Channel 4 Broadcasts Documentary Series on the Daniel Morgan Murder

From Channel 4:

Murder In The Carpark, a new three-part series for Channel 4 produced by Indefinite Films, will explore the most investigated unsolved murder in the history of the Metropolitan Police. On 10th March 1987 Private Investigator Daniel Morgan was brutally murdered with an axe in the carpark of a south London pub. There were no witnesses.

Four years in the making, the series will tell the incredible story of an unsolved murder which over the decades has involved accusations of police corruption, the tabloid press, covert operations, the phone hacking scandal and asks how, with millions of pounds in public money spent, has no one ever been brought to justice for this heinous crime…

For the first time ever Morgan’s business partner, Jonathan Rees, ex-Metropolitan police detective Sid Fillery and Rees’ former brother-in-law Glenn Vian will collectively give their accounts. These three men who have found themselves under investigation for over three decades, they will give their accounts from the time of the murder, and in the years following, as police investigations unravelled again and again…

We hear from Daniel’s brother Alastair Morgan, who has been campaigning alongside his family tirelessly for the truth…

The whole series can be viewed in the UK on the Channel 4 player here (1). The total running time is 170 minutes; Parts 1 and 2 have already been broadcast (Part 1 unfortunately clashed with Part 2 of the BBC drama documentary The Salisbury Poisonings), and Part 3 will go out on Monday. Alastair’s verdict is that the series is “really, really good. Shows the sheer breadth of corruption going on at that time”.

There were, though, some misgivings when the project was first announced: in particular, in 2017 Paddy French’s website Press Gang revealed that it had “obtained a copy of an email from producer Jim Nally sent to police officers involved in the case”, in which Nally had written:

“…we’ve got Sid Fillery on board, which is important, as accusations of police corruption have been so lazily bandied about by the Morgan campaign that we felt it was about time someone said ‘show me the evidence’, which is exactly Sid’s point which he delivered really well.”

Of course a journalist wanting to elicit information needs to put potential informants at their ease, but this seemed to go beyond that – unduly dismissive of Alastair Morgan’s efforts and almost identifying with Fillery’s protestations of innocence.

There were also other reasons for concern: Nally’s journalistic associates (2) include a man with a grudge against Alastair’s co-author Peter Jukes, which may have coloured his perspective, and Ian Gallagher, a Daily Mail journalist who in 2014 had co-authored an article that appeared to align with Rees’s defence case that the initial investigation in 1987 had failed due to police incompetence at the murder scene. According to the article:

Detective Superintendent Douglas Campbell, turned up at 11.12pm, and, according to one of his junior officers, ‘ordered a bottle of scotch’. Detective Constable Noel Cosgrave said in his witness statement that he approached Campbell at the bar and noticed ‘he was already inebriated’. He added: ‘I suggested he hand the case over to another senior officer. He didn’t take kindly to my words and told me to leave.’

This claim is toned down in the documentary: a purported reconstruction shows Campbell ordering a whisky at the bar, but not a whole bottle, and he is not depicted as visibly drunk, although Cosgrove suggests to him he could do with “some kip”. The reconstruction does not mention the exact time, but Campbell’s arrival at 11.12 pm is confirmed in other sources, and this raises the problem of how he could have ordered a drink after the 11 pm licensing cut-off. Further, Malcolm Davidson, who was third in command, expresses incredulity in the documentary at the idea of Campbell drinking on duty. Gallagher’s co-author on the Daily Mail story was Sylvia Jones, a freelancer who has known Rees for some years.

The 2017 Press Gang post also reported that “Alastair Morgan has declined to take part” in the documentary. Asked about his involvement more recently on Twitter, Alastair said that “I did finally engage after there were some changes in the team behind the programme.”

Notes

1. Listings vary between Murder in the Car Park and Murder in the Carpark.

2. See the acknowledgements in Nally’s book Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and Kevin Fulton’s Double Agent: My Secret Life Undercover in the IRA, which was ghostwritten by Nally and Gallagher.

The Independent Revises Articles on Rebecca Long-Bailey and Maxine Peake

From the Independent, version 1:

Keir Starmer asks Rebecca Long-Bailey to step down after sharing article containing antisemitic conspiracy theory

In a dramatic move, Sir Keir Starmer asked his former leadership rival to step down as shadow education secretary for retweeting an interview with the actress Maxine Peake, in which the actress claimed US police responsible for the death of George Floyd had learned their tactics from seminars with Israeli forces.

The Labour frontbencher shared The Independent article, describing the 45-year-old actress, who was a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership of the Labour Party, as an “absolute diamond”.

From the Independent, version 2:

Starmer sacks Long-Bailey in row over left-wing actor’s ‘antisemitic’ comments

Labour leader Keir Starmer has sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from his shadow cabinet, in a move that risks igniting civil war within the party.

Ms Long-Bailey described Maxine Peake as a “diamond” on Twitter and shared an interview with The Independent that revealed the left-wing actor’s “antisemitic” view relating to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, stating that the US police responsible had learned their tactics from Israeli forces.

The original headline referring to Long-Bailey – and similar headlines currently ricocheting around social media – gives the impression that she had promoted some crank screed about “Rothschild Zionists” or such rather than Tweeted about a celebrity interview published in a mainstream newspaper’s arts & entertainment section. The interview is 1,500 words long, and is mostly about Peake’s Labour politics and acting career. The reference to Israel is a passing comment that appears in the second half of paragraph five:

“Systemic racism is a global issue,” she adds. “The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.”

The Independent apparently foresaw that this comment might be controversial, and so the paper sourced a response from an Israeli police spokesperson that was placed in brackets after Peake’s comment. This also went through two iterations.

Version 1:

(Though a spokesperson for the Israeli police has denied this, a 2016 Amnesty International report said that hundreds of law enforcement officials had travelled to Israel for training.)

Version 2:

(A spokesperson for the Israeli police has denied this, stating that “there is no tactic or protocol that calls to put pressure on the neck or airway”.)

This amendment is acknowledged in an update at the end of the article:

UPDATE (25.06.20): This article has been amended to further clarify that the allegation that US police were taught tactics of “neck kneeling” by Israeli secret services is unfounded. The original version did carry a denial from Israeli police, however we are happy to further clarify the matter.

The problem here though is that although version 1 referred to the denial it was not in fact carried. The implication of version 1 was that Israeli police deny such training, but that this is disputed by Amnesty International. Why was the direct quote not used in version 1?

The 2016 Amnesty “report” – actually a polemical blog post by a member rather than a formal study – can be seen here. It notes that “Baltimore law enforcement officials, along with hundreds of others from Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Arizona, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Georgia, Washington state as well as the DC Capitol police have all traveled to Israel for training. Thousands of others have received training from Israeli officials here in the U.S.”

The article links this in particular with “widespread constitutional violations, discriminatory enforcement, and culture of retaliation” within the Baltimore Police Department. This conclusion is inferred in a general and impressionistic way from the fact of such training alongside anecdotal claims about abuses in Israel, rather than established by detailed documentation or robust correlations.

The notion that “Israel” has hidden explanatory relevance for police brutality in the USA is unduly conspiratorial. Further, Amnesty has now issued a statement clarifying that

its report does not show any evidence of “neck kneeling” as a technique taught by the Israeli secret services, nor evidence that the Minnesota police force received training from the Israeli secret services.

This is reported in the New Statesman, which also states that Peake has retracted the claim.

Conservative MPs Encourage Take-Up of Trumpist Twitter Alternative

On Twitter, Conservative member of Parliament Angela Richardson commends rival platform Parler:

Not everyone on Twitter is hard left. Not everyone on @parler_app is hard right. I care about protecting free speech. I detest pile ons on figures both on the left and right. We need to promote our free and tolerant society, not inflame hatred.

Richardson was one of several MPs to join the platform over the weekend; as of last night, Mark Bartlam noted the presence of “Steve Baker, Ranil Jayawardena, Ben Bradley, Mark Jenkinson, Maria Caulfield, Angela Richardson, Luke Evans, Therese Coffey, Nadine Dorries, Dean Russell, Henry Smith, Rob Roberts”. There may be a risk of impersonation with some of these, although some MPs, like Richardson, have independently confirmed they are on the site.

One crucial difference between Twitter and Parler is that unprotected Twitter content is visible on search engines and can be accessed by anyone via a web browser. In contrast, Parler content is visible only to people who have signed up to the service. If, then, constituents or the wider public want to know what their MP is saying on Parler, they have to become a member – and that means joining a platform that clearly exists to promote and consolidate Trumpism.

A Twitter user named Steve Shaw went through the sign-up process, and this is what he saw:

Immediately you’re given a choice of “unbiased” people to follow, including Eric Trump, Team Trump, some Trump supporters and apologists, Rand Paul, and a few rightwing grifters. The list quickly cycles and repeats

Further:

On the “discover” page, you’re met with nothing but rightwing propaganda [here]; As soon as you join you auto-post a message, then you get a recruitment message from Team Trump and a couple of bots [here]; When you click search, you get the same alt-right grifters and more Team Trump stuff [here]; The trending hashtags are exactly what you’d expect [here].

Those prominent hashtags include tags promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory. Shaw also discovered crudely racist content by “randomly scrolling” [here]. The news sources promoted to users are almost exclusively fringe-right, such as the Daily CallerEpoch Times and Zero Hedge and Bongino Report; Mic Wright found the same thing when he signed up, with Breitbart heading the list.

Some may be under the impression that this merely reflects what is popular, and that if there is an influx of new users and new media-linked accounts with different views then the recommendations will change. However, given the site’s rightward momentum such a shift seems to me unlikely: also, Dan Bongino‘s prominence on the platform may have something to do with the fact that he is a Parler “partner”, with an “ownership stake in the firm”. Parler CEO John Matze, meanwhile, was interviewed by Lara Trump last August.

The British MPs are not being explicit about why exactly this weekend was when they chose to join up, although it is just a few days after Katie Hopkins was “permanently suspended” (i.e. banned) from Twitter. Parler, in contrast, adheres only to the Federal Communications Commission’s guidelines when it comes to removing anti-social content. However, as noted by The Forward last July:

John Matze, the self-described libertarian engineer behind Parler, says his goal is to provide an alternative to Twitter by fostering political discourse more like what you get in real life, when face-to-face conversations mitigate much of the anger. He hasn’t succeeded as yet, however. Parler is full of fury, fear and conspiracy theories. What’s more, the platform doesn’t have the technology or resources necessary to contain the Jew-hatred and Islamophobia so easily found there.

The fact that Twitter is both a private social media platform but also now communication infrastructure is doubtless a tricky balancing act, and Twitter doesn’t always get it right; but a popular platform that doesn’t make any serious attempt crack down on hate speech is very likely to become swamped by it, whatever the intentions of those who join.

War Memorial Anti-Racist Vandalism Fears: Some Observations

Sunderland:

Group gathers at Sunderland war memorial to ‘protect it from vandalism’

A group has gathered at the Sunderland war memorial on Burdon Road to protect it from vandalism – despite no Black Lives Matter protests planned in the city.

Brighton:

A GROUP of about 30 people have gathered in front of a war memorial to “protect it” during a Black Lives Matter march.

Two soldiers are among those standing in front of the memorial in Old Steine, Brighton, today.

Kettering:

Veterans guarded Kettering’s war memorial this afternoon (Friday) because they feared anti-racism protesters might vandalise it.

About 30 men, many of them veterans, surrounded the cenotaph on the corner of Sheep Street for about two hours and were spoken to by police.

Bristol:

Hundreds of people have gathered in Bristol city centre as part of a ‘All Lives Matter’ protest, saying they are there to ‘defend the cenotaph’.

Protesters are seen holding signs with ‘Not Far Right’ and ”All Lives Matter’ on them.

Rhyl:

Police have taken action over fears that a group is planning to damage the war memorial in Rhyl.

North Wales Police has issued a dispersal order after they were told of plans by a small group of people to cause damage to the memorial off East Parade.

Thus the Sunday Telegraph:

Ten-year jail sentences for desecrating war memorials

Ministers to crack down on those who damage monuments as violence breaks out at protests

The legislation under consideration appears to be the same as the Desecration of War Memorials Bill of 2010; this document’s online presence has led some to suppose the existence of a “Desecration of War Memorials Act 2010”, when in fact the proposal was a Private Member’s Bill that never got through Parliament for the usual procedural reasons. The Bill was inspired by an incident in which a drunken woman had urinated on a memorial in Blackpool and “performed a sexual act” at the location, although Islamist provocations were also a factor.

Desecrating any war memorial provokes anger and causes distress, and even among the secular-minded it also carries a sense of profanation of the sacred, a calculated inversion of decency like a group of delinquents acting out horror-film Satanism by spraying pentagrams over a church. But just as such delinquents may trigger a Satanic Panic, I would be wary as regards proportionality.

The sense that war memorials may be under a threat is derived from last week’s Black Lives Matter protest in London, elements of which descended into hooliganism. The area where the protest occurred includes the famous Ivor Roberts-Jones statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, and the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Someone vandalised the base of the Churchill statue to accuse him of racism, but it is not clear if the Cenotaph was attacked for what it represents or was done out of ignorance – and it should be noted that the assault apparently consisted of just one person, who attempted to burn a ceremonial flag that forms part of the memorial as part of a wider melee occurring at that point.

However, it should be borne in mind that these acts were opportunistic: the two monuments happened to be where the protesters were gathered, rather than having been sought out. Such damage is something that happens from time to time during protests in central London, as is the occasional pre-emptive covering of monuments ahead of protests where disorder is anticipated.

As such, it is disproportionate to extrapolate a general threat to war memorials, either from the Cenotaph attacker or, by a more tenuous association, from disrespect to a statue of Britain’s wartime leader. One gets the impression that the focus here is a diversion from the issue of whether Britain needs to reassess the civic commemoration and popular memory of long-dead individuals whose wealth and status flowed from their involvement in the slave trade.

For the same reason, Boris Johnson currently grandstands by vowing that he will never allow the statue of Churchill to be removed, even though the possibility of such a removal is outlandish in the extreme, while the trickier task of specifically denouncing on law-and-order grounds those who tore down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol is left to his Home Secretary (and I suspect even Patel if asked would dodge expressing a personal view about direct action against Confederate statues in the USA).

Of course, there is the possibility of a self-fulfilling prophecy: spray-painting a slogan somewhere provocative takes only seconds, and requires no particular skill, yet can have a huge impact in terms of coverage and reaction. But this is a perennial threat, and more likely to come from someone acting surreptitiously after dark than from a protest event. And given the behaviour of the self-styled “monument protectors” in London on Saturday – bizarrely attacking the police who were already protecting the sites – it is difficult to take their expressed intentions at face value.

CPS Misleads on Carl Beech Compensation After Judge Orders Confiscation

An announcement from the Crown Prosecution Service:

The man who made false claims of a VIP child abuse ring and received compensation for his lies has today been ordered to pay £23,960.

Carl Beech, 52, claimed that he was among many victims of high-profile establishment figures who raped and murdered children in the 1970s and 1980s.

…Today at Sheffield Crown Court, Beech has been ordered to pay £23,960 within three months or face an additional year in prison.

Adrian Phillips of the CPS said: “The compensation money given to Beech was meant to support him following the extensive, sustained torture by high profile people that he made up and described to police.

“Causing unimaginable distress to the men he falsely accused and the families caught up in his deception, he gladly took money from the authorities knowing he had fabricated the entire tale.

“Confiscating this money will not undo the harm of his lies, but it is the final step in making sure that Beech does not profit from the shameful false allegations he made.”

Beech famously used much of his compensation money to purchase an expensive car as a status symbol. According to reports, the judge who ordered the confiscation has instructed that the recovered money should be used to compensate the former politician Harvey Proctor, who lost his job after Beech accused him of child rape and murder and who continues to be vilified online by Beech’s supporters, for whom the thrill of accusation needs only the flimsiest pretext. It’s not clear why this is not mentioned in the CPS announcement.

However (and as others have noted), there’s a some re-writing of history in the above, either out of sloppiness or as a deliberate diversion. Beech did not receive any compensation for the false and lurid “VIP sex abuse” allegations that he made to the Metropolitan Police in 2014; instead, the money had already been paid to him the previous year in relation to earlier allegations made to Wiltshire Police. As reported by the BBC during his trial last year:

Mr Beech accepted that, when he first spoke to Wiltshire Police at Swindon police station, he did not tell DC Mark Lewis everything he told the Metropolitan Police two years later.

Prosecutor Tony Badenoch QC took him through the transcript of his initial interview from 2012 in which only his stepfather, Major Ray Beech, and broadcaster Jimmy Savile were named as alleged abusers, with Mr Beech telling a detective: “I don’t know the others”.

…The prosecution alleged that he had “intentionally misled officers” in order to get a crime reference number at a meeting with Wiltshire police in 2013.

He could then use to make a claim with the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.

Ray Beech and Savile were both dead by this time, and so the CPS reference to “distress to the men he falsely accused” is obviously a conflation with his later allegations, which were more extravagant by far. Beech’s success in 2013 raises a wider issue about how easy it is to get compensation out of the authorities by claiming to have been abused, especially when the name of Jimmy Savile in invoked: there was nothing to substantiate his claim, and in fact Beech never even met Savile. This issue has now been obscured by the CPS statement.

Meanwhile, Beech has also failed in an bid to appeal his conviction for perverting the course of justice. The journalist Mark Watts, who invested all of his professional credibility in supporting Beech, tried to create a sense of intrigue around this, noting that the application was “refused by a single judge behind closed doors”. However, when asked to explain this further, he added that “That is the standard way for an application for permission to appeal conviction/sentence to be handled at Court of Appeal. A single judge, on the papers. A full hearing for an appeal is only held if the single judge grants permission.” Watts also drew an explicit comparison with US interest in Prince Andrew’s links to Jeffrey Epstein, as if that somehow validates the “establishment cover-up” conspiracy theories he promoted.

UPDATE: Responding to Watts’s Tweet, barrister Matthew Scott explains that “Beech has the absolute right to renew his application for leave to appeal his conviction & it would be heard by three judges, in open court. It seems he has decided against it.”

Daily Telegraph Sensationalises and Misleads on Covid-19 Origin and “Lab Escape” Claim

A “huge if true” headline at the Daily Telegraph:

Exclusive: Coronavirus began ‘as an accident’ in Chinese lab, says former MI6 boss

Sir Richard Dearlove tells Telegraph’s Planet Normal podcast that new scientific report suggests key elements of the virus were ‘inserted’

The initial impression here is that Dearlove has been given access to bombshell privileged information, and indeed the story has been promoted as such all over Twitter. The problem, though, is that the scientific report does not make the headline claim, and Dearlove and the Telegraph hack Bill Gardner appear to have misunderstood the significance of the word “insertions”.

Also, it should be noted that Dearlove was prompted to comment about the report by the Planet Normal presenters – Allison Pearson raises the subject, and Dearlove just happens to have read it. This suggests some prior co-ordination between the presenter and the interviewee, and details in the Telegraph article such as a reference to “correspondence seen by The Telegraph” regarding the report suggest that Gardner is in contact with its authors directly, Thus it appears that the quote from Dearlove was simply secured to bolster the story about the report, trading on the mystique of intelligence.

The scientific paper, “Biovacc-19: A Candidate Vaccine for Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2) Developed from Analysis of its General Method of Action for Infectivity”, was published earlier this week in the academic journal QRB Discovery (or Quarterly Reviews of Biophysics Discovery, an off-shoot off a journal called Quarterly Reviews of Biophysics). It is available on open access here, and its current status is as an “Accepted Manuscript for QRB Discovery as part of the Cambridge Coronavirus Collection. Subject to change during the editing and production process.”

The title is unexpected given the incredible revelation it supposedly contains. One would have expected something more like “Evidence that Covid-19 was Man-Made and Escaped from a Lab”. But that’s because the paper is not about that, but rather concerned with a vaccine proposal. The abstract, though, does mention the following:

…We show the non-receptor dependent phagocytic general method of action to be specifically related to cumulative charge from inserted sections placed on the SARS-CoV-2 Spike surface in positions to bind efficiently by salt bridge formations; and from blasting the Spike we display the non human-like epitopes from which Biovacc-19 has been down-selected.

Gardner writes this up as follows:

In their paper, the scientists claim to have identified “inserted sections placed on the SARS-CoV-2 Spike surface” that explain how the virus binds itself to human cells.

It is also noted in the text of the paper:

It is a matter of fact that there are unique inserts in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein when they are aligned with other SARS-CoV sequences as shown in (Zhou et al., 2020)…. Figure 1 shows 6 alignments with inserts. The first 5 inserts are pointed out by (Zhou et al., 2020) and located
near/around position 72, 150, 250, 445, 471 while the insert around 680 is pointed out by (Coutard et al., 2020) as a furin-like cleavage site with cleavage between R and S. 

Relevant here is a quote from Zhou et al., whose paper was published in Nature (emphasis added):

The S genes of 2019-nCoV and RaTG13 are longer than other SARSr-CoVs. The major differences in the sequence of the S gene of 2019-nCoV are the three short insertions in the N-terminal domain as well as changes in four out of five of the key residues in the receptor-binding motif compared with the sequence of SARS-CoV (Extended Data Fig. 3). Whether the insertions in the N-terminal domain of the S protein of 2019-nCoV confer sialic-acid-binding activity as it does in MERS-CoV needs to be further studied.

This is difficult to follow for a non-scientist, but the reason that these “insertions” are not big news is that the original context demonstrates the word does not indicate human agency at work. It appears, then, that such “insertions” are a natural phenomenon. Some are aligned with other coronaviruses, others are unique.

The QRB Discovery paper is authored by Birger Sørensen, Andres Susrud and Angus Dalgleish. According to the Telegraph, a fourth author, “John Fredrik Moxnes, the chief scientific adviser to the Norwegian military, asked for his name to be withdrawn from the research, throwing its credibility into doubt”.The Telegraph also tells us that

An earlier version, seen by The Telegraph, concluded that coronavirus should correctly be called Wuhan virus; and claimed to have proven beyond reasonable doubt that the Covid-19 virus is engineered

“An earlier version” here means “an earlier version that was rejected from peer review”. So, it’s bait-and-switch: we’re supposed to be impressed that the paper was published in prestigious journal (“chaired by leading scientists from Stanford University and the University of Dundee”), but the key point stressed by Dearlove and the Telegraph did not get through. Further, the reference there to “Wuhan virus” is purely polemical, and it is perhaps relevant here that Dalgleish was a 2015 political candidate for UKIP.

The Telegraph continues:

A further analysis produced by Prof Dalgleish and his colleagues, due for release in the coming days, claims the Covid-19 virus has “unique fingerprints” that cannot have evolved naturally and are instead “indicative of purposive manipulation”.

Entitled “A Reconstructed Historical Aetiology of the SARS-CoV-2 Spike”, the new study, seen by The Telegraph, suggests the virus is “remarkably well-adapted virus for human co-existence”; and is likely to be the result of a Wuhan lab experiment to produce “chimeric viruses of high potency”,

We’re not told where this paper will appear, yet the claim is now out there with a “big name” endorsement and given a spurious authority before it can be scrutinised by others. Looks like a strategy.

As regards Dearlove’s involvement in all this, one commentator advises on Twitter:

Sir Richard was “C” at the time of the Iraq war, so when he starts talking about weapons of mass destruction we should all make sure we treat him with the respect he deserves.

In fact, Dearlove rejects the idea that the virus was created specifically as a weapon, but the general cautionary point still stands.

Robin Lees: Mail on Sunday Takes the Hatchet to First Witness Who Saw Dominic Cummings at Barnard Castle

Staying with yesterday’s Mail on Sunday, here’s the front-page splash:

The “witness who alerted police”, and who we are told “broke lockdown rules HIMSELF” was Robin Lees, a retired teacher who was the first person who came forward to say he had seen Dominic Cummings flouting lockdown rules by visiting Barnard Castle in early April. Yesterday’s Sunday Times notes two more witnesses who say they saw Cummings in other parts of the town, and at least one other credible person (an archaeologist named Lisa Westcott Wilkins) previously stated in a Tweet to the Guardian‘s Marina Hyde that “the whole town knows it”. The witness who “admits he INVENTED story”, meanwhile, relates to an alleged second visit by Cummings to Durham later in April, although of course it serves the purposes of the Mail on Sunday not to be too clear on this point, in order to generate fog and distrust around the whole business of Cummings’s movements. The implication of the juxtaposition is “look, these witnesses are all discreditable in some way“.

The paper lays out the case against Lees thus:

Robin Lees drove from his home in Barnard Castle, County Durham, to pick up his student daughter, Elizabeth, who had been self-isolating at her boyfriend’s home in Ascot, Berkshire, after returning from an extended study trip to Canada.

…Measures announced by Boris Johnson on May 11 included an easing of travel restrictions to allow people to drive as far as they wanted. But this was only if they were going to an outdoors location and as long as the social distancing protocol was observed.

There wasn’t any change in the guidelines for allowing relatives who are not normally resident in the family home to move in.

…Mr Lees refused to say exactly when he made the journey to collect his daughter, but insisted that it was after May 11.

Is this really a “gotcha”? Perhaps Lees ought to have gone for a short walk around Ascot before picking up his daughter – absurdist legalism, but that would have fulfilled the “outdoor location” requirement for travel. However, the Mirror journalist Pippa Crerar notes that “If a student is opting to change their primary residence for the purpose of the emergency period to live back at their family home, this is permitted.” Thus it appears that Rees’s trip was in fact within the letter of the rules, and either way no reasonable case can be made that he acted irresponsibly or selfishly – and it is difficult to see why this is a matter of wider public interest, let alone front-page news.

In contrast, Dominic Cummings and his wife Mary Wakefield by their own (revised) account travelled from London to a second home outside Durham while they suspected they were infected, used local health services and took a trip to Barnard Castle (“He parked on our street and was seen at leisure right where we walk our dogs. Infected, he touched the gates we all have to touch to move through that area”, according to Westcott Wilkins). They also initially lied about it, via a piece for the Spectator that was designed to give the false impression that they had spent the whole time in London.

The Mail on Sunday‘s focus on Lees and his mundane task of picking up his daughter (“seen at the family home last week”, we’re gratuitously told) is a good example of the tabloid strategy of appealing to readers’ sense of resentment by supposedly exposing hypocrisy: If you are angry at Cummings because of this man’s testimony, you are being played for a fool even though it’s true. You are invited to demonstrate your superior discernment by disregarding what Cummings did and instead expressing censure at Lees. (1)

On Twitter, of course, this disapproval has taken vicious form, including Tweets that conflate Lees with the false “second trip” witness (a man named Tim Matthews [2]). Some of this was inflamed by the health minister Nadine Dorries, who posted a screenshot of the story alongside the commentary “I’m stunned to see how little any of this… [is] mentioned by mainstream broadcasters”. Thus we see someone whose priority ought to be on health messaging instead focusing on how the letter of the rules might be weaponised at the expense both of a private individual and the public interest for the benefit of her boss’s apparently indispensable adviser. (3)

Indeed, much of the discussion about whether Cummings and Wakefield’s decision to travel was covered by Section 6 of the relevant legislation has been at the expense of a primary messaging imperative, which is that people who know or suspect they are infected have a special responsibility to stay home so as not to risk spreading the virus. The government’s decision to instead emphasise the apparent great leeway afforded by the “reasonable excuse” provision may yet prove catastrophic.

Notes

1. Another example of this kind of thing is to accuse progressive-minded public figures of hypocrisy due to having some personal wealth. Two recent Mail on Sunday articles have deployed this strategy against the Labour leader Keir Starmer, although both articles were dishonest. One article falsely implied that Starmer’s late father was a factory owner, based on a reference he had made to “my factory” in the sense of “my workplace”, while the other infamously extrapolated a hypothetical value for a field owned by Starmer should greenbelt  legislation change, to suggest he has a £10 million asset.

2. Cummings has denied the second trip, and no decisive evidence either way has emerged. According to the MoS:

The claim that Mr Cummings made a second trip north, which he denied, was reported from an unnamed source in The Observer newspaper last week.

On Monday, its sister paper, The Guardian gave details of a second witness making the same claim, reporting that: ‘Tim Matthews, a runner, has since come forward to claim he saw Cummings later that day [April 19].’

The Guardian erred in reporting Matthews’s claim as fact, referring to an app that “marks the area where he saw Cummings at 3.45pm on 19 April”. The separate “unnamed source”, meanwhile, also featured in the Mirror.

3. Conservative MPs were reportedly asked by whips to Tweet in support of Cummings last week. Dorries avoided doing so by staying off Twitter due to an eye injury, but later declared the matter was “case closed” when Durham police said Cummings had not broken the rules by residing at the property in Durham (a statement which doesn’t quite pronounce definitively on his journey there).