Inside the UK’s anti-lockdown media machine
On June 26, thousands of people gathered in central London to protest against the U.K. government’s Covid-19 restrictions — never mind that most of the measures were due to be lifted in two weeks’ time. Billed as the Freedom March, the event drew a crowd comprising a wide range of groups and individuals. Among them anti-vaxxers, placard-waving QAnon followers, Donald Trump supporters and a host of coronavirus deniers. At one point, they launched a barrage of tennis balls with angry messages written on them at the Houses of Parliament and lit flares.
From the summer of 2020 on, London had hosted smaller protests against the state’s pandemic response. However, this time, a number of prominent and well-connected right-wing figures also hit the streets. Among them were TalkRadio presenter and newspaper columnist Julia Hartley-Brewer and conservative political commentator Calvin Robinson. In order to “ensure proper coverage” that “cannot be ignored” by the mainstream media, Richard Tice, leader of Reform U.K — the new name for the Brexit Party — hired a helicopter to film the event for a YouTube stream titled Freedom March Live.
Right-wing journalists like Hartley-Brewer have given anti-lockdown and Covid-19-skeptic views a regular platform during the pandemic. On her TalkRadio show, she has hosted medical figures who deny the efficacy of lockdowns or who have played down the severity of Covid-19. Toby Young, a British writer best known elsewhere for penning a memoir about his disastrous period of employment at Vanity Fair in New York, now writes for the Spectator and is the editor of a website called the Daily Sceptic. Despite their constant undermining of measures to tackle the spread of Covid-19, these well-known media personalities have tended to support the coronavirus protest movement from a distance — until now.
One of the most outspoken opponents to Covid-19 restrictions is the former editor of the men’s magazine Loaded and one-time Brexit Party MEP Martin Daubney. Daubney appeared on Freedom March Live, giving on-the-ground reports, including a chat with the actor and anti-woke campaigner Laurence Fox, who stood in the London mayoral elections earlier this year on a staunchly anti-lockdown platform, winning less than 2% of the vote. Over the past year, Daubney has repeatedly defended anti-lockdown protests on social media. Since the majority of the U.K.’s pandemic restrictions were lifted in July, he and several of his peers have recently pivoted to railing against “vaccine passports” and remaining pandemic measures.
While many have committed themselves to the coronavirus-skeptic cause, few of these well-connected Brexiteers and right-wing commentators have, like Daubney, made resisting Covid-19 restrictions their full-time job. “Nobody in the British media was talking about this,” he told me during a telephone call from his home in southeast London. “Or if they were, they were being very quickly denounced as crackpots or cranks.” A little more than a year ago, he sought to change that.
In May 2020, Daubney and two former Brexit Party figures set up Unlocked, a new online media operation that now has nearly 70,000 followers on Facebook. His partners were Lesley Katon and Ben Habib. Katon is a former chief of staff for the Brexit Party, ex-creative director at a London-based PR firm and was once a BBC producer. Habib is the owner of the British fund management company First Property Group and, while representing the Brexit Party, was ranked in 2019 as the European Parliament member with the largest earnings in addition to their official salary.
Despite the fact that British news organizations including the Mail, the Times of London, the Telegraph, the Express and the Spectator have regularly published articles critical of lockdown measures, the trio felt there was a need for an outlet that stood in defiant opposition to the U.K. government’s coronavirus restrictions.
Daubney said that, among other things, he was moved to act by “horror stories” from the hospitality and entertainment sectors, which had largely been shuttered since March 2020, in compliance with pandemic regulations. “It really became apparent that the business community was being completely thrown under the bus,” he said.
Unlocked has since offered a platform to prominent anti-lockdown voices and coronavirus-skeptics, ranging from rogue medical professionals to wealthy astroturfers, such as the Monaco-based aviation tycoon Simon Dolan, who has launched legal cases against the U.K. government’s approach and founded the activist group Keep Britain Free.
Unlocked began as a low-budget affair, publishing videos on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube; mostly to-camera diatribes by Daubney and guest interviews, carried out on Zoom. One voice it championed from the start was that of Karol Sikora, an oncologist and vocal critic of the official response to Covid-19.
In the past Sikora has described the U.K.’s National Health Service as the “last bastion of communism.” He is also a signatory of the Great Barrington Declaration, named for the town in Massachusetts that hosted an October 2020 meeting of scientists to discuss appropriate responses to the pandemic. The gathering was organized by the American Institute for Economic Research, a free-market libertarian think tank that has received funding from the right-wing billionaire Charles Koch. The document advocates an alternative approach to Covid-19, where only the elderly and most vulnerable follow protective measures, and only if they want to.
“We very quickly saw ourselves as a lobbying group,” Daubney explained of Unlocked. “We were politically motivated, but we were representing business and we were representing voices that weren’t being heard in the mainstream. We were using our political contacts to directly leverage onto politicians to try and make them listen.”
Unlocked also interviewed Conservative Party MPs including Andrew Bridgen, John Redwood and Sir Desmond Swayne. The latter has been criticized for claiming in an interview with the Covid-19-skeptic group Save Our Rights U.K. that NHS leaders had been manipulated to exaggerate the scale of the coronavirus crisis.
After finding a “big audience,” Daubney and his colleagues looked to turn Unlocked into a going concern. “We approached donors that were known to us — political donors — who began to get involved, and then we put it out to the market,” he said.
According to Companies House, Unlocked was incorporated In October, 2020. The nature of its business was described as “web portals” and “activities of political organizations.” Habib was named chief executive. That same month, he announced a funding round, putting up £200,000 himself and seeking £4 million to pay for a studio to produce three programs per day, to be distributed via social media.
Then, the organization moved into the premises of Habib’s First Property Group. “His entire office was empty because it was furloughed. We built a studio in there and spent a few thousand pounds on decent cameras and lighting,” Daubney said, quick to add that, at that point, they were still working “very much on a shoestring.”
Shortly after being incorporated, in November 2020, Unlocked published an interview with Mike Yeadon, formerly the head of scientific research and vice-president at the global pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Sitting in a large garage with a motorbike in the corner, he said that the Covid-19 pandemic was essentially over in the U.K. and that herd immunity had already been achieved. Yeadon also called for an end to mass testing and claimed that some 30% of people were immune before the crisis even started.
“It became very self-evident that people such as Mike Yeadon weren’t even getting a platform at all in the mainstream, or they were simply being annihilated by columnists like Owen Jones,” said Daubney, referring to the left-wing Guardian opinion writer. “There’s a huge list of people who were very, very supportive of the lockdown, and anybody who seemed to challenge it, they had their professional and personal reputation eviscerated.”
Within 48 hours of being posted, the video was taken down by YouTube for violating its Covid-19 misinformation policy. Daubney said that Unlocked used this sanction as a “rallying point” and that a version posted to Facebook went on to attract more than a million views. “It’s still the biggest thing we’ve ever done,” he said.
Prior to appearing on Unlocked, in September, Yeadon had co-authored a lengthy article on Toby Young’s earlier website, Lockdown Sceptics, saying that the pandemic was “essentially complete” and that there was “no biological principle that leads us to expect a second wave.” Later in December, he claimed on TalkRadio that herd immunity had been reached in London. A catastrophic second wave of cases soon followed.
“Our position and Mike’s position was that this is a seasonal virus and there will be seasonal spikes. And that’s precisely what’s happened,” Daubney said when asked whether he thought Yeadon had been wrong.
In February, Yeadon left Twitter after historic Islamophobic tweets by him were uncovered. He has made far fewer media appearances in recent months. In March, Daubney told me that they were still in touch and that a follow-up interview was in the works.
On the streets
Until June’s Freedom March, the relationship between influential pro-Brexit figures and street-level anti-lockdown protest groups remained ambiguous. The likes of Daubney and Hartley-Brewer defended public demonstrations without actually participating in them. Simon Dolan and his Keep Britain Free movement have, on the other hand, been in the thick of the action since the start.
At one protest, held in London in August 2020, speakers included Mark Steele, who has argued that 5G causes Covid-19, as well as former nurse-turned-conspiracy theorist Kate Shemirani, who has recently called for “Nuremberg trials” against doctors. Also present was Piers Corbyn, figurehead of the coronavirus conspiracy theory group Stop New Normal and brother of the former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The Facebook event listing for the August 2020 protest named Keep Britain Free among the organizers. Daubney did not attend, though he did defend the demonstrators. “How many people calling today’s Trafalgar Square anti-lockdown protesters ‘covidiots’ said the same about the Black Lives Matter protests during the actual lockdown?” he wrote on Twitter.
One of the other organizers, Save Our Rights U.K., has spread a continuous stream of misinformation during the pandemic, including an interview with the conspiracy theorist David Icke, who has also given speeches at Covid-19-skeptic protests. Despite Keep Britain Free’s involvement in the demonstrations, Dolan claimed the group’s followers are autonomous, “rather than being centrally organized by me.” He also distanced himself from Mark Steele and Piers Corbyn. “I can’t really comment on their claims, as I have never spoken with them,” he said.
One thing Dolan cannot deny is that he was executive producer of a 2019 film titled “Renegade: The Life Story of David Icke.” Both Icke and his son Gareth have spoken at protests co-organized by Save Our Rights U.K. “They are genuinely lovely, decent, honest people, who I admire very much,” Dolan told me.
Dolan was banned from Twitter in October 2020 for violating the platform’s terms and conditions. In one post, he compared the former U.K. health minister Matt Hancock to Hitler.
While Unlocked has hosted Dolan and a wide range of other coronavirus skeptics and anti-lockdown activists, Daubney is keen to disassociate both himself and the organization from extremism and outright denial of the coronavirus.
“We’re interested in evidence that’s tangible and credible, rather than conspiracy theory,” he said. “Covid is obviously real. Covid obviously kills. Covid isn’t a conspiracy theory. What I have kicked back against is what I believe is a disproportionate government response to the virus, which has been massively damaging on the business community, on the economy, on the physical well-being and the mental well-being of adults, and particularly children, of Britain.”
When pressed on Dolan’s history of sharing pandemic-related conspiracy theories on Twitter and his relationship to David Icke, Daubney became frustrated. “This isn’t what I would classify as proper journalism,” he said. “You’re just trying to sort of smear us here.” Not for the first time, he threatened to bring our interview to a premature end, adding, “I don’t see what you’re doing here that’s going to be positive to me.”
The international network
Far from languishing unheard throughout the pandemic, as Daubney argues, the U.K.’s coronavirus-skeptic network appears to have directly influenced government policy. In September 2020, a group of researchers and medical professionals published an open letter to the government arguing against a new lockdown.
The signatories included Karol Sikora, University of Oxford epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta, and Harvard School of Medicine professor Martin Kulldorf — all of whom also put their names to the Great Barrington Declaration. Another University of Oxford professor, Carl Heneghan, who has appeared on Julia Hartley-Brewer’s TalkRadio show numerous times, also lent his name to the document.
According to reports by the Times of London and the Byline Times, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak organized a summit between Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Gupta and Heneghan, on the very day the open letter was published. After the meeting, Johnson decided against a circuit-breaker lockdown. This may have caused 1.3 million extra Covid infections, according to the Times of London.
The U.K.’s Covid-19-skeptic and anti-lockdown movement forms part of a broader international web of libertarian and right-wing campaigners. In many countries, they have used the pandemic to spread anti-China rhetoric. Following an example set by the likes of Steve Bannon in the U.S., in January, Dolan and Francis Hoar — the barrister with whom Dolan launched his 2020 legal action against the British government — both signed an open letter to the FBI and other Western security agencies alleging that Covid-19 measures were the result of a global plot by China.
When I asked Dolan about this, he said there was “no doubt” that the global response to the pandemic’s origins lay within the Communist Party of China. He implied that “pictures of people supposedly dropping dead in the streets of China” was part of a propaganda campaign by Beijing.
China has shifted during the pandemic towards a more aggressive defense of its response to Covid-19. But the global radical right’s efforts to blame Beijing for a vast conspiracy mean that ordinary people are caught in the middle of a dangerous information war — one in which Russia has also been a prominent player.
In an article I contributed to in March, openDemocracy reported that Russian state media and proxy outlets had given consistent coverage to coronavirus-skeptic protests in Germany. As in Germany, RT and the Russian state-run video agency Ruptly also live-streamed demonstrations in London. One broadcast of an event held in August 2020 amassed nearly six million views on RT UK’s Facebook page. The channel has repeatedly amplified the likes of Daubney, Sikora and Heneghan.
In addition to being cited by RT, Daubney has contributed to the Russia-backed media outlet Sputnik News. He has appeared numerous times on Sputnik International’s radio show and podcast Shooting From the Lip, which has been hosted by the U.K, talk radio presenter and former tabloid columnist Jon Gaunt since 2018.
In one episode, Daubney said: “I would like to see more people deported,” adding that every foreign national who commits a crime should have to leave Britain. The title of the episode was “Corbyn Believes That Jamaicans Get a Free Pass to Murder and Rape in the U.K.,” based on a quote from Daubney, referring to the former Labour party leader. In another episode, Daubney described global warming as “the new religion.” Elsewhere, he has referred to identity politics as a “cancer of the modern world.”
What happens next?
While plenty of other groups and channels of communication also exist, it is difficult not to view Daubney and Unlocked as important parts of the global radical right-wing coronavirus-skeptic ecosystem.
After attending the Freedom March, Daubney went on Hartley-Brewer’s TalkRadio show to discuss how little coverage the demonstration was given by the “establishment” media and to denounce the focus on extreme elements in the crowd. Hartley-Brewer wholly concurred. Despite this apparent wish to distance himself from the political fringe, Daubney also retweeted a video posted by the conspiracy theory group Save Our Rights U.K.
The footage featured police radioing in a description of the organization’s founder, Louise Creffield, as she arrived at the gathering by open-top bus. Above his retweet, Daubney wrote: “I was on the bus blowing kisses to the coppers. That seemed to help disperse them”.
The U.K. has since lifted the majority of its pandemic restrictions and some experts predict that the Covid-skeptic movement will soon disappear. But it could also morph into something even more dangerous.
Attendees of the Freedom March were a mixed bag: ordinary people, alongside far-right supporters and an amorphous contingent of anti-establishment activists. In Hyde Park after the march, members of the audience sang along to a song by a Covid-19-skeptic band called Jam for Freedom, titled “We Are the 99%.” While the lyrics referenced a slogan made famous by the Occupy movement, between songs some people in the crowd shouted their support for Tommy Robinson, a veteran figure on the British far right and founder of the anti-Muslim hate group the English Defence League.
In Germany, which has seen the world’s biggest protests against Covid-19 restrictions, a similarly diverse movement has been radicalized towards far-right conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, and developed a full-blooded obsession with former U.S. President Donald Trump. In late August 2020, a few hundred anti-lockdown protesters attempted to mount an assault on the Reichstag in Berlin.
Could something similar happen in Britain? If Daubney’s own increasingly anti-government language is anything to go by, the answer is yes. On August 9, he announced his appointment to the role of deputy leader of Laurence Fox’s Reclaim Party. Enraged about what he called “Covid passports” in reference to the U.K. National Health Service app, Daubney has stated that the country has “sleepwalked into a totalitarian state.” At one point in late March, he even appeared to use his Twitter account to threaten MPs for voting to maintain Covid-19 restrictions, writing, “Does anybody else feel like storming Parliament and making them listen?”
This investigation was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.
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