The Society of Editors has expressed “deep concern” following a report that government units set up to tackle fake news recorded the comments of journalists critical of government decision-making during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a report published by Big Brother Watch this week, the civil liberties organisation alleged that politicians, academics and journalists including The Mail on Sunday reporter Peter Hitchens and talkRADIO presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer had their comments monitored and recorded by Whitehall officials under the guise of countering disinformation during the pandemic.
The dossier of revelations published by Big Brother Watch alleges that government units including the Counter-Disinformation Unit based in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Rapid Response Unit based in the Cabinet Office and the British Army’s 77th Brigade worked together to monitor and record the social media posts and press activity of politicians, academics and journalists who criticised the government’s handling of the crisis.
Responding to the report, Dawn Alford, Executive Director of the Society of Editors said: “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.”
Based on Freedom of Information requests and Subject Access Requests, Big Brother Watch’s “Ministry of Truth” report also alleges that Soldiers from the Army’s 77th Brigade collated tweets from British citizens about Covid-19 at the start of the pandemic and passed them to the Cabinet Office and troops also conducted “sentiment analysis” about the government’s Covid-19 response.
The report also states that the Cabinet Office’s Rapid Response Unit pressured a Whitehall department to attack newspapers for publishing articles analysing Covid-19 modelling that it feared would “affect compliance” with pandemic restrictions.
The report can be read in full here.