Is it OK to call someone a conspiracy theorist?

Man looking through blind

Home Office minister Norman Baker rejects the description of himself as a "conspiracy theorist". But is the term an insult or simply a statement of fact, asks Jon Kelly.

In a 2007 book, Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker suggested weapons inspector David Kelly was murdered by an Iraqi hit squad, and that this was covered up by the British authorities.

Asked how he felt about being called a "conspiracy theorist", Baker replied that people "tend to use the term when they want to insult people".

For many of those who populate online forums dedicated to debunking the official account of 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination, the phrase is indeed pejorative, deployed by conspirators and the mainstream media to obfuscate the truth. "Tinfoil hat-wearer" represents a more extreme term of abuse.

Typically, a member of such communities will describe themselves more neutrally as a "researcher" or "sceptic", according to Alasdair Spark of the University of Winchester's Centre for Conspiracy Culture.

However, it isn't only self-styled "truth-seekers" who dislike the term.

"A lot of investigative journalists are dismissed as 'conspiracy theorists,'" says David Clarke of Sheffield Hallam University, who studies UFO culture from a critical perspective. The term is used to damn legitimate investigators by association with eccentric narratives, he believes.

Others, however, say it accurately fits a mindset that sees a conspiracy behind every disaster or major world event, where history is driven not by random events or socio-economic forces but by a never-ending succession of cabals and plots.

Baker has form, having also expressed "doubts" about the death of ex-foreign secretary Robin Cook, says David Aaronovitch, author of Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History.

"So yes, he's a conspiracy theorist."

If so, he has plenty of company. According to surveys, 38% of Britons believe Princess Diana's death was not an accident and 22% of Americans believe President Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance.

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