• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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IPSO Backs Tom Newton Dunn’s Deleted “Hijacked Labour” Conspiracy Chart Article

It has now been a bit longer than a month since the the Sun newspaper published, and then deleted, an article promoting a website that purported to have traced how 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 fact that Corbyn has had some controversial and discreditable associations over the years is hardly news, but the website’s chain of associations was absurdly diffuse and conspiratorial. At least one person who had left the Labour Party over Corbyn was annoyed to find his name on it; there were inexplicable inclusions, such as the comedy actor Matt Berry; the authors appear to have a crank obsession with three French philosophers (Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard); and there were signs of sloppiness and incompetence (Keir Starmer becoming “Kevin Starmer”, for instance).

What did for the Sun article, though, was when social media users noticed that sources for further reading were included alongside some of the names, and that these sources included neo-Nazi websites. That was apparently too much even for the Sun, and the piece was promptly pulled. The article’s author, Tom Newton Dunn, has declined to comment on the matter since then, although he did apparently take to Wikipedia to try to have a reference to the incident suppressed from his page.

Of course, there is no law against promoting a crank conspiracy website that uses vile sources, although those named on it might reasonably complain that the Sun had amplified a smear website that was inciting hatred against them. What interested me, though, was that Newton Dunn had misled his readers about the website’s provenance and the credentials of the persons behind it. According to Newton Dunn, the website was the work of “former British intelligence officers”, led by “ex-SAS officer turned author Mark Bles”. These details were reported as fact, and so I decided to make a complaint to the press regulatory body IPSO.

My complaint was follows. First, Mark Bles (real name Mark Whitcombe-Power) is not a “former intelligence officer”. The SAS is an elite combat unit, but it is not an agency of British intelligence. Second, the website, called “Hijacked Labour”, was obviously a reworking of an earlier website called “Traitors Chart”, toned down slightly with a less inflammatory name and the most egregious absurdities removed. That earlier website was deleted as soon as the new one was created, which was a few days before Newton Dunn wrote up his story. Clearly, someone was trying to obscure their tracks, and those curious about where the chart really came from would be advised to probe the websites that first promoted the “Traitors Chart” (there’s also a video with a narrator – also deleted, but helpfully preserved here). And third, the poor quality of the website is manifest grounds for scepticism as to its purported origins with “intelligence officers”. There is no evidence that this “group” of ex-officers actually exists, and I’m inclined to the view that Bles was duped into fronting the project.

IPSO, however, is unconcerned. The body has written to me to explain that “the SAS, as a unit, are often involved in covert intelligence gathering”, and also that I did not dispute that Mr Bles had “worked as an ‘intelligence specialist’ outside of the SAS.” As such, there is no “significant inaccuracy”. It should be noted that this is not the Sun‘s defence of its article – this is IPSO’s own argument. In other words, when a complaint is made to IPSO, the organisation serves as both defence counsel and judge.

I was invited to respond to this within seven days if I wished IPSO to reconsider – however, the email was sent to me on the afternoon of 24 December, meaning that a seven-day deadline was actually three working days away. It is difficult not to regard this as deliberately obstructive.

My response was that many jobs involve “covert intelligence gathering” – police officers, benefits investigators and so on. That does not make those who do them “British intelligence agents”. I added that that term “intelligence specialist” has no specific meaning, but that in any case it is irrelevant here. The point is that “British intelligence officer” obviously designates membership of an arm of British intelligence.

Three weeks later, it has been explained to me by IPSO that that article’s headline stated that “Ex-British intelligence officers say Jeremy Corbyn is at the centre of a hard-left extremist network”, and that this word “say” means that the claim was not being reported as fact. As such, I have no case.

This was a curious reply, as it argued against a point that I had not raised. The problem with “Ex-British intelligence officers say” is not with the word “say”, but with the designation “ex-British intelligence officers” being reported as fact. Such an obtuse misreading of my complaint suggests to me bad faith.