On the surface, Megan Phelps-Roper’s podcast The Witch Trials of JK Rowling is impressively wide-ranging. Listeners tuning in without context might learn a fair bit about modern society: a book called Harry Potter, for a start; the rise of social media, and the fact that it seems to have polarised debate.
They would learn about evangelical Christians in the US. They would learn, too, a little about the author – about how she is very wealthy, how her home in Scotland is cosy, how she has been threatened online and also in her personal life. What, the naïve listener might think, is the “witch trial” of the title actually about?
Fortunately for Phelps-Roper, she doesn’t have to say, because everyone already knows. The issue it really seeks to address – and the reason a children’s author has somehow become an authority on social politics – is Rowling’s views on gender identity, and her resulting censure by supporters of trans rights.
The Witch Trials is loath to admit what it’s really getting at. It is broad, meandering and vague, only occasionally touching on specifics. The third episode opens with Rowling describing some of the violent threats she has received online, and arguing that the attempts to silence her are attempts to silence all women who “speak up” on the trans issue. But just when we think we’re going to hear some evidence, or perhaps an alternative perspective, instead the podcast broadens out into the fascinating but 10-steps-removed question of how internet communities began to develop in the early 2000s. It leaps around from discussion of the “otherkin” community (people who identify as animals) on Tumblr to Rowling explaining the liberalism of Harry Potter. There are two stories being told concurrently: Rowling and the exceptional success of her books, and the social and political climate in which we find ourselves after two decades of finding our identities online.
As tenuous connections are drawn between them, you begin to wonder whether the podcast isn’t merely a mess, but instead leading us strategically to one conclusion: that Rowling has been vilified and demonised by a group of dangerous extremists for expressing her reasonable doubts about a new way of thinking about gender.
The points Rowling makes on the podcast – her hatred of puritanical thinking, for instance – are so sensible they are almost too obvious. Of course we are bound to agree with her when she makes generalised statements about the troublesome nature of online pile-ons. But crucial parts of the story are missing. Rowling’s actual views on gender are tiptoed around, not explicitly stated, so we have very little evidence for why this conversation is happening in the first place.
And then there’s that tiny thing called “the other side of the story”. In three hours of recording so far, The Witch Trials has not explained why the people it is working so hard to discredit think Rowling has, in Phelps-Roper’s words, pivoted from “progressive hero” to “hateful reactionary”. Phelps-Roper interviews Natalie Wynn, a prominent trans YouTuber, which sounds encouraging when she is introduced – but she is simply quoted in accordance with Rowling, offering general insights on the nature of online debate. A few days before the first episodes of the podcast were released, Wynn tweeted that she had made a “serious lapse in judgment” by agreeing to give an interview to Phelps-Roper.
These covert tactics feel off for a podcast claiming to be an impartial deep-dive into an extremely sensitive topic. They certainly do not chime with the wide-eyed curiosity The Witch Trials deliberately incites via Phelps-Roper’s Serial-style voiceover and the podcast’s mysterious soundtrack. And this is precisely the problem. The Witch Trials pitches itself as sceptical and objective, merely “stating the facts” and “asking questions” – but it’s blatantly obvious whose side it’s on because of what it doesn’t say.
This is a podcast fixated on the importance of thinking for oneself. It is more than a little ironic that its insidious messaging has not, so far, permitted its listeners to do so.