Government must not curtail free speech, minister says

government must not curtail free speech, minister says

Minister of State for Immigration Robert Jenrick arrives at BBC Broadcasting House on June 4 – Aaron Chown/PA

The Government must not curtail free speech, a minister has said, in the wake of The Telegraph’s revelations that it set up a secret unit to curb criticism of lockdown.

The Counter-Disinformation Unit worked with social media companies to curtail criticism of lockdown policies during the pandemic.

Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, told GB News that free speech was one of the great “tenets” of this country.

But he said it was his understanding that the unit did not monitor specific individuals.

Asked whether he said the existence of the Unit needed to be investigated, he said: “I believe in free speech.

“I don’t believe in governments or other people clamping down on the ability of individuals to speak their mind on the issues of the day.”

He added: “This unit did not take action against any individual, and there was a very clear policy that no journalist or politician should ever be monitored.”

Taken down by Facebook

The minister was then pressed by presenter Camilla Tominey about the case of David Davis, who gave a speech about the efficacy of face masks. The speech was later taken down by Facebook.

Asked whether this “over-monitoring of free speech” worried him as a Conservative, he replied: “I believe in free speech.

“I want politicians, members of the public, you as a journalist to be able to speak your mind without fear or favour.

“As I understand it, this unit within the Cabinet Office did not monitor specific individuals but on the broader point, we believe in free speech as a government. That’s one of the great tenets of this country and we should always fight for that.”

Freedom of Information and data protection requests reveal that an artificial intelligence firm was used by the Government to scour social media sites.

‘Trusted flagger’ status

The company flagged discussions including those opposing vaccine passports to the unit. Many of the issues being raised were valid and have since proved to be well founded.

The unit was embedded in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The department has “trusted flagger” status at social media companies including Facebook and Twitter – which means that requests for content to be removed are fast-tracked for consideration.

Much of the Government’s wider work on disinformation is shrouded in secrecy for “national security” reasons and large parts of official documents are still redacted.

The Government has said that the CDU “is focused on helping the Government understand online disinformation narratives and understand attempts to artificially manipulate the information environment”.

On Saturday, Elon Musk condemned the CDU after it was exposed in The Telegraph.

The billionaire Twitter owner, who purchased the company in October 2022, took to his own platform to condemn the approach as “Terrible”.

Mr Musk has previously been outspoken on so-called “Covid misinformation”, accusing the BBC earlier this year of covering up the side effects of Covid vaccinations and spreading misinformation about masks.

Andrew Dudfield, the interim chief executive at Full Fact, an independent fact checking organisation, said the taxpayer-funded unit needed to be open and transparent.

“Bad information ruins lives. We saw that first hand throughout the pandemic,” he said.

“But in an open society there are better ways to tackle it than censorship through internet companies.

“The Counter Disinformation Unit needs open transparent democratic oversight.”

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