On Tuesday May 11, Boris Johnson used his favourite mouthpiece, the Queen, to deliver a message to the nation. He would be introducing an Election Integrity bill which, it was later explained, was designed to solve the problem of election fraud.
The prime minister is right about one thing. There is an election fraud problem in Britain. Its name is Boris Johnson.
There were just four cases of voter fraud in 2019. But the bill, which would introduce mandatory photo ID for every British election, would, by the Cabinet Office’s own analysis, affect 2.1 million people and potentially deprive them of their vote.
There’s a better description of what this is: voter suppression. It’s a practice that’s been pioneered in the US – using exactly these same techniques – funded by shadowy right-wing dark money groups and which has now arrived on our shores. This is voter suppression on an industrial scale. It’s the worst assault on our voting rights for more than a century. And it’s being overseen by a man whose Brexit campaign – the Brexit campaign that he led and that propelled him to power – was literally found guilty of electoral offences.
Everyone has their limits. And it turns out Tuesday May 11, 2021, was mine.
It’s four years since I first started writing in detail about Vote Leave, three since I worked with Shahmir Sanni to publish his evidence of massive electoral offences, two since the Electoral Commission found the Vote Leave Campaign had broken the law and one and a half since the Met Police shelved its investigation without a single word of explanation.
Boris Johnson got away with it. But the idea that these same people are now going to use the power afforded them by this illegal act to force through a bill that may deprive 2.1 million of their vote on the pretext of stopping election fraud did something to my internal synapses.
So that’s what we’ve decided to do. We’re going to start recording this shit. We’re going to keep the receipts.
Just over a year ago, I brought together a random assortment of people I’d met over the course of the last four years of investigating Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and all points in between. The question I was trying to answer – am still trying to answer – is: how do you hold power to account in an age of no accountability?
I was fed up. I’d watched as many of the subjects of my investigations – individuals, organisations and multi-billion dollar tech companies – were found to have committed assorted crimes and misdemeanours: data abuse, electoral offences, privacy violations. In the UK and the US and a dozen other jurisdictions. But not a single person has ever been held to account.
This group – of film-makers and journalists and activists and technologists and lawyers and creatives – didn’t have the answer either. But, together, we launched the Citizens. Our mission is impact journalism and for the last 12 months we’ve been running a handful of experimental projects in stealth mode: challenging the government’s claim to be “following the science” in the pandemic, launching an emergency intervention against Facebook ahead of the US election, organising MPs to take the government to court and investigating the awarding of government contracts to high-profile Conservative donors.
So what’s the plan?
There are a couple of plans, the first of which combines the twin attributes of being dull but also boring. It’s boring because facts are boring but also essential. And the basis of everything we do and believe in is solid evidence-based reporting.
Because we can’t stop what’s happening if we can’t see it. And we won’t see it, if we don’t record it. So that’s the plan: we’re building an open-source public ledger. We the citizens will be keeping the government’s accounts.
We’ve got a set of Excel spreadsheets and day by day and line by tedious line we are going to track the assaults on our democracy, attempts to privatise the NHS, accusations of cronyism, and much more. (Details below)
We’re going to be expanding these to cover more subjects over the coming weeks and months and all subscription money we raise will go into this project, funding researchers and building a community. (More about the Citizens’ core funding here.)
We’ve got experts waiting in the wings, video explainers, events – details of the first one with Jed Mercurio below – probably some stuff from Steve, our resident creative director/troublemaker seen here in action outside the Treasury last Thursday night.
This newsletter isn’t just going to be me banging on – even I, especially I, don’t want to read that. The plan is to have features, profiles, Q&As, guest editors, guest writers, video, whatever we happen to think of that week.
The Weekly List
None of this is rocket science. It’s not even original. In November 2016, Amy Siskind, a US activist, started a spreadsheet, the Weekly List, which tracked the “erosion of norms” taking place under Donald Trump’s regime. She explained “Experts in authoritarianism advise to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember.”
As much as Excel is excellent…
We’re aware that it’s going to take more than an Excel spreadsheet to save democracy, but people just might. In America they had Trump but also whole battalions of civil rights lawyers at the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). They had Republican millionaire donors but also Democrat billionaire philanthropists. In Britain, the cupboard is bare. We just don’t have the infrastructure, the money, the experience.
We have literally a handful of plucky start-ups. But it is a start. And it’s been genuinely thrilling to watch a new breed of activist lawyers emerge: our friends at AWO, Foxglove and Good Law Project as well as more established firms doing important work like Bindmans and Leigh Day. We’ll be tracking their cases too, all the challenges the government is facing for allegedly unlawful behaviour. And the equally plucky new media outlets like our friends at Byline Times and the groundbreaking campaigning work being done by our allies at Open Democracy. Not to mention the front-page investigative scoops from the few established, independent outlets in Britain who will tackle these kinds of topics, most especially the Guardian and Observer (still my first and foremost home) and the Financial Times.
Our plan is to amplify them all. This is a grow-your-own, DIY, hand-knitted sort of a fightback. This entire enterprise is the kind of party where you’re expected to bring your own bottle and stay for the washing-up. Because the cavalry isn’t coming. We’ve got to do this ourselves. Which is where we need you.
The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Messages
We’ll be following the legal challenges being brought against the government – including our own. We’re currently waiting for it to respond to our pre-action letter over its use of WhatsApp and disappearing text messages, a case we’re bringing with our partners, the kick-ass women at Foxglove. (We’re also an all female-led organisation but Foxglove have undeniably better outfits.)
Any support for our crowdfunder gratefully received. Here’s our latest on why disappearing messages are so useful for both corrupt police officers and government ministers as explained with help from Line of Duty.
Talking of which…
We’re going to be holding our first private event for subscribers with the genius behind AC12 himself, Line of Duty writer, the brilliant Jed Mercurio.
Two weeks ago, Jed retweeted a rant, sorry tweet I wrote about a Sunday Times report that claimed Dominic Cummings had feared being arrested as part of the police investigation into the Brexit referendum and it got me thinking again about the complete failure of both the Met police and the NCA to investigate Boris Johnson’s Vote Leave campaign.
Compelling evidence, notarised by Sanni’s team of lawyers, was passed to the National Crime Agency two years ago. Evidence that potentially implicates cabinet ministers and the head of government. As far as anyone knows, it has never been investigated. Or if it has, it’s been subsequently buried.
I’m fascinated by what Jed makes of any of this, of what’s happening in Britain right now. I can’t wait to talk to him about why he thinks corruption is so hard to tackle and why the plot of the current news cycle outstrips any drama. Come and join us and ask your own question. This is an event for our premium subscribers – £6/month to join a community holding power to account.
The boring bit at the bottom
We’re going to be collating everything on its own website but in the meantime, see what Week 1 of the democracy receipts looks like here. Starting May 10, 2021, it’s a day-by-day log of all the ways the government is seeking to undermine our vital mechanisms of democratic accountability. We’re also tracking cronyism. Those receipts are here.
Then there’s the privatisation of the NHS, the receipts of which are here. Finally, almost a year ago we discovered there was no centralised database of all government COVID-19 contracts, so we set up our own, a comprehensive open-source database for all journalists, lawyers and corruption investigators, updated weekly, which you can find here.
We’re going to add to these in the coming weeks but tell us what you think. What we should be doing. What we need to do. If you can help us. And if so how.