3 February 2023

Secretive government units are undermining free speech

By Mark Johnson

It is often proudly exclaimed that, in a continent riven with ID cards, the UK steadfastly refuses to be a ‘papers please’ country.  Not for us the status of mere serial numbers in a database. But how far do the arms of the state reach in modern day Britain? How free is public discourse and how much are dissenting voices really being watched?

Since the start of the pandemic, unbeknownst to most of us, the Government’s Counter Disinformation Unit has been operating within the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. It holds a formal, privileged relationship with social media companies, which ministers have boasted allows the body to clamp down on ‘inappropriate’ speech. Ministers have even on occasion personally engaged with social media companies to flag speech they dislike.

Yet aside from the odd ministerial admission of censorship, the activities of the CDU, which so clearly impact upon our liberties, have remained in the shadows. Until this week. 

A new Big Brother Watch report, ‘Ministry of Truth: The secret government units spying on your speech’, has exposed the clandestine work of the CDU and a number of Whitehall information units. Months of investigation using Freedom of Information requests, data subject access requests, open-source information and the testimony of a whistleblower, reveal that the CDU, the Cabinet Office’s Rapid Response Unit and even the British Army’s 77th Brigade have not just been monitoring disinformation, but also dissent.

Internal government documents reveal critical voices including academics, campaigners, MPs and even journalists have been monitored by these bodies over the last few years. For opposing the Government’s vaccine passport plans on civil liberties grounds the veteran Conservative MP, David Davis, was included in a ‘vaccine hesitancy’ report. Documents also show that the Rapid Response Unit pressured a Whitehall department to attack the Daily Mail for publishing articles analysing Covid-19 modelling that it feared would undermine compliance with pandemic restrictions.

The implications for press freedoms go on. Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, had tweets ‘flagged’ where he shared an article he had co-written for The Spectator questioning the scientific basis for the ‘Rule of 6’. Despite his credentials, Heneghan was fact-checked and censored by both Facebook and Twitter throughout the pandemic.

Ironically, Big Brother Watch staff were even included in disinformation reports for sharing official petitions in opposition to vaccine passports or giving clarity on the Government’s factitious ‘hugging ban’. Dissenting voices on the war in Ukraine and critics of other government policies were also included in these reports.

It is worth reiterating that the stated aims of these units are to fight disinformation and promote ‘fact-based public debate’. They are the bodies which we are told ‘take down’ and censor online speech deemed ‘false’. Yet this report has made abundantly clear that the CDU, RRU and their information warfare cousins in the 77th Brigade have monitored criticism of the Government across civil society and even amongst members of the Great British public.

The evidence Big Brother Watch has uncovered does not paint a picture of a strong government, confident in its abilities to persuade and deliver policies to the benefit of the British people, but one that is insecure about its own public image and frightened of criticism. Many in the UK think of our country as a land of liberty, habeas corpus and common law. But the potent fusion of growing digital surveillance powers, a converging relationship between Big Tech and Big Government, and a prolonged state of emergency are threatening to usher in a new era of authoritarianism.

Protecting freedom of speech in the UK is contingent on these activities being put to an end, and Whitehall’s own Ministry of Truth being shut down. It is unfathomable that an unaccountable body, which both censors and monitors purely at the discretion of government ministers, should be permitted to continue these anti-democratic activities. It is time for those who value our rights and freedoms to push back. As one of the 20th century’s most famous civil libertarians said: ‘Tolerance and decency are deeply rooted in England, but they are not indestructible, and they have to be kept alive partly by conscious effort.’

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Mark Johnson is Advocacy Manager at Big Brother Watch.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.