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The Bilderberg group of the world's elite, currently meeting in northern Italy and celebrating its 50th anniversary, casts an extensive shadow on the net.
1. At the annual meetings of the Bilderberg group, a clique of some of the world's most powerful people scheme and plot, carving up the globe for themselves, while occasionally cackling like Dr Evil in Mike Myers' Austin Powers films.
2. That, at least, is the view of the conspiracy theorists, whose opinions are widely expressed on the internet. Indeed, the web positively crackles with Bilderberg-related websites, (although of course there is no official site by the organisers).
3. Those who run Bilderberg's annual four-day meetings, and some of the people who have been to them, insist that there is nothing sinister going on. The official line is that the meetings are no more than useful forums, talking shops for prominent people from various influential spheres (politics, business, royalty ... ) to chew the fat about big issues. And the only reason they are so secretive about what exactly goes on is to facilitate vibrant, uninhibited informal discussion. So no evil cackling.
4. The more even-handed assessments usually outline qualms about how the meetings facilitate capitalism and support the current world order and all its sins. Former Observer editor Will Hutton, who has been invited in the past, called the group the "high priests of globalisation".
5. The Bilderberg group got its name from a hotel in Holland where the first meeting was held in 1954. The idea was to foster greater accord between the movers and shakers of North America and western Europe in the wake of the second world war. Every year the set-up is similar. Around 100 prominent figures are invited by a steering committee.
6. This year's Bilderberg meeting began yesterday in a luxury hotel in northern Italy and will run until Sunday. Present will be the odd press baron and media bigwig (sworn to secrecy like everyone else) but no reporters.
7. This year, apparently, BP boss John Browne, US senator John Edwards and Mrs Bill Gates are among the invitees. People who have been in the past include the likes of Henry Kissinger (a regular), Prince Charles, Bill Clinton, Donald Rumsfeld, Peter Mandelson, Kenneth Clarke, King Juan Carlos and Lord Black (although reportedly he's now off the guest list after his Telegraph travails).
8. Aconspiracy theorist might imagine Rumsfeld and Mandelson talking while supping champagne: "So Donald, when are you going to invade North Korea?"
"Soon, Peter, very soon. Right after we reveal that we've already got Osama bin Laden and are keeping him frozen in the Oval Office, like Han Solo in Jabba the Hut's palace in the Star Wars films."
Or, who knows, maybe it's people lobbying for good works, saying things like "we really need to get on top of climate change".
9. The journalist and documentary maker Jon Ronson tried to get close to a Bilderberg meeting in 2001, joining forces with an oddball Washington journalist he referred to as "Big Jim". "They exist," Ronson quotes Big Jim as saying, "and they're not playing pinochle in there."
10. For what it's worth, my view is that the conspiracy theorists are on the wrong track. The Bilderberg don't run the word - it's actually a group called the Pentaveret that are calling the shots.
The existence of the Pentaveret is revealed in the Mike Myers film, So I Married an Axe Murderer. The father of Myers' character says: "It is a well-known fact ... that there's a secret society of the five wealthiest people in the world, known as the Pentaveret , who run everything in the world, including the newspapers, and meet tri-annually at a secret country mansion in Colorado, known as The Meadows."
Members of the Pentaveret,
he reveals, include the Queen, representatives of the Vatican, the Gettys
and the Rothschilds, and, most chillingly, Colonel Sanders, the founder
of Kentucky Fried Chicken, before he died. The colonel had sinister "beady
little eyes", he says.