On 13 July, IPA Senior Fellow John Roskam spoke to British journalist Isabel Oakeshott about her decision to make public more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages between government officials and politicians about the management of Covid during 2020 and 2021, which became known as the ‘Lockdown Files’.
John and Isabel discuss how during Covid the British government prioritised its own political interests, misled the public, and manipulated the media.
Below is a transcript of the interview.
Welcome to IPA Encounters. My name is John Roskam and I am a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs. In this episode of IPA Encounters, I’ll be speaking with Isabel Oakeshott on truth, untruth and the media. IPA Encounters is live for IPA members around Australia. I am speaking to you from the Baillieu Myer Media Studio in Melbourne at the IPA offices, and Isabel is coming to us from London.
Let me say a few words about Isabel. Not only is Isabel one of Britain’s leading political journalists, she is one of its fiercest advocates for freedom, for our right to know and for freedom of speech and freedom of opinion. Isabel is a journalist at The Telegraph in the UK. She’s the author of quite a number of books, including a biography of David Cameron. And of course Isabel worked with the then UK Health Minister Matt Hancock on the writing of his Pandemic Diaries, and we’ll talk about that and how she came into the possession and how she came to release over 100,000 WhatsApp messages. During COVID, Isabel fought for the rights of citizens, not just in the UK, but throughout the world.
Isabel, here in Australia, you were a beacon of hope and light for those of us, especially in Melbourne, suffering through the world’s longest lockdowns, and it is going to be wonderful to have a terrific discussion with you today. Thank you for being with us.
Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s really one of my very favorite subjects this… So we must never, ever forget what happened to us all over the world. The unprecedented stripping of fundamental liberties, we must never forgive and never forget.
Isabel, we’re talking to you for a number of reasons about the list of which is your work on the Lockdown Files. Could I ask you to talk about that? And of course, your work on the files is not the first major significant story that you’ve broken or written about. Can you give us some background to those stories please first?
Yes, absolutely. So for those who are unfamiliar with who I am and what I do, I’m a political journalist here in the UK. I’ve been working in that area of political reporting for about 15 years. And prior to that, I worked on tabloid newspapers. For many years I was a member of the so-called lobby at Westminster, that’s a sort of elite group of political journalists that have a past that allows them to roam around the corridors of power and gets you into Downing Street and all sorts. So I very much know the system from the inside and all the key characters.
And in fact, one of the most painful things for me during lockdown was that I personally know many of the architects of lockdown policies, those who were most keen to remove the freedoms that we have all taken for granted for so long, I would almost count several of them as friends, professional friends. These are people who I worked alongside when I was a junior reporter. I started out as a junior reporter on the London Evening Standard in the lobby and then moved to become a deputy political editor and then political editor of The Sunday Times. I was the first woman to ever have had that job.
I grew up with these people. The conservatives who are now running the country in the UK, if you could call it running the country, doing a terrible job of it, a lot of them started out in politics in 2010 just when I was about to become political editor of The Sunday Times. So I’ve seen their trajectory. It was horrifying to me that these people who I knew and who I thought shared my values, proper conservative values of fundamental free markets and so on, were actually doing this to us and to our country.
In the course of my career, I suppose I’ve developed a reputation for breaking big controversial stories. Every big story is messy and it’s never been an exception for me. So one of the most controversial ones that I did was the leaking of a tranche of diplomatic telegrams between our then UK ambassador to the US now Sir Kim Darroch. This was during the Trump era. These diplomatic telegrams revealed some very undiplomatic language from Sir Kim Darroch. Suffice to say that Trump didn’t really take too kindly to privately being described as pretty stupid, I’m paraphrasing here. And this led to a huge blowup diplomatic storm and the resignation of our ambassador. No bad thing, I think, many on the right would say.
So that was just one amongst a number of very high profile stories that I’ve broken. In the course of doing so, I’ve upset a great many people. A lot of people have strong views about me and my journalism. I’ve taken the view that the public interest is the overwhelming thing that matters. And if my reputation takes a bit of a battering and if I have to use some slightly controversial or different methods to get the truth out there, then that’s a price that I’m prepared to pay.
Can we then go on to the Lockdown Files? Because that’s an example of where the media didn’t seem to believe there was a public interest in revelations that the UK government was lying to its citizens. Can you give us the background to the files and what happened?
Absolutely. So this links to what I said about me having grown up with all these politicians that are now in government. So I knew Matt Hancock, who was then our Health Secretary and one of the most foremost figures in the response naturally to the pandemic here. Arguably, he was more powerful than the prime minister during this period of the pandemic, not least because our prime minister at one point was in the intensive care unit with COVID himself.
So I had known Matt Hancock since 2010, perhaps even longer than that. I can’t quite remember. I wouldn’t have counted him as a friend of mine, but certainly a professional contact. I’ve also, for many years now, been writing books generally for very wealthy people as a ghostwriter or as a collaborator. So a number of the projects I’ve done include also a biography of Rishi Sunak, but my name doesn’t appear on that one.
So during the pandemic, I was a very vocal critic of lockdown. This was a very difficult thing for the few of us in the media that were speaking out to do. I didn’t appear on the BBC for the entire pandemic period. That is very unusual. I’m normally on the BBC pretty regularly on their biggest political programs. I was basically canceled during that period.
So it was perhaps a slightly surprising alliance to a lot of people that I offered to work with Matt Hancock following his resignation on his diaries. He didn’t initially envisage a project that was going to be in diary form. What he actually really wanted to do was write about his heroics in securing the vaccine. But I as a journalist didn’t think that a long book about how brilliant he was was likely to have many read it. So I suggested that actually an inside account of the government response to the pandemic in diary form would be far more interesting and accessible to many readers.
So we began working on that project together, me in the capacity, not on this occasion as ghost writers, it was openly a collaboration. I actually did this very quietly. I don’t tend to publicize what books I’m doing until they’re ready. There are all sorts of reasons not to do that, but I did know that many on our side of the argument, the lockdown skeptics, would be pretty horrified by the fact that I apparently aligned myself with Matt Hancock and was working with him. He was after all the absolute anti-hero of all of this, the man that most lockdown skeptics would least like to end up having dinner with. I took the opposite view that as a journalist, this is the biggest and worst thing that’s happened to us in my lifetime. I wanted to get as close as possible to the key figure in the decision making there to try to find out what really happened. Was there a conspiracy? What were the conversations that were really taking place? And the best way to do that was clearly to work with him, at least initially, to extract as much information as possible.
And there was nothing secretive about that plan. He knew where I stood on the argument. He knew that I was going to be very critical of the decisions he made. And I was, during the process of our working together, I continually challenged him on what had been done. And I must say that I enjoyed working with him. He’s a very able guy, very intelligent. He did lean towards disclosure in our project. Once he accepted that a diary was the way to go with this, he was pretty willing to pony up material to his credit, I have to say. And that is how he came to share all these WhatsApps with me. And just for those who perhaps didn’t follow the story in detail, this was over 100,000 WhatsApp messages that he had harvested from his phone-
So they’re like text messages for those who don’t know WhatsApp.
Exactly that, although generally a bit longer just because of the way that WhatsApp works. It really allows for very lengthy… I mean, snappy conversations, but it’s a very user-friendly way of saying a lot. And as we were trying to create his diary… Because naturally he hadn’t gone home at the end of every very, very long day and he was working very hard and sat down and written a load of dear diary entries. I mean that would’ve clearly patently been an absurd use of his time. So we were having to reconstruct the diary using all the old records that he had, and he’d got a brilliant team around him digging out as much as they could about what happened and his departmental diaries and his ministerial diaries and so on. There were sort of conversations early in the project of, “Well, oh, actually maybe we can just refer back to the WhatsApp. Surely that’ll answer that question.”
And gradually, it evolved that it would be a good idea to actually download the WhatsApp so that we could really use them as a source. And part of me didn’t really take this very seriously. I’m not sure I really thought that I was going to see all the messages. So-
You were going to download 100,000 messages.
I mean, I was actually busy on another project at the time, and I had my researcher doing some of the groundwork on Matt’s books. I was sort of peripherally aware that some WhatsApps might’ve been handed over. I almost didn’t really think that much of it because I couldn’t really believe that I was going to see anything of great interest.
So I clearly remember the day I finally turned to actually opening these files, and I was just setting off on holiday to Ibiza for a few days, and I opened the files and my jaw just dropped. Suffice to say that it wasn’t much of a holiday because I just could not pull myself away from these messages. As a political journalist, even if you are at the heart of things and you think you’re very well-connected and you know all the cabinet ministers, you really only ever, I think, learn about five to 10% of what’s going on. Here, in front of me, was what seemed to be the government’s entire response to the pandemic by WhatsApp. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, kids in a sweet shop doesn’t cover it.
What was it about the messages that shocked you there? Candor? Was it that they were so cynical? Was it that you couldn’t believe it had all been written down basically? What were the things that struck you as you read these messages? Because you are an experienced political journalist and you’ve just said you were very surprised by what you read.
All of the above. What it is, it’s that difference between the formality and the meticulously chosen wording of what we, the public, are told by the carefully spun and choreographed messaging and presentations and what they’re really saying behind our backs. That’s what’s shocking. Perhaps it shouldn’t shock us. These are people after all, they’re human beings. They’re not automatons. They are having normal conversations privately about, “So-and-so’s having a bad hair day” and, “Oh my God, look at the way he looks” and, “Oh, I think he was on bad form during that meeting. Oh, I wish so-and-so would shut up.” All of that’s in there. But it’s the way that they are plotting behind our backs to manipulate the way we think in the context of this unprecedented removal of our fundamental freedoms, how they planned that, how they plotted to influence public opinion to, as one of the WhatsApp said, “frighten” the pants off people in another message by deploying the variant. This was an extraordinary insight into what was really going on and the difference between what they were saying and what we were being told.
When you read the messages, what did you think they, the politicians, thought of us as citizens?
Well, I’m going to make a briefcase for the defense here, which is that of course, they genuinely did want to save lives. On a human level, it wasn’t that they were callously thinking, “It doesn’t matter if the body’s pile high.” They were frightened. They were dealing with something no one had ever dealt with before, and they genuinely had a vision of horror. Here in the UK we lagged a bit behind North Italy in the impact of the virus. So we were looking in early March at these shocking… As March progressed of 2020, genuinely shocking images of gasping patients in corridors, in overwhelmed hospitals in Italy, and people were frightened.
So yes, our leading figures were genuinely very, very worried about minimizing to the best of their ability, the death toll from this thing. I think in the early fear and the chaos, all of that is quite reasonable and understandable. Where it gets less justifiable progressively is pretty quickly as we know that this thing is most likely only to kill the very elderly and the vulnerable, they’re really not straightforward about that, and they act as if everybody is at an equal risk.
There was some truly indefensible and unforgivable reporting encouraged by the government early on. For example, an absolute totemic moment, a shocking moment here in this country when a young boy, I think he was 11 or 12, possibly 13, a young boy was supposedly killed by the virus and there were terrible pictures in certain newspapers of his burial by a bunch of people in hazmat suits. He was buried alone. None of his family attended his funeral or his sendoff. These were terrifying images for people. It’s only fairly recently that it has transpired that that little boy was not killed by COVID.
What were some of the themes that you saw coming through from the messages, some of the behaviors of politicians and public servants that you saw?
So what we see in these messages is what happens when power is concentrated in the hands of very, very small number of people. In effect, all the normal government processes fell away, all the checks and balances, the safeguards, the parliamentary scrutiny, the cabinet scrutiny, it essentially collapsed in the panic of the situation. So what you ended up with was basically four people. You’ve got the Prime Minister then Boris Johnson, the then Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the health Secretary, and somebody called Michael Gove whose role was not very public at the time, but was playing an awful lot of an influential part behind the scenes. You’ve got this kind of quad of people who are taking decisions that affect every aspect of our lives from whether we can buy a magazine in the shops or not because it’s deemed to be a non-essential good, to whether we can walk out in the sunshine or sit in a park or hold the hand of an elderly relative in a care home.
They are making these decisions without any checks and balances amid their own political agendas, which being politicians is all about surviving. They’re not thinking about what’s this going to do to this country or our culture or our humanity in the longer term. They’re thinking about, “How do I even build on this to enhance my career?” And that theme, that theme of, “How do we exploit this crisis to enhance our reputations politically?” is one of the most shocking. You see it from I’m afraid Matt Hancock time and time again, he needs to have a good crisis. You’ll be familiar with this whole idea of political leaders having a good war. Well, Matt Hancock saw this as his opportunity to have a good war in his career. Some of the language around that early on in the pandemic from those WhatsApp is quite shocking. “You should own this. You should be missed a vaccine. You should be this. You should be that.” It’s not about how do we actually get this country through this with the minimum death toll and the minimum long-term effect.
I think what’s also extraordinarily striking about these WhatsApps is what they don’t show. And what they don’t show is any real debate. I mean, I say any real, any debate about the cost benefit analysis of any of this, the collateral damage any of it is causing. It is a messianic zeal to shut everything down, driven by an ideological desire to be able to say, “The least possible people have died today.” That’s it. They’re not thinking about the collateral damage. Now of course, these are Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages. They are not Rishi Sunak’s WhatsApp messages. He had a different focus. But it is remarkable that the key figure in this was not thinking about health in the wider sense. He wasn’t thinking about the dreadful knock-on effect. For example, in missed cancer diagnosis, the way our health service basically became almost overnight a COVID service and almost every other aspect of the health service was subjugated to that with dreadful knock-on consequences.
So one of the key mantras throughout the pandemic in this country was control the virus and save the NHS and save lives. It was all about protect the NHS. That was the key mantra. This is our much vaunted healthcare delivery system, the NHS. Free at the point of need, you have heard that I’m sure many times. And all of this was about protecting the NHS. Well, did it work? No, it was an utter catastrophe because the NHS today is in the worst state that it has ever been in, and there is interestingly no political dispute about that. All sides agree, the NHS now is on its knees and we have over 7 million people waiting for treatment. Some of whom have been waiting more than two years for treatment. So controlling the virus, saving lives, protecting the NHS didn’t work on any counts.
Can I ask you about the process you went through to come to a decision to release these documents, these WhatsApp messages, that are of huge public interest and importance? What was that process?
Really important question. So my first objective when working with Matt was to get the best possible book I could out of him. And so I pushed him hard to use as many of the WhatsApps as he was willing to in the book. And to be fair, we actually included a lot of them. It is a really long book. It’s about twice the length of a normal political book, and that’s partly because I was busy trying to shoehorn as much exciting material in there as I could. Even if it was in Matt Hancock’s perspective on it, I did manage to get with his support, a lot of WhatsApps in there that were not actually flattering to the government, and I think he deserves some credit for that.
So it was never my agenda of, “Let’s write a bit of an anodyne book, let’s just tick this box and then afterwards I’m going to blow it all up.” That was never my agenda as far. As I was concerned, I was trying to blow up as much as possible whilst maintaining the relationship with Matt Hancock in order to get the information.
So once that was achieved to the best of my ability… And it’s important to say the book made the impact I wanted it to. It attracted a huge amount of media coverage. This was in December of last year. We had almost a week’s worth of serialization in one of the biggest selling newspapers here in The Daily Mail. And there were lots of revelations there about the pandemic. And in many ways, that could have been that except there I was left with this huge cash of material. The book had been written in a hurry. It had been a huge challenge to get it done in the time available in the event it took the best part of a year.
But really that was no way a comfortable timeframe. I wasn’t being paid to do it, and I was trying to do other things around it that actually might pay the bills. So it had been a hurtling rush. I knew that I hadn’t had a chance to look at all the WhatsApps, I mean nowhere near, because there were 2.3 million words to read there. And I cherry-picked and rushed to the most obviously interesting. These WhatsApps came to me in files under names, so I could see on the list Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Tony Blair, looking down that list and choosing the biggest names and opening up those folders. And in some cases, there were ministers whose folders of material ran to 300 pages of WhatsApp.
So I’m rushing through it trying to pick out the most exciting stuff for the book, and I knew that there would be stuff in there that was very interesting, but that had not come across my desk. I hadn’t had a chance to look at it, or equally that Matt had said, “Actually, I’d rather we didn’t use that.” And to be fair, there were not that many things he vetoed, but this was not a forensic search of the material because we were just trying to get the diary written.
So I then thought, “What am I going to do with this material?” And I hadn’t told really many people at all that I had it, though you might think it was obvious from reading the diary. Surprisingly, a few journalists put two and two together, “Crikey, she must have seen rather a lot”. So I could have done nothing with this stuff. But as a lockdown skeptic, I was taking quite a bit of flak for having worked with Matt Hancock. Some people were accusing me of doing his dirty work for him, making him look a bit too good. So I wanted to write a piece for The Spectator Magazine about why I’d worked with Matt Hancock and what we’d learned from the book. And so as part of that, I talked to colleagues at The Spectator, including Fraser Nelson, who’s the editor of The Spectator Magazine. It’s a very famous publication, and I know you’ve got your version.
And we are very good friends with Spectator Australia here in this country and with Rowan Dean.
It covered the WhatsApp files brilliantly. It’s a brilliant magazine, very ideologically aligned with where I’m at. So I confidentially shared with Fraser Nelson that I’d got these WhatsApps and I said, “Look, I can’t use them. I can’t use anything from the WhatsApps that are not in the book because these are not mine to do that with and I’ve signed a confidentiality thing and so on, but I do want to write about what I’ve learned and I can draw from what I know.” And that led to more conversations with the Spectator and with a couple of trusted friends of mine as to is there anything more that can be done with these WhatsApps morally speaking. I’ve signed this confidentiality contract. I make a living, or at least did do, out of writing books for rich people generally. And rich people aren’t going to hire me to write their books if they think I’m just going to splurge all their secrets.
So from a self-preservation point of view, blowing up these WhatsApps was perhaps not going to be a great idea if I still wanted to be a ghostwriter for rich people. That said, I’ve written 10 books in the last 10 years and it’s quite wearying. This was an extraordinary treasure trove of material. My thinking was that perhaps there might be a calculation that it’s a price worth paying and maybe I need to move on to doing other things as well as writing books for people. So I reflected hard on it. The Spectator was very encouraging of the national interest case for publishing these WhatsApps. And these were all very delicate discussions, very private between trusted friends of mine there at the magazine and a couple of people that I trust too. And this was my dilemma, “If I blow this up, then I’m going to be vilified of having breached a confidentiality clause.”
I’m also a divisive character here. I’m very much associated with the Brexit campaign, which has been, I think we can say a mixed success in terms of its delivery of Brexit, not the actual idea, which I still think was the right one. So look, I attract a lot of flak on the best of days. So if I’m going to blow up 100,000 confidential messages between key figures and the government, I know there’s going to be a storm and I know that people are going to turn on me. That’s how it plays out in this place.
So I was nervous about it, but having given that encouragement from a few people that this really had to be done, that it wasn’t actually the right thing to do to sit on this material. And equally, if people had found out, my many critics had found out that I was sitting on 2.3 million words worth of highly pertinent information about how the response to the pandemic was handled, I would’ve been vilified for that too. Ironically, by the same people who would have a go at me for releasing the information, those self same people would’ve been horrified if I’d been seen to be covering up for my friends in the conservative party.
So in the end, I felt that on balance, the case was actually overwhelming. This was in the public interest. It might not be in my interest, although there’d be upsides for me because I think it felt like an important contribution to make. But I knew I would take a load of flak, but it was overwhelmingly in the public interest to do so. So I chose to work with The Telegraph newspaper on that because they had done many years ago, a decade or so ago or more than that now, they did an extraordinary expose into MP’s expenses claims. So they had that history of managing a highly sensitive expose involving government revelation. So they were the obvious paper to do it. They were the only paper bluntly that had made any effort whatsoever to push back on the lockdown narrative. And so I took the material to them, they were extremely enthusiastic about it and resourced the investigation in a way that I could not have dreamed would happen. I mean, they were absolutely brilliant. And that resulted in the expose some months later.
That had a huge impact here in Australia in some circles, but not in all. So Isabel, we’ll now talk about the media reaction to the release of the Lockdown Files. I might just read to you a few sentences from my article in The Australian Financial Review in March, a couple of weeks after the release of the files, and a few days after an interview that you did with the ABC here in Australia. So Isabel, this is what I wrote.
“Nearly all of the Australian media have carefully avoided any mention of the Matt Hancock WhatsApp story. No media outlet in this country was more enthusiastic about lockdowns and masks than the ABC, which perhaps explains why the government-owned news agency has all but ignored Hancock and his messages. There are twice as many news stories on the ABC website about Matt Hancock appearing on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here than there are about the WhatsApp messages.
One, that single story was a nine-minute interview on ABC Radio National earlier this week with Isabel Oakeshott, the British journalist who revealed Hancock’s messages. The first six minutes of the interview was taken up with questions about the ethics of releasing the messages. And then the next three minutes, the ABC host, Patricia Karvelas, attempted to argue that there was little newsworthy in those messages.” And this is how I concluded my piece. “This country’s media spent two years telling Australians to unquestioningly obey the government. It would disturb the narrative for journalists to admit to the public or to themselves that so much of what we were told to do during the COVID crisis by politicians was the product of the selfishness and self-interest of those politicians.”
And Isabel, I checked earlier today, and as of this morning, Melbourne’s newspaper of record still has not a single mention of the messages. Isabel, what was the reaction of most of the media to the revelations of the Lockdown Files?
Well, the reaction was extraordinary. I mean, I’d had the conversation with the editor of the Spectator before the files were released about how bad this was going to be for me. And I did warn, I said, “Look, it’s going to be horrific.” And he said, “Well, I don’t think I’ll be that bad, will it?” I’ve been through so many storms here with big stories and no big story comes without collateral, and I’m always part of the collateral and I don’t always get everything right. So I’m used to be beaten up, that’s normal. But this was pretty off the charts from some quarters. I mean, it was exactly the same here in a number of outlets focused heavily on me and my breach of a confidentiality clause, which is really is nothing to the importance of what we were learning about the most momentous events of our times.
The actual substance of the revelations were really important. This isn’t just about the sort of sinister group think of a small group of very, very powerful people or the collapse of normal government. There were very, very tangible revelations there about what went on in care homes about, for example, the fact that we were in this country locked down for much longer than was necessary, for example, in terms of the quarantine period that was imposed on anyone who had a positive test or had been in contact with someone who might be infected. They knew that it didn’t need to be as many days as they made us do. After a certain period, they found out that some of those extra days were entirely pointless, but they didn’t want to tell us that because then it would’ve made it look like they’d screwed up. So instead, in order to save their own blushes, everybody was made to carry on quarantining entirely unnecessarily and at billions of costs to the economy.
So my point is that there were really important revelations here about the human impact, about the economic impact, and about the way decisions were made. Shocking, shocking revelations. And instead, many media outlets concentrated on me and how nasty I’d been to Matt Hancock.
Why do you think that is Isabel? What explains what the media did? Were they embarrassed? Were they ashamed that they didn’t have the story? Was it, as I wrote, that you disturbed the narrative? What do you think explains that? And then if I can ask a second question to follow on, what does that say about the mainstream media today? Not just about COVID, but about a whole host of other issues.
Well, it was all of those things. And I should say that I was actually delighted by the impact the story had made so that I can take being a bit knocked about. That’s normal. And I was delighted that the BBC covered it very, very heavily. Now, I might not have liked every angle that they took. I might not have liked the fact that the Today Program, which is our most important radio state broadcaster pro political program in the mornings, had a real good go at me for my ethics and so on. But I loved the fact that they were covering the story. They couldn’t avoid it. And the BBC and other areas of their coverage was actually pretty fair. So nobody could ignore the story. And turning on me, well, it makes for a picture, doesn’t it? I’ve got plenty of history that they can dredge up of other stories they didn’t like.
But I think that you touch on it where you say that this was very uncomfortable for most of the media because these were the journalists that day after day wound things up that actually pushed for more restrictions, that wanted lockdowns, that were the cheerleaders for the policy, and day after day failed and failed and failed again to ask the right questions, the searching questions of those who were in imposing these policies on us. And so they are incredibly invested in what happened. They supported it so it’s very-
They invested in the UK, in the US, in Australia. Isabel, why do you think they were cheerleaders? Why were they so invested in locking us down?
Well, I’m going to give a very sad answer in a way, just talking about the way the lobby works here in the UK and the way the media works here. There often isn’t in terms of the lobby. And these were the group of journalists that were in those daily press conferences, so they had the opportunity to challenge the policy. I’ve been in the lobby for 10 years, so I know the mindset and it’s just all about the most dramatic story. There’s not necessarily anything ideological about it. If there’s an agenda, it’s anarchy. They want the worst, the most negative story that could possibly be printed the next day. It doesn’t sell papers to say, “Everything’s all right, let’s all just carry on.” It sells papers to say, “This could last for two years.” It’s very easy to rack things up, to ramp things up, to make things more dramatic than they need to be. So that’s one answer to the question. It’s just the mindset of the lobby. “We need more lockdown. Well, just because it’s a better story.”
I think also people were frightened. The government campaign in the early days of the pandemic was to frighten people, and they deliberately set out to do that, was incredibly impactful. I know from my own relatives, my elderly mother was very frightened. This was going to kill people, we were told that. So that was part of it too. I think one thing that has positively come out of the Lockdown Files, and this is really important, what did it achieve? I think next time, and there will be a next time, there is a pandemic here, and the government starts talking about restrictions, there is no way the media in this country, and I hope it’s the case elsewhere in some other countries, there is no way that they are blindly going to go along with it without asking some pretty damn difficult questions.
Now, they might not right now want to admit that they cocked it up, that they failed in their duties as journalists, but basically they know they did. And some of them have had the good grace to admit it. So for example, to take one of the biggest names in broadcasting in this country, Piers Morgan, who has said, “Look, hands up, I got it wrong.” He was a big cheerleader for lockdown, didn’t ask the right questions, and he admits that now. There is no way next time he would be pushing for more and more and more of these restrictions without saying, “Well, what’s really going on? Because we know last time these WhatsApp messages, so you guys were actually saying something quite different behind the scenes.”
In the time that we have remaining, Isabel, can I discuss with you an aspect of what occurred in the UK, the US, and here in Australia, the government censorship of alternative thought? I ask this in the context not just of what happened two years ago, but here in Australia, our Labor government is proposing new government censorship of social media, and that was an idea first proposed by a conservative government. I know that in the UK, the Conservative government is proposing similar measures. How do you explain the desire of seemingly Conservative government to censor us and how do we fight back?
This is one of the most sinister, in fact, terrifying aspects of what happened during the pandemic, the suppression of any dissent, any critical voices. I touched on this at the beginning of our conversation and said I wasn’t on the BBC for the best part of two years. I literally dropped off their radar apparently, never invited onto anything because I was an alternative voice. They didn’t like that. And the area in which this has been perhaps most frightening has been the suppression of any debate around the efficacy and procurement policy of the vaccines.
And it’s always necessary in this country, I don’t know how it is in Australia, to say, “Before you go into any discussion about the vaccines, I’m not an anti-vaxxer.” And the reason we have to say that is because the government did such an incredibly effective job of smearing and vilifying anyone who questioned the rollout of the vaccines, the money that went into it, how effective they were and so on. All totally legitimate questions, they were systematically smeared as nutters, as fringe voices, as dangerous and so on. And the power of the social media companies was harnessed in order to crush those voices. And that goes on to this day.
Actually in the Lockdown Files, we barely touched on vaccine policy and procurement, and there’s a lot in those WhatsApp files about all of that. It is a measure of the persistent nerves around that debate in this country that The Telegraph, in its first phase of the Lockdown Files, didn’t want to do that. And very wisely, because if we had gone in there on a vaccine theme, I think the story wouldn’t have got the hearing it did. So that may well be phase two by the way, standby for that because the narrative, I’m glad to say, is changing here, albeit very slowly. But we should be very worried about the way so-called Conservative governments here and also in many other parts of the world went along with this, the way that they tried to shut down debate.
I know that your members, this is something that really troubles them and we need to have a bit of hope for the future. I think that hope is that people are waking up to what was done. The Lockdown Files here in the UK, I think, help that because there’s quite a lot of discussion about how, for example, the very eminent distinguished scientists who had proposed an alternative response to the pandemic in the form of the Barrington Declaration, which argued for a very different approach to national lockdowns, they were vilified. Their reputations were traduced by this government very, very deliberately. People now know what was going on behind the scenes. And I think that there is a much more public awareness of the way governments use their power to manipulate what does and doesn’t appear on social media and who we do and we don’t hear from.
And in this country, there’s great work done by Toby Young on the Free Speech Union. That is an organisation that if your members are not familiar with, please look at it. Toby and his team there do fantastic work. They bring legal cases, challenging the government over suppression of free speech. And this is expensive. You know how costly it is to challenge governments. And often you lose, but you’ve got to do it because if nobody tries, then they just get more and more brave and bold and outrageous in what they think they can stop.
And Toby Young, of course, has been a previous guest on IPA Encounters. It’s nice to be finishing our discussion on some optimistic notes. So you’ve spoken about your ideas of hope for the future. You know politicians very well. Are politicians or some politicians beginning to understand what they’ve done to us and why this can’t happen again?
I think the emphasis there is some, some. The problem is that very much in the same way as the media, they are so invested in what happened. It is really, really hard to admit you got it wrong because then you are admitting that where we are now as a country here in the UK, we are in a terrible state. Our economy is on its knees. Despite the sort of spin about us being way better than many other counterparts in Europe, we are in just a dismal state.
One thing we haven’t touched on is the extent to which the culture of the state taking care of everything, the state handing out yet more benefits to look after you while you do nothing. That is really, really insidious. It ballooned during lockdown. We had a whole new culture of thinking the state should be ever, ever bigger and more “protective” of its citizens. And the impact on that is generational. In this country now, we have one in eight people of working age are on out-of-work benefits at a time when there’s no end of jobs going, because we can’t get people to do those jobs because they get paid to sit at home. And they got used to being paid to sit at home by Rishi Sunak’s so-called Furlough scheme, which was ludicrously generous and we’re all paying the price for that now. So it’s really difficult for politicians to admit they got it wrong because it wasn’t just this conservative government so-called that did this.
On the labor side, the opposition pushed for even more. They were utterly negligent in their job of opposition in terms of actually scrutinising whether the fundamentals were correct. They took as a given that lockdowns were the way to deal with this. Nobody on the Labour side was really questioning it. So they failed. And very few of them, I’m not aware of any opposition politician that has vocally admitted that they fundamentally got this wrong. It’s too much for them, it’s too painful for them. They can’t. But I think on the conservative side here, how much use this is, I don’t know, because they’re going to crash out of government soon, they do basically admit that this was a catastrophe and that it was their fault.
Can I ask you two final questions, Isabel? The first question, and many IPA members have asked me to ask you this, what can they do as individuals? What can they do as citizens to confront and defeat some of the things we’ve been talking about today? What’s your advice to them?
Well, it’s a really important task, isn’t it? Because most people don’t have a platform. The answer is if you have a platform, then bravely use it but be prepared to get your tin hat on because this isn’t pretty. And if you don’t have a platform, then support the people that do. So for example, whatever your equivalent of the Free Speech Union is, whatever organisations you have that fight for these so important civil liberties and fundamental freedoms, the organizations that vocally push back, that highlight what happened to the small person, that highlight the impact of lockdowns on the little people who never had a voice and were forced to suffer so utterly, terribly the impact of lockdowns, it’s all very well for politicians in their leafy suburbs and their nice houses to impose this on us, the voices of those who are still paying the price. There are organisations that continue to highlight this, to champion it, whether it’s charities that are working for lockdown victims. They’re not called that, but in different ways.
But most importantly, supporting legal cases, supporting challenges to the government over suppression of free speech. It’s unsung work. You are often poring, whether it’s big money or small money, it feels like maybe it’s a waste of time. Maybe this thing is too big, maybe there’s no point. It’s overwhelming. But unless we try, then we can’t complain if this just gets progressively worse. And our so-called democracies are really not democracies anymore. That’s what’s at stake here.
Isabel, that is so beautifully put. My final question to you for this wonderful discussion that we’ve had on IPA Encounters, are you optimistic about the future?
I’m worried about the future. Let me be quite plain about that. I am really worried about the future. I am still every day stunned by what happened to us. I am stunned that the people we elected to represent us betrayed us so badly, got it so catastrophically wrong. I’m willing to cut them some slack for this having been unprecedented and from them having been terrified and wanting to save lives. But they do not have an excuse for the way they handled it over the length of time that they did.
Every day I am still disappointed that people that I knew and admired and respected implemented these policies. And I’m disappointed and deeply disturbed by what happened culturally, that we had neighbors snooping and spying on each other. And by the way, in this country, they were actively encouraged to do so by our then Home Secretary who literally encouraged people to report on their neighbors for lockdown breaches. I cannot think of anything more unconservative or grotesque than that. So am I optimistic? Look, there is all to play for. Our democracy’s fragile as they are still just about in place, but we cannot ever let this happen to us again. And we have to be on our guard and we have to be prepared to fight and we have to be prepared to take a load of brick bats in the process.
Isabel, that is a wonderful note on which to finish this discussion. Thank you for what you do for freedom. Thank you for being a beacon to us here in Australia over a long period of time. And we wish you all the very best for the future. Thank you.
Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you.
This transcript of IPA Encounters from 13 July with Isabel Oakeshott has been edited for clarity.