Herd immunity: if all else fails, shoot the messenger

Or why the Telegraph & RT are on our case

Welcome to Keeping the Receipts— a newsletter from the Citizens, written this week by Carole Cadwalladr. You can read about the mission behind this here. Initially sent as a subscriber-only post at the weekend, we are now making it available to everyone.

This week’s newsletter is subscriber-only on the basis that if another right-wing outlet wants to use its contents to write a hit piece about me or the Citizens, we might as well charge them £6 for it. (And, yes, we obviously know that’s an invitation for someone to screenshot it and blast it all over Twitter but that’s fine too. Let’s call it advertising.)

Last week, we detailed our two-month investigation and campaign, working with clinical epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani to interrogate and expose the government’s strategy of herd immunity by mass infection.

Because that Friday we had finally broken through. More than 1,200 scientists and healthcare professionals had signed a letter to the Lancet denouncing the policy. And our international emergency summit made headlines all over the world.

Less than 24 hours later, sitting on a train to Sussex, scrolling Twitter, I came across my face pasted across a Telegraph article. There was nothing about the experience that was new or shocking. In the five years since I began a series of articles into fake news which eventually became the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I have been the target of attacks from right-wing blogs to tech bros to Conservative MPs to Russian-sponsored media outlets to alt-right US “news” sites – they’ve all taken a swing.

But the question is: why now?

“REVEALED,” it said. “Independent Sage is run by left-wing group including anti-Brexit activists”:

It was funny, absurd, ridiculous. A confection of bad-faith, unevidenced, non-points that have been in the public domain for 17 months.

Independent SAGE was launched on 4 May 2020. Since Day 1, it’s been made abundantly clear on the website that the Citizens – of which I’m a founder – provides operational and media support to the group.

We’re the organisers of its crowdfunder. We have its activities plastered across our Twitter and website.

And if none of that was enough, the right-wing politics blog, Guido Fawkes, did a predictable hit job making the exact same point a year and a half ago.

Minutes after the Telegraph piece went up, it came back down again. Someone at Telegraph HQ – a lawyer, perhaps? – had realised that it had failed to take the most basic of all journalistic steps: to go to any of the people named for comment.

The Citizens is not an “activist group”. But then, I’m not an “anti-Brexit conspiracy theorist”.

But it doesn’t matter. Because facts don’t matter any more, even at the Telegraph, the paper that trained me as a journalist. The old rules of agreed facts and respect for evidence-based reporting no longer apply. Disinformation – the deliberate dissemination of false facts and fake news – travels further and faster than facts. I’ve experienced it first hand. The more impact my journalism had, the more relentless the attacks against me became. You don’t have to believe me on this, read a UNESCO report on it.

You can watch the process happening right now to Jess Brammar, the ex-editor of the Huffington Post who has reportedly applied to be the BBC’s head of news, but who is currently being hounded across the right-wing press: 

Her “crime” was to tweet in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. To be targeted in this way is to have a bullseye on your back. Brammar has been made “controversial” in a way that is intended to be career damaging and probably will be. There is no correct response. You either shut up – keep silent, disappear from view. Or you don’t. You speak out. And you accept the punishment beatings as the cost of doing business. I chose the latter but there are no good options.

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Sputnik incoming

Dominic Cummings took one of his regular swipes at me on Friday. But then, why wouldn’t he?

It was a particularly outrageous claim because Vote Leave not only exploited Facebook to break the law, Cummings was also the Prime Minister’s chief advisor when Johnson suppressed the Russia Report.

But here’s a story that highlights just one tiny aspect of Russia’s influence in Britain. Independent SAGE and the Citizens have had a barrage of questions this week from a freelancer for Sputnik & RT, both Russian state-funded media outlets. Prompted by the Telegraph article, we have become a target of interest. So far, he has accused us of criminality, financial impropriety, dishonesty, lack of ethics and – via Twitter – being “an intelligence service front”.

This isn’t journalism, of course, though it purports to be; it’s propaganda. It’s designed to incite Twitter pile-ons, to fuel further pieces, to make us “controversial”. To make Independent SAGE “controversial”.

There’s no “conspiracy” between the different actors here. RT and the Telegraph and Guido all have their own agendas but they feed off each other. RT will rocket boost the Telegraph article that fanned the flames of the Guido one. It’s already prompted another from Spiked. The Spectator cannot be far behind. This is networked propaganda in action.

In just a few years, the entire news and information landscape has changed. Russia was one of the first to realise and exploit this. It pioneered a strategy of “hybrid war” in Ukraine using both traditional warfare techniques and online propaganda to distort the perception of reality. To erode trust in news sources. To confuse people to the point where they don’t know who to believe any more. But now these techniques are everywhere. It’s impossible to hold anyone to account because we no longer have shared facts. “Truth” is now just competing narratives. And in a national emergency, a public health crisis, it’s a recipe for disaster.

This was what we feared at the start of the pandemic. And it’s what has transpired.

The background

In March 2020, the Citizens was in its very early stages. We’d had a handful of meetings and were planning a launch project when the pandemic hit.

Boris Johnson briefed the nation flanked by men of science, he said he was “following the science”, but no-one knew what the science was. Only that the WHO was telling us to do something completely different. It was this, the lack of transparency from individuals at the heart of government, who I’d investigated over three long years, that troubled me most.

We didn’t even know at that point who was sitting on SAGE. But at a moment of national crisis even the official opposition and liberal news organisations felt that “criticising the government” was a step they dare not take.

It’s difficult to remember now, but in the early days of the pandemic the diversity of scientific voices speaking out in the media today just wasn’t there. They had yet to become household names. The daily briefings were held for political journalists. Obscure epidemiologists and public health scientists either had no platform or were scared to speak up.

So, two weeks into the first lockdown, we decided to give scientists a platform and bring what they were saying directly to the public. We livestreamed the Covid Report on 8 April on YouTube and were blown away when 61,000 people watched it.

And then, on April 24 2020, the Guardian published an astonishing story. The membership of SAGE was still secret. But here’s who was sitting on it: Dominic Cummings. For most of the country, the trip to Barnard Castle was to be the defining Cummings outrage. But for us, it was this: the Prime Minister’s closest political advisor was attending scientific meetings that were meant to be entirely independent of government.

And that was how Independent SAGE came into being. It was on a Twitter thread that began with the word “unfuckingbelievable” that I first met Sir David King. The former Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government popped up in my Twitter replies:

I messaged him and asked if we could talk and that was how it all began: I was the one who pitched the idea of a “People’s SAGE”, an open and transparent alternative. But it was Sir David King who grasped the concept and ran with it. He had been Chief Scientific Adviser during the Foot and Mouth crisis. One of the most important learnings from it, he said, was an understanding of the necessity of transparency: Britain’s FOI laws, he said, were a direct result of that learning.

What’s more, he knew exactly what was needed to make it happen. He knew how many people should be on it and what sort of expertise was required. And it was he, with Professor Anthony Costello of UCL’s help, who came up with first a long list and then a short list of who he wanted on it.

It was an extraordinarily bold move. He was and is a member of the establishment. He has served at the heart of government. And to stand up, against his successor, in a way that made headlines from the start, was principled and brave.

It wasn’t a People’s SAGE, he decided it would be an “independent” SAGE. And it has been. Independent from government, independent from SAGE and 100% independent from us.

And it worked. The day of Independent SAGE’s first ever livestreamed event, Sir Patrick Vallance released the names of the SAGE members while the meeting was still live:

A week later, he released the minutes.

The Citizens has never had any involvement with the policies Independent SAGE has formulated, its choice of members or the advice it has given. We’ve just done everything possible to allow the scientists that Sir David King chose and brought together to speak directly to the public and the press.

This has been a labour of love for us. We committed a huge amount of our tiny resource. We’ve received no credit and no glory for it and we haven’t sought any. It’s been public service broadcasting in the truest sense. And just so the RT “reporter” is clear: I’ve not been paid a penny for the work I’ve put into it. (And nor have any of the scientists.)

In July 2020, when the government gave up its daily briefings, Independent SAGE took on the task instead. It started doing a Friday briefing, with an analysis of all available data, and we continued our media and public engagement support. An average of 40,000 people watch it every week. Its clips reach tens of thousands more.

Nobody knew that Independent SAGE would become the force it is. Though there were signs. This is what the Lancet said of the first meeting:

'The first meeting of an independent SAGE set a new standard for science policy making,' The Lancet

It has produced a huge body of work. 45 reports, 60+ briefings, hundreds upon hundreds of media appearances. Testimonials from people as diverse as the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon:

"While governments have access to SAGE, Independent SAGE has played a vital role in giving the public the best information in a manner that is able to be widely understood. Independent SAGE have been clear throughout their activity that the best course of action to protect lives and the economy is to try and get levels down to their lowest possible levels - I agree and that's what I hope to continue to do in Scotland.”

And Gary Lineker:

“I believe the independent SAGE has played a vital role in keeping the general public informed of what was really happening during the pandemic. This has been particularly important given the amount of misinformation that has been circulated."

But now our involvement is being used to beat Independent SAGE. That the Telegraph has chosen this moment to go after us, while cases are rocketing and the world’s eyes are upon what the Lancet letter described as a “dangerous and unethical experiment”, is not an accident. It’s through its network of favoured journalists and outlets that the government has successfully whitewashed its direct responsibility for the 152,000 deaths so far. It’s how it’s getting away with a strategy of deliberate infection of hundreds of thousands of people that runs counter to all public health principles.

We had no idea the scientists that Sir David King brought together would commit so much time and energy to this group or that they would become such valued voices across the news media. But we’ve kept supporting them because it felt so necessary and important. We have crowdfunders for both Independent SAGE and our most recent work supporting the scientists who wrote the Lancet letter, but if you think these voices have been of value please also consider sharing this newsletter by forwarding it to a friend. Holding power to account will take much more than us. We need a community of active citizens and we need help building it.

Thank you, Carole

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