The ‘Greenies’ did not start Australia’s bushfires. But lies are often more powerful than the truth

Adrian Chiles
Photograph: David Gray/Getty Images

I smelled something terrible earlier this month, shortly after flying into Sydney. I stepped out of the terminal building to be smacked in the face by the unmistakable stench of forest fire. I’d read all about it, of course. But nothing prepared me for this.

Before I left the UK, a couple of otherwise smart people I know with friends in Australia told me the fires were caused by environmentalists, or the Greenies, as they’re known there. Apparently they had got in the way of judicious burning of sections of forest ahead of the fire season, to help tame the wildfires when they came. These Greenies, honestly.

I looked into this. It turns out to be, well, complete bollocks – a conspiracy theory that has been doing the rounds for years and has been comprehensively debunked. Yet still it is believed, because most people will mostly believe what they want to believe.

Nine years ago, I had just covered Real Madrid v Barcelona in the Champions League. Barcelona had won, helped by some poor refereeing. After the match, my ITV Sport colleagues and I repaired to our favourite restaurant, a big Basque place near the stadium. It was full of fed-up Real fans. One of them got the idea that my friend and colleague Andy Townsend, sometime captain of the Republic of Ireland, was that night’s referee, a German called Wolfgang Stark. This theory took hold, and was quite funny at first. When Andy stood up to go to the gents, he was presented with an empty glass to provide a sample for doping control. We all laughed.

But these Spaniards had convinced themselves he was actually the ref, and it started to get less good-natured. Before long, Andy’s legendary good humour started to desert him. I hadn’t helped matters by calling him Wolfie, so I resolved to defuse things. I used my iPad to summon up photos of Wolfgang in his ref’s attire and Andy wearing the captain’s armband in his Ireland strip. I went around the room, swiping between the two photos, and soon had all the indignant diners reassured that Andy wasn’t Wolfie. Hands were shaken and wry laughter was shared.

But then some Barcelona fans, seated elsewhere in this enormous place, came over to us. Word had reached them that the ref was with us and, to show their appreciation of his work, they handed Andy a drink, fell to their knees and, arms outstretched, bobbed up and down in adoration of him. At this point, the Real fans, as one, were roused to fury again, and the berating of Andy/Wolfie recommenced. Minutes earlier they had accepted solid evidence that he wasn’t the ref. But now, believing what they wanted to believe, they believed it afresh. There is no hope.

I am writing this in a coffee shop back home. A bloke I got talking to about my Australia trip has just told me the fires were the Greenies’ fault. I referred him to the Guardian podcast on the subject. I’m sure he will listen to it, understand it, believe it and then, quite possibly, revert to what he believed in the first place.

By the way, a few hours after I first caught that awful fire smell, it started raining. And it never really stopped for the two weeks I was there. All the Greenies’ fault, I dare say.