Why have the right-wing press doxxed Neil Ferguson?

To answer the question, there are two likely reasons. One is to divert public attention away from the fact Britain has recorded the highest number of fatalities among European countries.

This unwanted record was broken on 5th May 2020. Ferguson’s trysts happened during March and April. Yet, the Telegraph newspaper broke the story more than a month later – on the same day that incriminating headlines for the government seemed imminent [1].

The following morning, what dominated the front-covers of rightwing newspapers was not news of Britain having the worst Coronavirus death-toll in Europe, but of Ferguson’s resignation:

 

There is another probable reason, however, as unwittingly indicated by the front-cover of the Times:

 

The government is presently drafting the next phase of its response to the Covid crisis. This involves forcing workless people into poverty, and pressuring them to seek jobs which do not currently exist; irrespective of any harm that may lead to.

It is thereby indistinguishable from the welfare policies, implemented by the Conservatives since 2010 – which did not begin then, either. Draconian benefit cuts were undertaken by the Coalition government: suffering and deaths followed. How could the outcome be any different in the midst of a pandemic?

The nascent policies are identical – so is the rhetoric of journalism. People have supposedly become “addicted” to state aid during the lockdown. They were previously adjudged to be suffering an “addiction to benefits“. Likewise, they need to be “weaned” off the government’s support, in 2020 – as they had to be “weaned off welfare“, in 2010.

The Telegraph and Daily Mail are bemoaning the fact that half of all adults in the UK are currently dependent on the government for an income – in the form of a furlough, and unemployment benefits.

Both the Telegraph and Daily Mail have previously complained that half of all Britons depended on money from the government, in the form of social security. It is not difficult to see the contiguity [2].

It also seems likely that members of the government will blame people for not working during the Covid lockdown, even though they had been instructed by the Prime Minister to stay at home. Just as ministers had previously blamed people for not staying at home, when the government had encouraged them to continue life as normal.

 

This suggests another reason why Conservatives may have considered it advantageous to dispense with Neil Ferguson. He had been the foremost advocate of the lockdown, enacted belatedly by the UK government.

However, a lobbying effort to end the lockdown has been underway for several weeks – indifferent to any human cost which may arise. This campaign has been gaining traction since early April 2020.

Among its vanguard is Toby Young – who was classed as an expert, by The Sun. Though it was not clarified what his area of expertise might be, Young opined that the lockdown must end, because it will cause economic damage. This was on 11th April 2020.

A day later, Young would seem to have created a low-quality website, dedicated to pushing for an end to the lockdown. On 18th April, he appeared in the Telegraph, making his case. Since then, he has repeatedly been a guest on talk radio broadcasts, continuing in this vein.

So why has Young been crusading against the lockdown? An indication lies in a source he cites, during his part of The Sun’s aforementioned debate.

As Young notes:

“The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) says the lockdown is costing £2.4billion a day”.

This stat was quoted in various right-wing newspapers, on 5th-6th April 2020. The Telegraph, Daily Mail, Times, and The Sun all published it. So, it seems fair to assume they received it in the form of a press-briefing.

A key focus of these articles was on the impact that Britain’s lockdown has had on the country’s manufacturing sector. The CEBR report in question was presumably the one entitled ‘As the UK remains in lockdown government may need to target more support at manufacturing sector‘.

How objective is the Centre for Economics and Business Research being on this issue? Not very, in all likelihood. It is a think-tank, with a clientele of government departments, and mostly unnamed corporations. Including “some of the largest manufacturers of consumer goods”.

One of these is Kellogg’s – and the CEBR vaunt their successful promotional campaign for the company, on the pretext of increasing awareness about food poverty.

This does not encourage belief that the CEBR are making an impartial assessment of the lockdown; so much as it raises the prospect that their report is part of a lobbying campaign, on behalf of the group’s undisclosed backers [3]. Whether the same is true of Toby Young as well, only he could answer.

 

Despite these efforts, on 25th April 2020, Neil Ferguson defended the government’s lockdown-strategy. He also suggested that the government should follow South Korea’s model of easing the lockdown. Namely, mass-testing and contact-tracing.

In fact, on 26th April, the Telegraph reported that Johnson “could decide to ‘modify’ elements of the lockdown before the May 7 deadline”; and was “increasingly bullish about the possibility of altering restrictions if scientific advice allows”.

Yet the UK government has been failing to meet its own targets for testing and tracing Covid infections. Given the circumstances, it seems doubtful that the scientific advice would approve of “altering restrictions”. Which would pose a problem for the Conservatives.

They have come under pressure to lift the lockdown, from their own wealthy donors, and anonymous cabinet ministers; along with several corporate-lobbying outfits, who are liable to serve much the same set of interests. As may the current leader of the Opposition, and one of his predecessors; who followed suit with their demands to exit the lockdown.

 

So why would those intent on ending the lockdown benefit from Ferguson being sidelined? The Telegraph perhaps provides the answer:

The Daily Mail also raised these questions, the same day.

Toby Young had made an insinuation on precisely that theme, in his contribution to The Sun. He claimed to be sceptical about the prognosis that “if we end the lockdown more people will become infected, demand for critical hospital care will outstrip the NHS’s capacity and we’ll begin to see people dying in even greater numbers”. As “it is based on the statistical modelling of Professor Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College”.

On 5th May, Ferguson resigned, following the Telegraph’s revelations. On 6th May, Johnson announced that the lockdown could be eased, the following week [4].

 

It cannot be proven that the Telegraph’s journalists had followed Ferguson, known about his personal misconduct; and made the information public at a time which was politically favourable.

Nor that members of the government encouraged any of the paper’s journalists to undermine Ferguson, by giving them tip-offs, in order to remove him as a potential obstacle to their upcoming policies.

However, leaving aside the blatant hypocrisy in evidence, there is a precedent which makes this last scenario a possibility.

In 2010, David Cameron appointed Action 4 Employment’s Chairwoman, Emma Harrison, to be their ‘families champion’. Action 4 Employment was known to have been implicated in a fraud scandal, as reported in 2009. The government was aware of this, but hired Harrison nonetheless.

On 5th February 2012, Harrison criticised the government’s benefit cap policy, because it placed families with disabled children at risk of harm.

On 10th February 2012 the Daily Mail published an article, criticising Harrison’s profiteering from state contracts.

On 11th February 2012, the Daily Mail reported that Conservative MPs had begun to call for a “probe” into Harrison’s finances.

On 22rd February 2012, the Daily Mail reported that police had launched an investigation into Action 4 Employment.

On 23rd February 2012, Emma Harrison resigned from her government advisory role. She stepped down as head of Action 4 Employment the following day.

The benefit cap was administered by the DWP – as was the inquiry into Action 4 Employment’s alleged fraud. Quite a coincidence.

None of this makes Harrison sympathetic. Action 4 Employment’s staff had been justifiably brought to account – but the timing, and scale of actual wrongdoing, suggests that the government did not act with financial propriety in mind. It also makes the media response seem quite disproportionate.

On 26th February 2012, the Independent published an ‘exclusive’ report on a House of Commons inquiry into allegations that Action 4 Employment was embroiled in a “£200 million scandal”. The Telegraph suggested it was a “billion pound scandal” on 23rd May 2012.

On 23rd March 2012, the BBC reported that a “leaked document suggests ‘systemic fraud’ at A4e”.

The actual amount defrauded was c. £300,000 – considerably less than the headline sums. Ten defendants were convicted – six were jailed [5].

 

Not dissimilar is the scale of Neil Ferguson’s misconduct; and the timing of its coverage.

Maybe journalists were simply doing their jobs, without fear or favour; and holding a public official to account for not practising what he preached.

Perhaps this dominated newspaper front-pages on the day that Britain’s Covid death-toll became the worst in Europe, because editors believed a sex-scandal was more befitting the public interest.

But maybe there is a corrupt working relationship between members of the government, and journalists – along with the interests they serve; and this is merely the latest example.

 

 

 

Notes

 

[1] It is noteworthy that the Telegraph’s article, revealing Neil Ferguson’s indiscretions, had four authors. It is not possible to confirm, but this would suggest its content involved leaks from government personnel – who often comprise the nameless sources cited by politics reporters.

Does it take four people to write an article like that, including two senior members of staff? If not, then why were there four contributors? What did each of them contribute?

The Telegraph had begun trying to undermine Neil Ferguson’s credibility as early as 28th March 2020. It begs the question why, at that early juncture. Unfortunately, only the Telegraph’s journalists will know the answer; along with their sources.

 

[2] It is particularly significant that the rhetoric of the Telegraph et al, on Covid crisis-measures, is consistent with their expressed support for welfare reforms; as it suggests they are attempting to pave the way for similar policies.

For example, compare the Telegraph/Daily Mail’s complaints about half of all adults depending on state aid, with the Telegraph’s assertion in 2015 that “Half of households receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes” – which was published in support of George Osborne’s upcoming plans to remove social security from people.

The statistic was derived from the Centre For Policy Studies, and was untrue.

The Centre For Policy Studies openly boast of their influence on government policy, and the thinking of its ministers – including the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak. Though this claim may be equally vainglorious, for all anyone knows.

 

 

[3] The Telegraph, in particular, has repeatedly published opinion pieces calling for an end to the lockdown. It printed four separate articles on 5th May 2020, alone – that is, the day before Boris Johnson was scheduled to outline the government’s plans for its next phase of the lockdown.

One article described teaching unions as hysterical, for prioritising the safety of pupils and staff; another unabashedly insisted that money was more important than peoples’ lives. A third, by Charles Moore, advocated overriding public support for the lockdown. The fourth took a more philosophical view of matters.

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond has also been lobbying for an end to the lockdown. It is notable that in November 2019, Hammond took a job on the board of a manufacturing firm – a sector whose profits have been impacted heavily by the lockdown.

 

 

[4] Following Boris Johnson’s announcement about easing the lockdown, it is noteworthy that the Telegraph euphorically declared restrictions on exercise would be lifted – but these do not exist.

Their article states the government: “will also scrap the once-a-day limit on exercising and tell people they can take ‘unlimited’ exercise either on their own or with members of their household”.

This does not represent a change of policy. The government’s published legislation notes that:

“During the emergency period, no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse.

(2) For the purposes of paragraph (1), a reasonable excuse includes the need—

[…]

(b)to take exercise either alone or with other members of their household”

It does not impose a limit on the amount of exercise. Is it the case that the Telegraph did not know about the actual regulations, because its journalists failed to check? Or is it simply misinforming its own readers, in a manner which casts a positive light on the government?

For more in this vein, see the BBC’s decidedly glib piece about lifting aspects of the lockdown. It notes that restrictions could be removed, but “would require very good access to quick testing and protective equipment”. Neither of these exist in the present; nor do they seem liable to, any time soon. A fact left unacknowledged by the BBC’s author.

 

[5] Nine members of Action 4 Employment’s staff were charged with fraud, in 2013. As the BBC note “Thames Valley Police began an investigation into the company’s Slough branch in May 2011 after the matter was referred to them by the DWP”.

It is not clear where the tenth defendant came into it, by 2015. Nor why the DWP had previously been aware of this matter, then mysteriously forgot about it; until immediately after Harrison criticised their benefit cap policy. The benefit cap was itself nothing more than a con-trick, being played out on the public by the government, aided by media outlets.

For more on Emma Harrison’s conduct, and her profitable relationship with the government, see ‘Emma Harrison set up firm to pitch for government cash on project she devised‘ by Randeep Ramesh/Guardian (11th September 2011).

See also ‘Emma Harrison appointment comes under fresh scrutiny‘ by Rajeev Syal/Guardian (28th February 2012)