Government apologises after “counter disinformation” unit spread misinformation about journalist to UK and US governments

Big Brother Watch Team / October 27, 2023

Government apologises after “counter disinformation” unit spread misinformation about journalist to UK and US governments

  • Following legal action, the Cabinet Office has issued a formal apology to talkTV host Julia Hartley-Brewer
  • The journalist was wrongly branded a “vaccine sceptic” in secret “vaccine hesitancy report” after criticising covid policies
  • The misinformation was spread by the government’s “Rapid Response Unit”, which was tasked to fight covid misinformation, and sent to 64 officials across UK, as well as counter-terror officials in the US government

The Government has issued a formal apology to journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer after it was revealed that officials wrongly branded her a “vaccine sceptic” in a secret report on vaccine hesitancy sent across UK government recipients – and even to the US government.

Staff working in the Cabinet Office’s “Rapid Response Unit” monitored online responses to a Telegraph article published in October 2021 about the Health Secretary and Education Secretary’s joint letter to parents encouraging them to vaccinate their children against covid, headlined “Pupils could lose out on face-to-face lessons if they don’t get vaccinated, warn ministers”. Ms Hartley-Brewer shared the article on X, formerly Twitter, with the words “No. No. No. NO!!!!”, leading the Rapid Response Unit to note in a vaccine hesitancy report that this was among the “top tweets” about the Telegraph article and that Ms Hartley-Brewer had “express(ed) opposition to the news” – describing the broadcaster as a known vaccine sceptic”.

Ms Hartley-Brewer was vaccinated against covid-19 herself and spoke regularly about vaccine benefits on her show.

In March 2020, the government announced that its Rapid Response Unit would “crack down” and “combat false and misleading narratives” about coronavirus by either issuing “a direct rebuttal on social media” or “working with platforms to remove harmful content”. Little is known about what content exactly the Unit targeted for rebuttal or removal, and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch has claimed that the Unit operated “more like a counter-dissent unit” that was “shrouded in secrecy”.

Ms Hartley-Brewer discovered that the Rapid Response Unit had misrepresented her as a vaccine sceptic and had shared this misinformation widely around the government in the course of an investigation by civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch into the UK government’s secretive counter-disinformation activities. After Ms Hartley-Brewer submitted “subject access requests” to government departments, she received heavily redacted excerpts of reports in which her opposition to controversial covid policies, such as vaccine passports, had been logged and shared by “counter disinformation” units within government.

Ms Hartley-Brewer, supported by Big Brother Watch, instructed leading data rights lawyers AWO to enforce her rights to rectification of the inaccurate data by the Cabinet Office. The government responded in writing to admit that the Rapid Response Unit’s conduct had been unlawful. It was obliged to “apologise for the error that the Rapid Response Unit made” and to “formally acknowledge that the reference to yourself as a ‘known vaccine sceptic’ was inaccurate and not impartial. It does not reflect the Government’s view.” 

In a further letter to Ms Hartley-Brewer, the Government Legal Department revealed that “it has come to our attention that one of the recipients (of the vaccine hesitancy report) was a USA Government email address within the Global Engagement Centre, State Department”, and that information about her criticism of certain covid policies had been shared with the US on three separate occasions – although the government had failed to admit this in response to her earlier legal request for information.

The US State Department’s “Global Engagement Centre” was initially established to support the government in “public communications activities targeted against violent extremism and terrorist organizations” before its remit was expanded to “address other foreign state and non-state propaganda”. Its website claims that it builds “societal and institutional resilience to foreign propaganda” with specific teams focusing on “Russia, People’s Republic of China, Iran, and Counterterrorism”. It is not clear why a US body focused on terrorism and foreign propaganda would have any legitimate strategic interest in British journalists scrutinising the policies of the UK government.

The Government Legal Department indicated that information about US critics may have also been shared with the UK government in return, noting that their emails to the US government about Ms Hartley-Brewer and others were part of “a reciprocal arrangement with the USA sharing media analysis emails with the Cabinet Office and vice versa.”

The Rapid Response Unit was disbanded in late 2022 and its staff absorbed into the government’s wider counter disinformation operations. The newly formed Department for Science, Innovation and Technology is now the home to the government’s Counter Disinformation Unit, which remains operational. The Department has failed to respond to Big Brother Watch’s Freedom of Information requests.

Big Brother Watch has initiated crowdfunded legal action against the UK government to “stop the Counter ‘Disinformation’ Unit targeting political dissent”, arguing that the unit is threatening freedom of expression in the UK. It is thought to be the first ever legal action in Europe against a government’s counter disinformation activity.



Journalist and talkTV host, Julia Hartley-Brewer, said:

I am shocked that the British government spent time during a pandemic monitoring, attempting to censor and smearing a journalist who was simply trying to do her job by asking the right questions and challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. I was not a “known vaccine sceptic”, as my on air and online comments clearly prove.

A government unit that was supposed to challenge foreign governments disseminating lies online was used against British journalists and MPs expressing reasonable concerns about Covid policies. And now we have proof that this same unit was actually responsible for lying about me.

I am particularly concerned by the fact that the British government shared this false information about me with a US government counter-terrorism unit set up to tackle Russian, Chinese and Iranian propaganda. This is very sinister.”

Director of Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo, said:

It is outrageous that UK government ‘counter disinformation’ staff monitored British journalists and spread harmful misinformation about them across the corridors of power, not only in the UK but even with counter-terror officials in the US.

“It’s absurd that taxpayers are funding this multi-million pound counter-dissent project under the guise of ‘countering disinformation’, but also extremely chilling that so many journalists, politicians and ordinary citizens have been treated like the enemy within simply for criticising controversial government policies.

“The government’s secretive Counter Disinformation Unit should be suspended immediately, and parliament should open an inquiry into its deeply disturbing activities.”

Solicitor at AWO, Alex Lawrence-Archer, said:

We were pleased to secure this remedy for Ms Hartley-Brewer. The discovery of the inaccuracy and subsequent rectification and apology show how enforcing data rights can be an effective way to put things right when institutions invade our privacy.”

But this case also points to a wider issue. Without proper governance, when the state monitors and seeks to influence online speech, things can quickly go badly wrong.”

Disinformation is here to stay, and so are government efforts to counter it. But those efforts run a serious risk of interfering with freedom of speech. They therefore require the highest levels of transparency, scrutiny, and democratic oversight if they are to remain lawful.”




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