Last week at prime minister’s questions, Labour MP for Streatham, south London, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, asked the prime minister to come clean on how much public money has been spent on secretive Whitehall ‘counter disinformation units’. Rishi Sunak did not answer the question directly, saying he would have to get back to the MP, but he did say that he strongly believed in free speech.
The question came about following the release of a report by civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch which found that secretive government units and the army have been spying on UK citizens, academics, journalists, human rights campaigners and MPs – under the guise of combatting ‘misinformation’.
Secretive government units
Among the findings were:
- Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, Conservative MPs David Davis and Chris Green, high profile academics from the University of Oxford and University College London, and journalists including Peter Hitchens and Julia Hartley-Brewer, all had comments critical of the government analysed by counter disinformation units.
- Targeted speech included public criticism of the government’s pandemic response – particularly lockdown modelling and vaccine passports – as well as journalists’ criticism of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and MPs’ criticism of NATO.
- Soldiers from the Army’s 77th Brigade, tasked with “non-lethal psychological warfare”, collected tweets from British citizens posting about Covid-19 and passed them to central government – despite claiming operations were directed strictly overseas.
The report is based on scores of freedom of information requests, and the co-operation of dozens of people in public life who submitted subject access requests to the government to demand copies of their data held by the so-called disinformation units.
Government monitoring of journalists
A few days earlier, the report had been taken up by the Press Gazette, a media trade magazine dedicated to journalism and the press, reporting that journalists who expressed criticism of measures to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic unit were monitored by government units. They also quoted the Society of Editors executive director, Dawn Alford, who said in response to the report:
“At a time when many journalists put themselves at risk to provide the public with accurate and timely news, analysis and information during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is deeply concerning to hear reports that a number of reporters were put under surveillance for questioning government policies at a time when unprecedented restrictions were placed upon civil liberties.
“Journalists were critical to public safety and understanding of Covid-19 during the pandemic and, as part of their role, there was legitimate public interest in them scrutinising the decision-making of officials.
“The Society will be seeking urgent confirmation from the Government as to the specific remits of its disinformation units moving forward alongside assurances that public money is not being misused on recording government-critical reports.”
Wider media coverage of the report has been thin on the ground although Ribeiro-Addy MP was interviewed on Sky’s The Take by Sophy Ridge on 8 February (watch from 46.53 minutes):
Attack on our fundamental rights
Meanwhile we are living at a time of increasing curtailments of our civil and other human rights. Wide-ranging government-inspired legislation is undermining long-won freedoms. There are two ways you go bankrupt, Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “Gradually, then suddenly.” It’s the same with how our democratic rights are taken from us.
The bill of rights legislation currently going through parliament will have an adverse effect on the rule of law, access to justice and our ability to protect our rights, according to Liberty. The UK civil rights organisation has dubbed the measure a ‘rights removal bill’.
Under the public order bill, currently receiving a mauling in the House of Lords, police in England and Wales are to be given powers to shut down protests before any disruption begins. Government plans for a public order crack-down aims to prevent tactics such as ‘slow marching’. Last year, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 placed onerous new restrictions on protest – granting, among other measures, the ability for the police to ban demonstrations that they believe to be too noisy.
As from the May 2023 local elections, all voters must bring along photo ID as specified in a government-approved list. As the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) says, the kind of photo ID required is what older people are more likely to have. For example, why is a Transport for London Oyster card for 60+ travellers acceptable, but not a near-identical Oyster 18+ card?
Critical journalism under attack
Critical journalism is also under attack. Although defamation law in England and Wales was reformed in 2013 it did not go far enough. England remains a legal jurisdiction commonly deployed for strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). These are legal actions taken not necessarily with the aim of winning in court, but to intimidate, and consume the financial and psychological resources of the target, frequently journalists. They aim to silence the source and have a chilling effect on critical and dissenting voices.
Added to which the national security bill will have a “chilling effect” on investigative journalism because it sets too low a bar on what constitutes spying according to Lord Guy Black, deputy chair of the Telegraph newspapers.
If we want to live in an equal, just and fair society, where governments and public bodies act in our best interests, we have to resist the government’s power-grab of our rights and make it clear that we won’t tolerate the stripping away of our human rights. The more power they take, the less there is for us to hold them to account.