PETER HITCHENS: How shadowy censors tried to remove my ‘unhelpful’ Covid views from YouTube
I have been annoying people for decades. It is my job as a journalist to do so. And when I look back on my career, I only regret that I did not annoy more of them. News is what powerful people want to keep out of the media. Interesting commentary strays outside the mainstream and challenges conventional wisdom. That is why it so often wears better, over time, than the standard official opinion.
We’ll have to wait and see how the Ukraine war goes, which almost everyone currently thinks is a good thing. But the near-unanimous view of the Covid crisis back in 2020 is now beginning to look a bit threadbare.
Did we really do the right thing, squandering all that money we didn’t have on making people stay at home? Now we’re deep underwater in unpayable debt, the currency is shrivelling, multitudes have given up regular work patterns and a terrifying number of businesses are in permanent trouble because their customers have melted away. And we absolutely did not save the NHS. In fact, we made it much, much worse.
I was almost alone in criticising these measures when they began. In fact, for the first few days I was totally alone – except that The Mail on Sunday, upholding the proper tradition of a free press – allowed me to dissent and gave me generous space to do so. That was absolutely proper. I was responsible for what I said. The newspaper did not have to agree with me, but it took the civilised view that open debate favours the truth, or as Milton put it in his great defence of free speech, Areopagitica: ‘Who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?’
A terrifying number of businesses are in permanent trouble because their customers have melted away
After a few weeks, it became clear that not everyone was as enlightened as The Mail on Sunday.
Invitations from broadcasters, who had previously been friendly and reasonably generous with their time, stopped arriving, with a few heroic exceptions such as Mike Graham on Talk Radio.
Various people went on to Twitter and elsewhere to ludicrously accuse me of ‘denying’ Covid or of having caused the deaths of people by expressing doubts about the restrictions, a very nasty slander.
Despite having been vaccinated myself, I was simultaneously denounced as an ‘anti-vaxxer’ by Covid zealots, and became the object of fury from genuine anti-vaxxers who decided madly that I was a traitor even though I had never adopted their cause (one of these pursued me on to a train to shout at me, only the other day).
But the deeper effect was harder to pin down. For it was on the internet, the most vital forum of all. Here, you can never be sure.
I use Twitter a lot, but are others seeing my tweets? I have no idea, and will never know whether I was ‘shadow-banned’ – a form of censorship in which your impact is reduced but not actually obliterated, so hard to measure or spot.
But at two points it was clear beyond doubt that something very creepy was going on. I give quite a few interviews which appear later on YouTube, sometimes getting more than 100,000 viewers.
We absolutely did not save the NHS. In fact, we made it much, much worse
In June 2020, I gave an interview about the virus farce to two clever young men, Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster, who run a popular web broadcast called TRIGGERnometry. I said what I have been saying here – that the crashing of the economy and the stifling of personal liberty were utterly out of proportion to the danger from Covid-19. I gave evidence for my view and quoted eminent experts. I do not think I said anything that was false or abusive. But, within a couple of hours of launching the interview, Konstantin and Francis noticed a very strange thing. It was almost impossible to find, even if you knew where to look. Usually, their programme quickly garners large numbers of viewers, and it had done so on a previous occasion when I’d been interviewed by them on another matter.
I am pretty sure (but cannot prove) I was the victim of shadow-banning. Someone had fiddled with the computer algorithms, which guide the searches everyone makes on the World Wide Web. A lot of people kindly protested. And as mysteriously as it had been applied, the ban evaporated, albeit too late. The audience for the interview was irretrievably reduced. That’s not all – on January 25, 2021, YouTube posted a version of a conversation I had had with Mike Graham on Talk Radio. But 75 seconds of the original broadcast were missing.
A few weeks before, YouTube had suspended the entire Talk Radio station from its output. The ban was ended after a major public fuss. I have never really got to the bottom of what happened to my censored words, but I think I can say that someone deliberately cut them because they did not like the opinions I was expressing.
I mention these things because we now have an even more worrying connection. The report from Big Brother Watch probably only touches the surface of what Government agencies were up to during the closedown of the country. We know they were at one stage interested in what I was up to, but I suspect there was a lot more than this that we will never find.
Did we really do the right thing, squandering all that money we didn’t have on making people stay at home?
But the key is Whitehall’s special access to the giant internet companies, which, of course, include YouTube and Twitter. These shadowy monitors clearly had hotlines to the web monsters, which allowed them to ‘flag’ things they did not like. Did someone whose salary was paid by you and me, with the special powers given to government, dislike what I said? Was someone else afraid that the popularity of TRIGGERnometry would give me and my unwelcome views a new, wider audience? I can only guess, and so can you.
But the circumstantial evidence is strong. And I believe that this is the way censorship will reappear among us, as governments grow less tolerant of opposition.
To me, the most astonishing thing about the great Covid panic was how many attacks the state managed to make on basic freedoms without anyone much even caring. This was partly because of the fear the Government had deliberately spread (as SAGE minutes reveal).
So now is the time to demand a full and powerful investigation into the dark material which Big Brother Watch has bravely uncovered – and to stand against the tendency towards censorship and suppression which flourishes like bindweed if it is not ruthlessly cut back.
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