A Note on the Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn and a Conspiracy Website

From Daniel Trilling in the Guardian:

On Saturday [i.e. a week ago], the Sun published an exclusive story by its political editor, Tom Newton Dunn, which announced that a group of former British intelligence officers had uncovered a “hard-left extremist network” at the heart of the Labour party. “HIJACKED LABOUR” declared the piece, which went on to claim that Jeremy Corbyn sits at the centre of a “spider’s web of extensive contacts” that stretch “from Marxist intellectuals to militant groups and illegal terror organisations”.

The article was online for just a few hours, and was not included in the print edition. It seems that it was removed after some people on social media noticed that the website, itself called “Hijacked Labour”, had cited the neo-Nazi website “Aryan Unity” as a source –  although even without this particularly egregious aspect the website was an obvious crank effusion that made connections that were either banal, inexplicable or simply wrong. One link led to the actor Matt Berry, while a bizarre emphasis was placed on the supposed influence of the deceased French philosophers Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. At least one person named on the chart complained about their inclusion: this was a doctor named David Rouse, who stated that “I quit labour the moment Corbyn got in as I disagree with his politics.  So looks like they need to try and get their facts right”.

The likely reason why Newton Dunn (or perhaps a more junior reporter providing ghosted content) chanced his arm with the story was that it presented itself as being the work of “former British intelligence officers”. Some critics of the story, eager to detect the media manipulations of “spooks”, took this at face value, but surely a propaganda operation would not have made such a hash of it. It is much more likely that Newton Dunn simply found it expedient not to probe the claims of the site’s creators in any detail, and that as such he was stung by charlatans.

The only supposed author of the site named by Newton Dunn was one Mark Bles, the pen name of a former SAS officer named Mark Whitcombe-Power who resides at a French farm and runs an olive oil business. An SAS background does not make someone an “intelligence officer”, and does not substantiate the existence of a group of such officers. Bles was afterwards contacted by the Guardian’s Jim Waterson, who quotes him as saying “I think it’s an excellent chart, it has a lot of data in it. The data that is in it has all been found on the web”. This sounds buffoonish rather than mysterious or sinister, and my instinct is that he is simply a foolish man whose vanity and confirmation bias made him prey to other bad actors.

Trilling notes that the “Hijacked Labour” website “resembles an earlier graphic that first appeared online in August, under the name the Traitor’s Chart”. That earlier site has now been deleted, along with an associated Twitter feed and YouTube channel (actually, the YouTube channel has been repurposed, with a new name and a prurient banner header that shows some young women exposing their backsides to the camera). The site that first drew attention to the “Traitors Chart” website (and that appears to follow the same website template) has also deleted a page that announced its existence.

Although the earlier “Traitors Chart” was more extensive, the similarities with “Hijacked Labour” were striking: on both sites, Martin McGuinness is misspelt as “Martin McGuiness” and Pat Doherty as “Pat Docherty” (H/T Tribune), and the reference to the three French philosophers took the form of “POSTMODERN NEO-MARXISM JF Lyotard RIP / Jacques Derrida RIP / Michel Foucault RIP”. The “Traitors Chart” website went private just as the “Hijacked Labour” website went live, thus proving an active connection between the two sites. One would like to know Bles’s explanation for this background.

The “Hijacked Labour” website described its content as being a “J2 analysis”. The meaning of this term is unclear, and I think was just a random obscurantism designed to give the impression that the site’s obvious shortcomings actually reflected some deep methodology that ordinary readers would be unable to appreciate. The site also made use of a chatbot engine designed by one Dr Andrew Edwards, who drew attention to its use on Facebook (h/t Naadir Jeewah for this detail).

UPDATE: As noted by Scram News, Newton Dunn subsequently attempted to scrub all reference to the story from his Wikipedia entry, describing it as a “falsehood”. Scram News says that the “the description of the controversy was fair and accurate”, but there was an fact one inaccuracy which I believe he seized on – the passage stated that “the piece included links to the antisemitic conspiracy website the Millennium Report”, when this ought to been “the piece’s source included links…”. Rather than correct this detail, however, Newton Dunn preferred to delete the whole thing. Seems to be a pattern.

UPDATE 2: The press regulator IPSO has declined to take up the issues I raise above, See here.

Footnote 1

The Tribune article referenced above also notes that the chart was praised online by the conservative writer and historian Giles Udy, who described it as “One of the most significant pieces of research I’ve seen for a while”. This was on the same day that the Sun story appeared, meaning that his endorsement was most likely based on a cursory assessment of the site, or perhaps just the Sun article itself.

Footnote 2

A bit more background on Mark Whitcombe-Power. The Sun describes him as having been a “hostage negotiator”, and a bit of Googling finds that he was formerly associated with Halliburton and with a company called Resource Consultants. In 2014 he was also part of a European Union Election Exploratory Mission to the Maldives, in which capacity he was described as a “security expert”.

 

One Response

  1. I suspect the “J2 Analysis” is a reference to this:

    https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/the-permanent-joint-headquarters

    So it sounds like an attempt to claim some sort of insider knowledge of intelligence matters.

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