. Testimony that is being filtered through the subjective and selective agenda of those who want us to believe in ETs and government cover-ups. None of these stories would stand up to the vigorous standards required of evidence presented in a courtroom.


So is there really any credible evidence to support Hastings’s claims about alien interest in our nuclear weapons?

If the security and intelligence agencies really were concerned about UFO sightings in the vicinity of nuclear facilities, as Hastings claims, one would expect there to be some official, corroborating documentary evidence, either from the paper trail the events produced or through leaks from senior, credible sources within the military/intelligence community.

In pursuit of such evidence I found that one British intelligence agency has indeed examined the assertion “that UFOs are ‘spying’ on strategic installations such as power stations, airfields and nuclear facilities”.

But they concluded “there is no evidence whatsoever to substantiate this claim.”

This document, once classified “Secret – UK Eyes Only” was released under the UK Freedom of Information Act in 2006, yet there was no mention of this at the UFO-Nukes press conference.

The nuclear issue was just one of a number of questions scrutinised by the anonymous author of the Defence Intelligence Staff study. The author was a senior intelligence officer with expertise in air defence and radar systems who was contracted to work for the Ministry of Defence’s during the late 1990s.

During the project, he studied a sample of 850 UFO reports collected by the MoD during a 4-year period towards the end of the Cold War. These were entered into a computer database and scrutinised for patterns. He specifically looked for evidence of reports concentrated around strategic military assets in the UK.

Unsurprisingly, he found most UFO reports clustered around areas of population density (like central London) and in the air corridors and Air Traffic Control Zones linking airports. His analysis is worth quoting in detail:

“UAP events reported from RAF stations were examined…for a four year period for a repeated UAP presence. Only six widely-dispersed RAF stations reported one event each. These locations were found to operate in a variety of roles, rather than together representing a group with specific strategic (for example, nuclear) importance, which some have suggested attract higher than expected UAP activity…It is probably the case, because of the radar and visual look out maintained as part of the normal role of the station, that in most cases if any UAP is present near a RAF station it is quite likely to be seen and reported.

“From the information examined: contrary to certain media suggestions that there is some sinister UAP agenda or that there are repeated UAP visits to locations of national importance, no evidence has been found that RAF strategic sites are some sort of target at which UAP appear more often than over certain other areas (eg over highly populated areas or along air corridors). [On the contrary] there is no evidence that regular or irregular repeat visits occur at any RAF site, strategic in nature or otherwise.”

The study concludes:

“There is, therefore, no firm evidence which points to the repeated presence of UAP at, for example, US or RAF strategic or tactical bases (airfields), Army assets or RAF or Naval HQ or special asserts (in particular, at nuclear assets such as Faslane, Aldermaston, Capenhurst, etc)…
"The fact that [UFOs] are seen at all, at some service locations, is undoubtedly because they are manned 24 hours a day with staff who are likely to be observant by virtue of their normal tasks....” [my emphasis]
(Source: UAPs in the UK Air Defence Region, DI55 Report, vol 1, pg 13).

From the point of view of the tabloids, a story that reads “MoD study debunks claims that UFOs are messing with our nukes” isn’t half as news-worthy one that reads “Aliens tampered with our nukes.”

But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Friday, 3 September 2010

New Light on Rendlesham

I have added a new page to my blog that summarises the results of my ongoing research into the famous "Rendlesham Forest UFO incident", that has become one of UFOlogy's cause celebres. The main highlight is my exclusive interview with the RAF Bentwaters Base Commander, Col Ted Conrad, who has gone on record in detail for the first time since the immediate aftermath of the incident in 1980-81.

The paper also summarises the results of my research into the paper trail at The National Archives, along with exclusive interviews with key MoD and RAF personnel. These include the DS8 UFO desk officer who dealt with the incident, Simon Weeden, and the British liaison officer, Wing Commander Don Moreland, among others.

The 30th anniversary of the case often referred to as "Britain's Roswell" takes place in December this year. Despite a decade of research I still don't know what happened at RAF Woodbridge in December 1980. But one thing I am certain about is this: neither does anyone else!

The Rendlesham Files are subject to copyright. However, visitors are free to quote from these pages provided the source of this information is clearly acknowledged and a link is provided to this website.

Ian Ridpath has a new blog page covering his research into the Rendlesham incident - which began in 1983 - here.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Britain's first X-File?

The September issue of Fortean Times reveals my discovery of what may be the very first British Government inquiry into 'UFO' sightings - in 1865.

'The False Lights' were mysterious revolving lights seen above a rocky headland at Whitburn, county Durham, by mariners negotiating a hazardous stretch of the northeast coast.

During a ten year period from 1860 more than 150 ships were wrecked on the rocks near Whitburn after following a light or lights in the sky which they wrongly believed were from a lighthouse at the mouth of the Tyne.

Accusations were made against local fishermen who, some believed, were deliberately luring ships onto the rocks to steal their cargoes.

The Government stepped in after Durham MP Sir Hedworth Williamson tabled questions in the House of Commons.

And in December 1865, a commission of inquiry led by Rear Admiral Sir Richard Collinson travelled to Sunderland to investigate. Although the mystery was mentioned by Charles Fort in The Book of the Damned (1919), as far as I am aware this is the first time anyone has obtained access to government files compiled at the time.

By a stroke of luck, I discovered the complete proceedings of the inquiry have survived in a file at The National Archives. This contains summaries of the evidence taken at Sunderland, transcribed in longhand, alongside original copies of witness statements and petitions handed in by the fishermen.

The inquiry chaired by Admiral Collinson was followed by further investigations by the Tyne Pilotage Board and South Shields Police Court in 1866.

The files suggest the Board of Trade was unable to explain the cause of the 'false lights', which one official described as 'very mysterious'.

But the most amazing discovery I made was this:

A direct result of the inquiry was the government decision to pay for the construction of a lighthouse at Souter Point, in response to demands from local people to provide a fixed beacon for shipping.

The lighthouse was opened in January 1871 and was the first in Britain powered by electrical alternators (today the building and grounds are in the care of The National Trust and contain a small museum).

As far as I am aware the Souter Point light (above right) is the only lighthouse in the world originally constructed to warn seafarers of a hazard caused by 'unexplained aerial phenomena.'

A full account of my investigation and extracts from the files can be found in my Fortean Times article, now available online here.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

The 'Real X-Files' Pt 6

The facts about some of Britain’s best-known UFO mysteries are revealed in the sixth collection of ‘X-files’ released by Britain’s National Archives.

At the TNA's UFO website you can download all the files - free of charge for the first month - along with a highlights guide and updated background briefing. As the TNA's consultant for the release programme, I have recorded a special podcast with journalist Clare Jenkins, available as a download, where I discuss some of the more quirky stories included in this tranche.

The release includes 18 files containing 5000 pages of correspondence and Parliamentary briefings created by the Ministry of Defence between 1995 and 2000. The documents provide a unique historical snapshot of the extraordinary beliefs, legends and rumours that were held and spread by UFOlogists around the time of the 50th anniversary of the birth of the subject in 1997.These files contain hundreds of letters addressed to the MoD and politicians that cover every conceivable rumour circulating just before the millennium: UFO crashes, alien abductions, animal mutilations, demonic entities, crop circles, remote viewing, mind-control and government conspiracies.

By contrast, alongside this feast of weirdness are the MoD’s increasingly exasperated attempts to pour cold water on topics they regarded as irrelevant at best and a nuisance at worst. But they could not stem the flood of correspondence that led to a doubling of the UFO desk’s workload. During 1996 – the year before the Roswell anniversary – the MoD received 609 UFO reports, 343 letters from the public and 22 inquiries from MPs.

The files demonstrate how far official policy towards UFOs changed after the end of the Cold War. Back in 1950s the Government really was concerned by a spate of incidents involving unidentified objects tracked by radars and on occasion aircraft were scrambled to investigate them. Possibly the best known example is the famous RAF Bentwaters-Lakenheath incident of 1956.

As a direct result the subject of “aerial phenomena” appeared on the agenda of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), at Whitehall. One set of the JIC papers from 1957 are included in this release and they reveal the Air Ministry could not explain four incidents involving UFOs on radar (see DEFE 24/2013, pgs 257-60).

But in 1996 Don Valley MP Martin Redmond tabled a Parliamentary Question that asked how many times RAF aircraft had been scrambled to investigate UFOs. The background briefing given by the RAF is in my view one of the most interesting documents in this release (you can see the original papers in DEFE 24/1983, pages 53 and 40-48).

This document reveals that before 1991 – which saw the collapse of the Soviet Union – RAF aircraft were scrambled on average 200 times every year to investigate unidentified objects seen by UK air defence radars. The vast majority of these were identified as Soviet reconnaissance aircraft probing NATO defences in the North Atlantic. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall the frequency of these scrambles reduced to zero. There were none recorded between September 1991 and the summer of 1996 when Redmond tabled his question in the Commons.

Contrast that zero figure with the number of UFO reports made by members of the public and logged by the MoD during exactly the same period. Between 1991 and 1996 there were almost 1200 sightings recorded. Few, if any were corroborated by a radar contact and just a handful were investigated in any depth – mainly as a result of pressure from MPs or the media.

Since 1959 the subject of UFOs has never reappeared on the agenda of the Joint Intelligence Committee. This is a sure sign that the subject is now regarded as of no consequence to the military and intelligence services in Britain at least.

What all this indicates to me is that by the 50th anniversary of the UFO industry in 1997, the British Government was no longer interested in UFOs as a defence problem. By then they saw it purely as a public relations issue. Each year they received hundreds of reports from the public but none that contained any evidence of a threat to the defence of the UK. The inevitable consequence of that change in policy was the closure of the MoD’s UFO hotline at the end of last year.


RAF Rudloe Manor features heavily in the files as the obsessive focus of UFO conspiracy rumours during the 1990s (see for example DEFE 24/1978, 1982, 1993 and 2004). Some UFOlogists became so convinced the government was hiding wreckage of crashed flying saucers that attempts were made to break into the facility. Other stories spread that a secret MoD ‘Men In Black’ unit was based at Rudloe that investigated close encounters and conducted secret research. But as the MoD’s Kerry Philpott pointed out to letter-writers, Rudloe was at that time the HQ for the RAF’s Flying Complaints Flight who are responsible for investigating reports of ‘low flying aircraft.’ Inevitably some UFO reports ended up in the RAF’s low-flying inbox at Rudloe Manor. But these were simply collected, put in an envelope and sent to the MoD’s UFO desk in London for follow-up. Quite how this plain fact became transformed into stories about spacecraft and aliens hidden in secret tunnels remains the real mystery.

Berwyn Mountains incident. DEFE 24/2045 contains copies of official papers from 1974 that discuss the Berwyn Mountains UFO ‘crash’ in North Wales. This story was resurrected by UFOlogists at the time of the 50th anniversary and quickly became transformed into Britain’s answer to the Roswell incident. But the contemporary records reveal a far less sensational story. MoD received just five reports describing bright fireballs falling to earth, but none of these came from Wales. On the same night, villagers living near the mountains called emergency services to report “a brilliant ball of light apparently coming down over the hills, accompanied by a flash and an immense bang.” A search of the hills by a RAF rescue team found no sign of any impact and astronomers quickly identified the fireballs as part of a meteor shower. Shortly afterwards the British Geological Survey identified the “immense bang” as an earth tremor originating on the Bala faultline. The complex Berwyn case is the subject of a book, UFO Down, by FT writer Andy Roberts, published this month by the CFZ.

Winston Churchill 'foo-fighter' incident. DEFE 24/2013 contains a letter sent to the MoD in 1999 that claims Winston Churchill ordered a cover-up of a wartime UFO sighting by the crew of a RAF reconnaissance aircraft over the English coastline. The letter-writer says he heard the story second-hand via his grandfather, who claimed to have been present at a secret meeting between Churchill and Eisenhower when the incident was discussed, in the later stages of the war. Although merely an anecdote, there may be a grain of truth in the story. Winston Churchill's interest in unexplained aerial phenomena dates back to 1912. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he answered questions in the Commons following sightings of a "phantom airship" over the naval base at Sheerness in Essex. Again in 1952 he wrote his famous memo to the Air Ministry demanding to know the truth about flying saucers following a flap of sightings over Washington DC. In 1999 the MoD were sufficiently interested by the contents of the letter they received to check wartime cabinet minutes. Although no written record of the wartime meeting appears to survive, Air Ministry files from 1942-45 do contain accounts of mysterious sightings reported by aircrew - including RAF Bomber Command. Air Ministry classified these reports as "night phenomena" and "balls of fire" and believed some were caused by German secret weapons such as the Me262 jet fighter. United States Army Air Force aircrew called them "foo fighters". See my review of Keith Chester's book for more details of WW2 UFO sightings.

Mystery object caught on film during launch of Blue Streak rocket, Australia, 1964. DEFE 24/1983 contains the MoD’s reaction to claims made by UFO writer Jenny Randles in a 1996 documentary shown on BBC2, summarized here. When MP John Fraser asked about a “missing” can of film that was said to show a mysterious “spaceman” during a Blue Streak rocket launch at Woomera, desk officers were forced to reopen archived files from 1964. Inquiries discovered copies of the "missing" Woomera film were held by the Imperial War Museum and had been widely circulated by the media at the time. The contemporary papers show that British Pathe, who distributed the film, identified the 'object' (not a spaceman) as "an internal camera reflection."

Persistent Correspondents. While some UFO legends do have a factual basis, the files expose others as based entirely on rumour and gossip or, like the ‘alien autopsy’, as hoaxes. Nevertheless, some persistent letter writers who believed these legends targeted Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair with demands for confirmation the Government had proof aliens really had landed in the UK. One asked Blair if he could confirm that films and TV shows like The X-Files and Independence Day were part of “a strategy by Western governments to prepare the population for the admission that there has indeed been contact from aliens, extraterrestrials, trans-dimensionals and/or time travellers.” Another made a 100-1 bet with bookmakers Ladbrokes that “aliens would be found on earth dead or alive before the end of the century”. After reading about the Roswell incident and the ‘alien autopsy’ he approached the government during 1999 for evidence to support his claim when Ladbrokes refused to pay out. Unfortunately for him, the MoD said they were open-minded about extraterrestrial life but had no evidence of its existence (DEFE 24/2012).

Nick Pope. The former MoD 'UFO' desk officer proclaimed his belief in UFOs in 1995 and published a book, Open Skies Closed Minds, that was cleared for publication in the following year. Pope's book and his media interviews generated a number of questions both from MPs and members of the public. In response MoD said his views were his own opinions and did not reflect or represent that of MoD. But the media publicity surrounding its publication added to the workload of his successor Kerry Philpott who told inquirers Sec(AS) was "not a strange phenomena section" of MoD. She said Pope worked in a junior management grade "but neither he nor indeed am I the head of any 'UFO' section" (see DEFE 24/1983). The MoD have redacted a number of references to Pope’s activities in these files but in 1996 David Alton MP was told that media coverage "tended to exaggerate the MoD interest in UFO matters and the role of the post" (DEFE 24/1983).

In 1999 Scottish UFOlogist James Easton in his "An Open Letter" addressed to Pope, posed a series of questions to the MoD. These included: "What were his main duties? Approximately how much time was spent on 'UFO'-related investigations? and 'have the MoD ever, as Pope states, investigated to any significant extent a single case where a 'crop circle', 'alien abduction' or 'animal mutilation' has been reported and if so, what was the outcome?'

UFO desk officer, Gaynor South, responded on 29 September 1999:

“The main duties of the post concern non-operational RAF activities overseas and diplomatic clearance policy for military flights abroad. A small percentage of time is spent dealing with reports from the public about alleged ‘UFO’ sightings and associated public correspondence. The MoD has not investigated a claim of alien abduction, crop circle formations or animal mutilation.” (DEFE 24/1978)

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Where are the UFO Whistleblowers?

Wikileaks has once again shaken the foundations of the government and military establishment with its mass leaking of documents chronicling the war in Afghanistan.
The leaking of more than 92,000 secret documents to the media last week revealed how difficult it now is for any government - however powerful - to conceal information from the public.
With near impregnable security for its servers and twin commitment to holding authority to account and protecting its sources, Wikileaks has become a haven for whistleblowers to expose lies, corruption and human rights abuses wherever they occur.
But here is the conundrum. Many thousands, if not millions of people across the world, believe the US Government is with-holding evidence that we are not alone in the universe. A central item of this belief is that a flying saucer and its occupants crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 and the authorities have concealed that fact for over 60 years.
If there is any truth in these stories hundreds, if not thousands, of people must have been involved in the perpetuation of the cover-up. Foreign governments, such as the Soviet Union during the Cold War, would have learned about the incident and would, therefore, have to be party to the secret. Again, many many people across the world must have been involved in perpetuating the greatest conspiracy in the history of mankind.
So - where are the UFO whistleblowers?
As Greg Boone, who believes in the existence of a global UFO cover-up, asked plaintively on a newsgroup recently: "Why has not one major UFO secret been revealed via Wikileaks?"
He went on to add: "Surely the truth regarding UFOs would so shake the foundations of global criminal evil that just one brave soul would come forward and forever change the history of humanity."
Well Greg, we're waiting...and waiting...and waiting.
Of course there have been plenty of hoaxes and forgeries that have been proclaimed as proof positive of the alien presence in the past. But the amateurish MJ-12 papers that were supposed to have been created by a super-secret US committee that concealed the Roswell incident would not pass the first test of authenticity when placed under the Wikileaks microscope.
While we wait, my colleague and fellow Fortean Times writer Mark Pilkington has published his own in-depth excoriation of the murky world of military intelligence involvement in the UFO phenomenon.
Mirage Men: A Journey in Disinformation, Paranoia and UFOs is published by Constable this month and comes highly recommended. Mark's central thesis - that intelligence agencies have been promoting the idea of UFOs as a useful cover for their own covert testing of military technology - is not entirely original. But Mark is no armchair theorist and he and sidekick John Lundberg developed their new take on 'the federal hypothesis' during a long journey through the badlands and backwaters of America, meeting some of the key players in the UFO industry along the way.
Unlike many books with 'UFO' on their cover, Mirage Men is a gripping read.Whether you agree with Mark's conclusions or not, you will enjoy the journey and come to realise that the closer you get to the source of UFO stories the more the whole phenomenon takes on a mythic dimension.
While Mirage Men chronicles the phenomenon in North America, Andy Robert's new book takes a withering look at one of the UK's central UFO legends.
UFO Down (published by the CFZ early in August) is subtitled The Berwyn Mountain UFO Crash and investigates the facts and folklore surrounding a mysterious incident that occurred in North Wales one night in January 1974. The Berwyn incident has been described by the some as 'Britain's Roswell' and Andy has spent the past two decades tracing every possible permutation of the legend to its source. As an exercise in investigative journalism, his journey takes some beating and the conclusions may surprise those who expect a thorough debunking of this particular story.
Both Mirage Men and UFO Down are fine pieces of writing and I urge everyone remotely interested in Fortean phenomena to add them to their reading list.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Alive and Kicking!

It is often claimed that investigative journalism is dead, or at least on its last legs – the victim of cutbacks in resources and investment by the news industry.

But from what I saw and heard at the July summer school organised by the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ), truth-seeking and holding authority to account is not only alive and well, but safe in the hands of a new breed of “information activists”.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (right) believes the future depends upon networks of hackers and whistleblowers working to expose corruption and human rights abuses wherever they are found. Assange’s presentation was added to the schedule at the eleventh hour, possibly because he is constantly on the move to avoid spooks who would like to shut his network down.

Assange describes Wikileaks as an “uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking”. This aim has been achieved with remarkable success given its skeleton staff and total reliance for its funding upon individual donations. Launched in 2007, during its short life it has exposed more scandals than some newspapers in their entire lifetime.

It came of age this year with the release of an incriminating video that shows the crew of US helicopter gloating after an attack on civilians in Baghdad in July 2007 that left, amongst the carnage, two Reuters personnel dead and many others – including children – injured.

Also this year Wikileaks stepped in to publish the leaked “Minton Report” that exposed the danger posed by toxic waste dumped by oil firm Trafigura on unsuspecting residents of the Ivory Coast – leading 10,000 people to fall ill. Despite the clear public interest in this story, Britain’s media was gagged by a super injunction, granted by a judge, which not only banned reporting of the story but also banned reporting of the injunction itself!

It took the intervention of a friendly MP (and former Observer journalist) Paul Farrelly, who tabled a question in the Commons using Parliamentary privilege, before the British public were allowed to read the facts. Farrelly and David Leigh, investigations editor for The Guardian, pointed out in their presentation that whilst the gagging order was in place in the UK, people in other European countries had free access to the facts.

Leigh said the Trafigura debacle demonstrated how new methods such as cross-border co-operation between journalists and new media such as Wikileaks and Twitter, combined with older methods such as Parliamentary privilege, were creating new opportunities for breaking stories that overcame legal censorship.

For his part, Assange was skeptical about the ability of the journalistic establishment to force disclosure in the public interest. In an interview with The Guardian’s Stephen Moss, he says journalists have been letting big business and vested interests off the hook for far too long.

This was a theme that emerged from other presentations during the three-day event, organised by City University in central London, which is a key unmissable event in my annual calendar.

In his Bad Science talk, Dr Ben Goldacre exposed the reliance of lazy journalists on the opinions of maverick “experts” in science and health scare stories such as that surrounding MMR vaccine. “One person’s word is not enough as you can always find an ‘expert’ who will back up claims that have no scientific validity,” he said. The key message was rely on what the scientific consensus says and not the views of individual “experts”.

This rule applies equally to the global warming controversy, the subject of a talk by Spinwatch blogger Andy Rowell. He pointed that 97-98% of qualified scientific researchers support the view that climate change is man-made. Yet the coverage given to the marginal views of so-called sceptics and climate change deniers is out of all proportion to their numbers and credibility. This falls into trap laid by the denial campaign whose key tenet is identical to that used by the tobacco industry in its attempts to persuade us that smoking is good for us – “Doubt is our product.”

On the final day Andrew Jennings, who runs the transparency in sport website, lambasted hacks in the national press for their failure to expose greed and corruption that is endemic in the football gravy-train.Holding authority to account, he said, is the only justification for being a journalist. But many establishment sports writers are only interested in sucking up to managers who feed them safe stories and access to players. This is in effect sports churnalism, not journalism as he recognises it.

The final word must go to Paris-based investigative reporter Mark Hunter – one of the most popular speakers. He told delegates their whole purpose in being journalists in the first place was not just to report news “but it is to change the world – don’t deny yourself that.”

Monday, 5 July 2010

Open Skies - Closed Files

Within the next 18 months the Ministry of Defence will complete their disclosure programme of UFO-related documents.

But some UFOlogists continue to demand they “come clean on all levels”. They believe there are more secret documents being held back that contain evidence of alien visitations.

I can reveal the only documents MoD intends to permanently conceal from the public concern their secret dealings not with aliens, but with a former member of their own staff – Nick Pope.

Nick was responsible for UFO reports and associated public correspondence for three years (1991-94) during his career at the Ministry. According to the MoD this was actually a small part of his responsibilities.

Yet Nick describes himself as the man “who used to run the British Government’s UFO Project”, a claim that I will return to later. In 1996, after leaving Sec(AS)2, the branch responsible for UFOs, but whilst still employed by the MoD, he wrote a book that flatly rejected his department’s official line that UFOs were of “no defence significance”.

The cover blurb for Open Skies Closed Minds says he became “a firm believer in the reality of UFOs” during his posting and, based upon the cases he investigated, “warns that extraterrestrial spacecraft are visiting Earth and that something should be done about it urgently.” Pope resigned from the MoD in November 2006 to pursue a career as “author, journalist and TV personality.”

Early in 2007 I made a Freedom of Information Act request to see the internal paperwork covering the period when Nick first publicly emerged as “a UFO believer”.

The request asked for:

“copies of MoD papers, records or other information relating to internal discussion, policy and/or briefings in response to public statements made to the media and via the release of Open Skies, Closed Minds by Nick Pope during the period 1995-96.”

Taking the MoD’s new policy of openness at face value I argued that here was an opportunity to reveal how they handled Nick’s conversion to “UFO believer”. After all, they have stated that by opening their files “we may also help to counter the maze of rumour and frequently ill informed speculation that surrounds the role of the MoD in the UFO phenomena.”

But it seems openness only goes so far. It took two years to obtain a sensible answer from the MoD and even then they refused to release seven documents that contain information relevant to my FOIA request.

After two appeals and a further year waiting for a judgement from the Information Commissioner he has now ruled “the MoD was correct to refuse the information requested.” Click here to read the full decision notice, posted on the Commissioner's website.

In his judgement the Commissioner, Christopher Graham, admits “this is a finely balanced case and [Dr Clarke has] provided well reasoned arguments to support [his] case” for disclosure in the public interest.

But the fine balance appears to have been tipped by Nick Pope who, the notice reveals, personally intervened to block the release of these documents.

Early in 2009 I asked Nick for his consent for the disclosure of these papers in the public interest. In an email dated 27 March 2009 I pointed out that “from your own point of view, surely the perception will be, if this paperwork is [removed] from the public record it will continue to imply that someone is trying to hide something.” I added that “if you don’t want this to emerge…this will imply you have something to hide.”

I pointed out my request was specifically for “internal comment on your Press interviews in 1996 and MoD’s discussion of what line to take” and not for access to his private correspondence with his employers over the clearance of his manuscript (with one exception that concerns a specific letter which he had quoted from in the public domain).

Some of the documents I requested form part of the Sec(AS) UFO files that are being prepared for release to The National Archives. So on 30 July I asked Nick, via email:

Do you have any objections to the release of internal discussions within MoD surrounding the release of your book that are included in the UFO files that are part of the ongoing TNA releases?

His response took me by surprise, given his public support for the Disclosure campaign. Nick is on record as saying:

"I believe that governments and the military, and indeed private researchers, politicians - whoever - should place everything in the public domain on this issue. Governments can't, I think, have it both ways...I, in support of that aim, believe that there should be a full disclosure of all information on UFOs held by governments all around the world."

Despite this very public commitment to openness, not only did he refuse to give consent for the release of these documents, he went on to recite a list of legislation that he claimed prevented their disclosure. He invoked a number of FOIA exemptions, the Data Protection Act, the MoD’s common law duty of confidentiality and for good measure Article 8 of the Human Rights Act – ‘the right to privacy’.

All of these exemptions could have been overturned if Nick had given consent for the release. How ironic that here was someone who has spent the last 15 years talking about his role as 'head of the British Government's UFO Project' to any and every media organisation that would listen. Now suddenly he was desperate to protect his 'privacy'.

And it is now apparent that my decision to approach Nick openly led him to contact his former employers to register his objection to the release of the documents.

In his judgement the Information Commissioner reveals that MoD informed him on 6 January 2010 that Nick Pope “has written to the MoD and asked for the information not to be released into the public domain.”

Given the “fine balance” on disclosure, Nick’s direct intervention had provided “a contributing factor to support the withholding of the information.”

As Col Arnold Moulder has noted in SUNlite (September 2009), Article 8 of the HRA is a favourite resort of celebrities who delight in self-publicity, but then invoke ‘the right to privacy’ when the press start to probe too deeply into their ‘private affairs.’

In this case, I asked the Commissioner to consider: “whether Mr Pope has any reasonable expectation of privacy in regard to his statements to the media, given his career as a media pundit and self-declared ‘former head of the MoD’s UFO Project.’”

For the record, the MoD have made it clear: "there is and never has been any such thing as a UFO Project". What's more, spokesperson Linda Unwin, in an article published by the MoD's own in-house magazine Focus (2006), said: 'There is no UFO project.' As Linda was the MoD's UFO desk officer from 2003-2007 she would have known if such a 'project' existed!

In his judgement the Commissioner says the more senior a civil servant is the more likely that information – even that covered by exemptions – will be released. I argued that Pope’s claim that he was the man “who used to run the British Government’s UFO Project” implied seniority, real or imagined.

Taking all this into account, the Commissioner concludes that Nick Pope “was not at any time a senior civil servant” and says his actual role [Executive Officer during 1991-94] and substantive junior management grade during his time at MoD was already public knowledge. Therefore there was nothing further that would be added to that knowledge by the release of the documents.

The Commissioner admits that “although interviews given and articles written by [Nick Pope] are very obviously in the public domain this does not itself mean that the individual will have an expectation that all correspondence and comments made about these statements will be made public…the information withheld appears to be of a private nature and this is not altered by the fact that its creation came about because of a number of public acts.”

Under the heading “Consequences of Disclosure” he notes my suggestion that because Nick has courted media interest and has placed himself in the public eye his expectation of privacy should be reduced. I argued that the purpose of the Data Protection Act was to protect private lives of individuals and cited the Information Commissioner’s own guidance that “where information requested is about people acting in a work or official capacity then it should be released.” But he concludes:

“Although [Nick Pope] has spoken publicly about his time at the MoD [he] has not spoken publicly about the contents of the information the MoD is seeking to withhold. The Commissioner believes that if the information were to be released it has the potential to cause some element of harm or distress to the individual concerned.”

This raises an obvious question: what information do these documents contain that Nick Pope is so keen to conceal?

An indication of their tone and content is given in section 17 of the disclosure notice which says "several of the documents...contain expressions of opinion about the individual". Expressions of opinion are exempt from disclosure under Section 40(2) of the FOIA as they constitute personal data as defined by the Data Protection Act.

If for example, Nick's boss - the head of the MoD's Air Staff Secretariat - had written that he believed Nick was exaggerating when he described his role in press interviews, as an expression of opinion about a named individual this would be exempt from release.

Later the Commissioner says the with-held information “relates to aspects of how [Nick Pope] was undertaking his public role”.

Responding to my suggestion that the documents could be edited to remove sensitive material, the Commissioner says if this was done “the documents would either make no sense to the reader or the subject matter and tone of the documents would be so obvious that the redactions would serve little purpose.”

Fortunately, we know a little about the contents of the seven documents with-held because in 2008 MoD helpfully supplied me an itemised list of the contents. This reveals:

Document 1 is a file copy of a letter sent to Nick Pope by the MoD after he submitted his manuscript for clearance. Although he now invokes his “right to privacy” to protect the contents, in 1996 he was happy to quote from this document in an interview for UFO Magazine (UK) and the International UFO Reporter (Vol 21/3). In this interview he claims there was a faction at MoD that “certainly didn’t want the book to appear” and he received a letter that said it was “completely unacceptable to MoD and quite beyond any suitable amendment”. We will never know how accurate this claim actually is, as we are only allowed to hear Nick's version of the sequence of events leading to the clearance of his book.

Document 2 is a file note dated February 1995 which contains “staff management discussion in response to a letter received from Mr Pope notifying MoD of his private activities.”

Document 3 is a loose minute dated 10 February 1996 “addressed to Mr Pope following his notification of his private activities.”

Document 4 is “a record of the line management steps taken following Mr Pope’s notification of his private activities" that “contains personal information about Mr Pope’s staff management.”

Document 5 is an internal memo written on 2 July 1995 following publication of an interview with Nick Pope published by the Mail on Sunday (‘ET lives, says man from the Ministry’). This document “contains free and frank advice” about Mr Pope’s “private media activities” and the steps taken to ensure that MoD regulations were not breached – including direction to line managers.

Document 6 is a file note dated 21 August 1995 on a BBC Newsnight item that mentioned Nick Pope’s book. This covers “media handling following mention of Mr Pope by name as both an MoD employee and ‘a believer’ in UFOs.” This document contains “free and frank advice” by MoD managers which the public are not allowed to read.

Document 7 is a file note dated October 1995 “following a Yorkshire TV enquiry”. It records “how the enquiry was handled given that Mr Pope was acting in a private capacity when supportive of the Operation Right To Know campaign”, which ironically demanded the release of secret UFO documents held by the MoD! Again, this contains “free and frank advice” from his bosses that we – the taxpayer who foots the bill for all this – are not allowed to read.

An indication of the “subject matter and tone” of the documents being withheld can be judged from an example that slipped past the official censor and was sent to me in response to a separate FOIA request during 2007 (see copy inset right).

Written by a RAF officer working for the Defence Intelligence Staff, it is titled “[Nick Pope]: recent media appearances and interviews” and was sent to his successor as UFO desk officer, Kerry Philpott, on 24 April 1996, shortly before Nick's book was published. In the minute the officer raises concerns about the media’s description of Nick as a “senior MoD official” and notes “he seems to have accepted the title willingly”. He adds that MoD needs to “approach the matter VERY delicately” and says: “I am not attempting to ban a book I have not read [but] I believe it will be based on supposition and technical ignorance.”

He adds: “The truth seldom sells books!

Given Nick Pope's claim that he used "to run the British Government's UFO Project", a project the MoD claims did not exist, I continue to believe there is a clear public interest in the release of these documents.

The Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice for journalists defines the public interest as including "preventing the public from being misled by the action or statement of an individual or organisation."

This decision by the Information Commissioner effectively means the public will never get to read what Nick Pope’s bosses at the MoD really thought about his effectiveness as ‘head of' the MoD’s [non-existent] 'UFO Project.’

As one commentator has noted, this leaves us with “the rather delicious spectacle of a former MoD clerk, once well inside the military-UFO loop and with a habit of accusing the Ministry of neglecting the alien threat, assiduously orchestrating a cover-up of information.”

Given Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge while in opposition “to release all UFO documents” if he was elected, this would appear to be a prime example where disclosure really would benefit open government and public knowledge.