Mail on Sunday Sensationalises on Chinese Remdesivir Patent

From the Mail on Sunday:

China tried to patent potential coronavirus drug Remsvidir the DAY AFTER Beijing confirmed virus was transmissable between humans

China filed a patent for a drug seen as one of the best potential weapons against coronavirus the day after it confirmed human transmission of the disease.

The revelation that it moved so fast fuels concerns about a cover-up of the pandemic when it erupted in Wuhan last year, and suggests that China’s understanding of the virus was far advanced from the impression given by its public stance.

…The application was made by Wuhan Institute of Virology, the top-secret bio-laboratory at the centre of concerns about a possible leak of the disease from its research on bats, and the country’s Military Medicine Institute.

The move was described as ‘provocative’ by one website specialising in clinical research.

Gilead, the California-based developer of the drug, says it filed its own global applications for Remdesivir’s use against coronavirus four years ago.

Articles suggestive of intrigue and cover-up at the Wuhan Institute of Virology are now a weekly staple of the Mail on Sunday – the pieces are mostly by the paper’s political editor, Glen Owen, rather than a science or health hack, and as such it is reasonable to suppose that his material derives from private political briefings. I looked at previous examples here and here, and found them to be sensationalist and overly reliant on dubiously sourced second-hand American reports. This latest effort comes with what appears to be an exclusive quote provided by Tom Tugendhat MP, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and one wonders to what extent Tugendhat’s staffers may have assisted in providing Owen with the overall story.

Once again, there is less here than meets the eye. In particular, the “revelation” is nearly three months old; the headline “China lab seeks patent on use of Gilead’s coronavirus treatment” appeared above a Reuters story on 5 February, based on a statement from the supposedly “top-secret” research facility:

The Wuhan Institute of Virology of the China Academy of Sciences, based in the city where the outbreak is believed to have originated, said in a statement on Tuesday [4 February] it applied to patent the use of Remdesivir, an antiviral drug developed by Gilead (GILD.O), to treat the virus.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week reported a coronavirus patient in the United States was found to show an improvement after taking Remdesivir, which is also used to treat infectious diseases such as Ebola.

…The Wuhan-based laboratory said in its statement that the patent application was filed on Jan. 21.

This article appeared a day after the publication of a short letter by researchers from Wuhan in Cell Research (a subdivision of Nature) titled “Remdesivir and chloroquine effectively inhibit the recently emerged novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in vitro”. The letter had been received by the journal on 25 January.

Some weeks later, in mid-March, the story was picked up by TrialSiteNews, a website specialising in medical trials. According to the article:

On January 21, it was reported that China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences filed a patent for commercial use of remdesivir in China. Also involved is the Military Medicine Institute of that nation. They sought to secure this patent “out of national interest” and noted they were not interested in enforcement should foreign pharma companies seek to collaborate in China to stop the pandemic. An IP attorney based in Shanghai, China observed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology would be wise to secure approval from the drug’s maker and owner—Gilead…. It could be deemed a provocative move for the local Wuhan institute to attempt to patent the Gilead drug without working with them. 

That last sentence puts the word “provocative” as quoted by Owen into a cautionary rather than condemnatory context. Although the article states that “it was reported” on 21 January, it is likely that this actually refers to the report in early February about the 21 January filing.

Owen further explains:

The contagious nature of the virus was confirmed by President Xi Jinping on January 20. Leaked documents have shown that even after officials knew they faced an epidemic, they delayed warning the public for six days.

This again, though, is old news – the documents confirming a “six-day delay” formed the basis for an Associated Press story on 15 April. According to the agency:

The documents show that the head of China’s National Health Commission, Ma Xiaowei, laid out a grim assessment of the situation in a confidential Jan. 14 teleconference with provincial health officials.

…The National Health Commission distributed a 63-page set of instructions to provincial health officials, obtained by the AP. The instructions, marked “not to be publicly disclosed,” ordered health officials nationwide to identify suspected cases, hospitals to open fever clinics, and doctors and nurses to don protective gear.

Clearly, the decision not to inform the public and the international community at this time is open to criticism, but the above does at least show that officials were preparing for increasing numbers of cases.

But what is the significance of all this as regards the patent? A “new-type coronavirus” was identified as the cause of “the viral pneumonia” in Wuhan on 9 January. This means that the coronavirus was publicly acknowledged as a public health threat at that time, even though there was a delay before the government warned of a pandemic. As such, there is no need to propose a “far advanced” understanding of the virus to explain a heightened interest in remdesivir, which was already known as a potential treatment for infection by coronaviruses. A patent application at this earlier date would not have been any more notable or controversial, and as such it is unlikely that there was a delay due to secrecy.

There are plenty of legitimate grounds on which to censure the Chinese authorities. We do not need over-hyped speculation and insinuation, nor do we need articles that gratuitously imply that Chinese scientists working in good faith to counter the spread of disease are somehow up to no good.

The Sun Defends “Chinese Virus” as Term for Coronavirus

From an editorial at the Sun:

WHAT else is China lying about?

Its official Wuhan death toll has been raised by 50 per cent.

…The World Health Organisation swallowed every line and worked as Beijing’s PR agents.

Meanwhile lefties here scream “racist” at anyone calling this horrific, ruinous disease — let loose in China, covered up by China, killing thousands in China — the “Chinese virus”.

It is hard to be lectured about “Beijing’s PR agents” by the flagship tabloid of a media conglomerate that infamously attempted to censor Chris Patten’s book about his time as governor of Hong Kong for the benefit of Rupert Murdoch’s then-business strategy (abandoned in 2013). However, here I am more concerned with the paper’s expression of support for Trump’s sporadic efforts to establish “Chinese virus” as the common name for Covid-19.

This strikes me as a bad idea, for several fairly obvious reasons that I will nevertheless list.

First, the word “coronavirus” was unusual enough to enter the language as the popular name for the pathogen and the illness. This is less than ideal, as it is a generic name for a whole class of viruses, but that’s also the case with “Chinese virus”. The scientific term “Covid-19” is perfectly serviceable term for anyone who wishes to be more precise, whether referring to the illness itself or to the pathogen SARS-CoV-2 as “the Covid-19 coronavirus”. The term “Wuhan virus” might have caught on naturally, but it didn’t. There were of course early reports that referred to “the Chinese coronavirus”, but that was as a general descriptor before we had a proper name.

Second, during a pandemic clear messaging is particularly important. Attempting to impose a new popular name at this point may lead to needless confusion.

Third, “Chinese virus” is an ideological top-down attempt to manipulate common usage for political reasons. Trump of course wants every reference to coronavirus to be a reminder of the Chinese government’s undoubted corruption and failure, but this is to distract from his own failings rather than as a matter of principle. Trump has even gone so far as to reject the news that many cases in the USA arrived via Europe rather than directly from China, falsely suggesting that this is “fake news” concocted by the New York Times to win favour from China after the paper’s journalists were expelled (or “thrown out of China like dogs”, in Trump’s own formulation).

And fourth, of course, there is the risk that “Chinese virus” will needlessly stigmatise East Asians living in the west. This point can be made without the need to “scream ‘racist'”. Other locations that have given their names to diseases are hardly comparable: Ebola and Lyme are nouns rather than ethnic/national adjectives, and they refer to circumscribed places that are otherwise barely known. “Spanish flu” is the most famous example of a national adjective being used to identify an illness, but that was a hundred years ago and the name was not adopted as a self-consciously polemical device against Spain.

The Sun‘s question “What else is China lying about?” refers to the “lab escape” theory of the origin of the virus, which I have discussed in relation to the Mail on Sunday here.

Mail on Sunday Continues to Push Wuhan Lab Theory

The latest from Mail on Sunday politics hack Glen Owen on the Wuhan Institute of Virology:

‘I’ve seen better seals on my fridge!’ Shocking photos from inside Wuhan lab show broken seal on unit which stores 1,500 virus strains – including the bat coronavirus behind the deadly pandemic

Pictures from inside Wuhan’s secretive Institute of Virology show a broken seal on the door of one of the refrigerators used to hold 1,500 different strains of virus – including the bat coronavirus which has jumped to humans with such devastating effect.

The pictures, first released by the state-owned China Daily newspaper in 2018, were published on Twitter last month, before being deleted. One comment attached read: ‘I have seen better seals on my refrigerator in my kitchen.’

This is slightly garbled – as the text itself notes, the photos were published in 2018, not “last month”. A screenshot provided by the MoS shows that the images appeared in a China DailyTweet dated 28 May 2018, and it was this Tweet (“Take a look at the largest #virus bank in Asia! Wuhan Institute of Virology in Central China’s Hubei province preserves more than 1,500 different strains of virus”) that was deleted, apparently last month after various Twitter users drew attention to it (e.g. here). The Tweet was also noted by a site called IndiaGlitz on 24 March 2020.

The Tweet did not include a link to a story, but the photos remain online on the website of the Wuhan lab itself, on a page dated 4 June 2018 (other uploads on the site show that this is the correct reading of 04-06-18, rather than 6 April). Do they actually show a faulty door seal, and if so, how significant is it? The apparent seal is on the back of a small door within a larger refrigeration unit that has a bigger external door. It’s difficult to interpret, but rather than ask an expert for comment Owen gives us the assessment of one @JohnPollizzi (“Knight Philosopher Scholar Magician… Crypto believer”), whose 10 March 2020 Tweet in response to the China Daily Tweet provides the mocking headline quote.

The story is the latest in an ongoing series by Owen in which the Mail on Sunday, most likely at the direction of Downing Street briefings, has pointed the finger at the Wuhan lab. In this latest installment, Owen takes credit for Trump being asked about the issue during the week:

Last week, this newspaper also disclosed that the institute had undertaken corona-virus experiments on bats captured more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan, funded by a $3.7 million grant from the US government.

Sequencing of the Covid-19 genome has traced it to the bats found only in those caves.

Our revelations led to Donald Trump being quizzed at a press conference last week about the leak theory, to which the President replied: ‘We are doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation.’

I discussed this earlier story the time – the claim about the genome is dubious, and Owen conflated experiments on coronaviruses taken from swabs in Yunnan with experiments on actual bats. The “disclosure” was a reference to material that was already in the public domain in English, and Owen bulked the piece out with wild speculation about researchers selling lab animals to food markets derived from American news sites.

The new article follows the same pattern. Owen thus relies on “sources who had been briefed on intelligence” who have spoken to Fox News, and who apparently believe that “patient zero” was (wait for it…) “an intern at the lab”, and he tells us that

one political source said that there was ‘growing scientific curiosity’ over the symptoms of a marked loss of taste and smell in many victims of Covid-19. 

‘This might – only might – indicate a level of human interference,’ the source said.

Of course, the lab should be not be discounted as a possible source for the virus; in particular, the Washington Post recently reported that diplomatic cables had previously raised concerns about safety at the lab. But such heavy reliance on anonymous claims that are impossible to assess or hold anyone accountable for is less than satisfactory.

Health Minister’s Tweet “Caused Confusion” Over Lockdown

From ITV News:

Bedfordshire MP and Health minister Nadine Dorries has been embroiled in a Twitter spat with senior journalists over her comments on when lockdown might end.

Ms Dorries, has sought to clarify her suggestion that the “full lockdown” to tackle coronavirus could only be lifted once a vaccine was developed by insisting there could still be relaxation of the social-distancing.

Her comments – which caused confusion – appeared to suggest that restrictions to stop the spread of Covid-19 could be in place for well over a year.

Dorries had stated that “There is only one way we can ‘exit’ full lockdown and that is when we have a vaccine”, adding in the same Tweet that “Until then, we need to find ways we can adapt society and strike a balance between the health of the nation and our economy”. As a celebrity politician, Dorries’s social media outpourings are regularly featured in the media by hacks looking for something easy to write up, although controversies are usually trivialised as “spats”.

In this instance, Piers Morgan highlighted Dorries’s Tweet as an “Astonishing break from other Govt statements”. Dorries called this a “ridiculous interpretation”, and the argument put forward by her supporters is that the second sentence modifies the meaning of the first sentence rather than explicates it:  thus, “adapt society” and “strike a balance” mean strategies to gradually relax full lockdown, rather than strategies to maintain full lockdown over a long period. Journalists who failed to grasp this intended meaning and instead focused on her plain meaning by quoting her are thus engaged in misreporting or sensationalism.

This avoidable confusion falls far short of the essential “clear messaging” that is needed from the government at such a time. Had Dorries written “fully ‘exit’ lockdown” rather than “‘exit’ full lockdown” there would have been no controversy, but the minister airily dismissed a suggestion from the journalist Kay Burley that she had misspoken. Dorries then followed up by RTing the Sun journalist Tom Newton Dunn (this guy), whose view was that “Restrictions of varying sorts are likely to remain for many months, and she’s the only person in Govt who has the courage to say it publicly.” One wonders what Dorries’s colleagues (Matt Hancock in particular) will make of her endorsement of such an assessment, which pertains not just to her but to them.

This is not the first recent Tweet from Dorries to generate an adverse reaction. Her comment that “the country can breathe again” after the Prime Minister passed through his health crisis was seen as infelicitous at a time when hundreds are dying of a respiratory disease, and she has recently taken to amplifying posts by Paul Staines (“Guido Fawkes”) focusing on the political views of particular health professionals who have been interviewed by the BBC about the crisis.

One of these posts, concerning a male nurse raising concerns about PPE shortages, was a typically crude Staines hit-piece, and it was of questionable judgement for a health minister to have promoted it (the nurse concerned of course was then the object of a Twitter pile-on). It should also be noted that despite Staines’s “anti-establishment” pose, some material that he publishes is actually provided to him by Conservative politicians, including Dorries. One particularly obvious example from a few years ago was when Dorries attempted to smear an online critic who was off work for medical reasons as a benefits cheat.

Mail on Sunday Sensationalises on Wuhan Lab Claims

From yesterday’s Mail on Sunday:

Documents obtained by The Mail on Sunday show the Wuhan Institute of Virology undertook coronavirus experiments on mammals captured more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan – funded by a $3.7 million grant from the US government.

Sequencing of the Covid-19 genome has traced it to bats found in Yunnan’s caves.

It comes after this newspaper revealed last week that Ministers here now fear that the pandemic could have been caused by a virus leaking from the institute.

Last week’s article was headlined “Did the Virus Leak from a Research Lab in Wuhan?”, and quoted a unnamed COBRA meeting attendee as saying that the theory “is not discounted”. The article went on to rehash material that had appeared in American sources in February, presented as if new. It thus quoted “biosecurity expert Professor Richard Ebright, of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology, New Jersey”, who said that the virus “could easily” have escaped, and cited “unverified local reports that workers at the institute became infected after being sprayed by blood”. It also stated that

A study by the South China University of Technology concluded that Covid-19 ‘probably’ originated in the Centre for Disease Control – although shortly after its publication, the research paper was removed from a social networking site for scientists and researchers.

Both Mail on Sunday articles are by Glen Owen, who is the paper’s political editor rather than a hack with expertise in science or health. As such, the articles are primarily political messaging to the general public as conveyed via a compliant journalist. That does not mean that they might not convey true and relevant information, but in this instance Owen’s sensationalism is misleading, even though he avoids the more egregious”bioweapon” speculation seen elsewhere. (1)

The South China University of Technology paper is discussed by Alex Kasprack at Snopes here (links in original):

This paper, such as it is, merely highlights the close distance between the seafood market and the labs and falsely claimed to have identified instances in which viral agents had escaped from Wuhan biological laboratories in the past. With those two elements, half of them factual, the authors come to the sweeping conclusion that “somebody was entangled with the evolution of 2019-nCoV coronavirus,” and “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.” While SARS viruses have escaped from a Beijing lab on at least four occasions, no such event has been documented in Wuhan.

Moving on to this week’s instalment, the “documents obtained by the Mail on Sunday” are actually two open-access academic articles that various people have been Tweeting about for a while:

Results of the research were published in November 2017 under the heading: ‘Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-related coronaviruses provides new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus.’

The exercise was summarised as: ‘Bats in a cave in Yunnan, China were captured and sampled for coronaviruses used for lab experiments.

‘All sampling procedures were performed by veterinarians with approval from the Animal Ethics Committee of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

‘Bat samplings were conducted ten times from April 2011 to October 2015 at different seasons in their natural habitat at a single location (cave) in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. Bats were trapped and faecal swab samples were collected’

It should be noted that despite the Mail on Sunday headline “Wuhan Lab was Performing Coronavirus Experiments on Bats”, the above states that the experiments were actually performed on coronavirues. There is no indication (and no reason to suppose) that the bats themselves were transported to Wuhan after the swab samples had been obtained (2). Owen’s scoop here amounts to “research lab investigating coronaviruses published research about coronaviruses”.

As for the second academic article:

Another study, published in April 2018, was titled ‘fatal swine acute diarrhoea syndrome caused by an HKU2-related coronavirus of bat origin’ and described the research as such: ‘Following a 2016 bat-related coronavirus outbreak on Chinese pig farms, bats were captured in a cave and samples were taken.

Experimenters grew the virus in a lab and injected it into three-day-old piglets. Intestinal samples from sick piglets were ground up and fed to other piglets as well.’

This is again the sort of research that one might expect, but Owen attempts to link it to the “leak” theory via a couple of quotes from commentators:

…Last night, Anthony Bellotti, president of the US pressure group White Coat Waste, condemned his government for spending tax dollars in China, adding: ‘Animals infected with viruses or otherwise sickened and abused in Chinese labs reportedly may be sold to wet markets for consumption once experiments are done.’

US Congressman Matt Gaetz said: ‘I’m disgusted to learn that for years the US government has been funding dangerous and cruel animal experiments at the Wuhan Institute, which may have contributed to the global spread of coronavirus, and research at other labs in China that have virtually no oversight from US authorities.’

These American quotes are lifted without attribution from an article that appeared a few days ago in the Washington Examiner (3). Bellotti is a Republican strategist who frames animal experimentation as government “waste”, and the Examiner article attempts to back up his assertion by referring to a February op-ed in the New York Post by the activist Steven Mosher:

And then there is this little-known fact: Some Chinese researchers are in the habit of selling their laboratory animals to street vendors after they have finished experimenting on them.

You heard me right.

Instead of properly disposing of infected animals by cremation, as the law requires, they sell them on the side to make a little extra cash. Or, in some cases, a lot of extra cash. One Beijing researcher, now in jail, made a million dollars selling his monkeys and rats on the live animal market, where they eventually wound up in someone’s stomach.

Who was this “researcher”? At what kind of institute did he work? What is the basis for extrapolating from one criminal incident to the claim that this is a “habit” among Chinese researchers? We can imagine a corrupt scientist using grant money to purchase animals that are then sold on, but it is also reasonable to suppose that Mosher is being deliberately vague here because a more detailed account would not support this argument. Yet it forms the basis of the Examiner headline “Taxpayer-Funded Animal Experiments tied to Chinese ‘Wet Markets’ and Wuhan Laboratory” that one way or another later came to Owen’s attention at the Mail on Sunday – even though Owen’s argument also incorporates “doubt” about the presence of the virus at the market.

But what about the claim that “sequencing of the Covid-19 genome has traced it to bats found in Yunnan’s caves”? An article by Matt Ridley for the Wall Street Journal (and also posted to his own website) explains the sources more clearly, and notes:

…analysis shows that the most recent common ancestor of the human virus and the RaTG13 virus [i.e. the virus as found in a specific bat specimen sampled in Yunnan] lived at least 40 years ago. So it is unlikely that the cave in Yunnan (a thousand miles from Wuhan) is where the first infection happened or that the culprit bat was taken from that cave to Wuhan to be eaten or experimented on.

Rather, it is probable that somewhere much closer to Wuhan, there is another colony of bats carrying the same kind of virus. Unless other evidence emerges, it thus looks like a horrible coincidence that China’s Institute of Virology, a high-security laboratory where human cells were being experimentally infected with bat viruses, happens to be in Wuhan, the origin of today’s pandemic.

More generally, one wonders why there appears to be so much investment in the “lab escape” theory. We know that the Chinese government is horribly culpable for covering up the initial rise of the virus, but that remains the case however the virus first emerged. Perhaps the idea that the virus is the result of scientists making conscious decisions is in a strange way reassuring, in that it suggests that humans remain the masters of their own destiny. The downside, though, is the potential vilification of Chinese scientists working in good faith (despite their corrupt political masters) to track and prevent disease.

Notes

1. The week before Owen’s first article, the Mail on Sunday splashed on the claim that “Mr Johnson has been warned by scientific advisers that China’s officially declared statistics on the number of cases of coronavirus could be ‘downplayed by a factor of 15 to 40 times'”. Again, this is science journalism via political leak. Who are these “advisers”, and what was their methodology? The story is not implausible, but if politicians believe it is in the public interest for us to know about it, they should provide us with all the details.

The same issue also carried an absurd piece (in retrospect, also in bad taste) headlined “Did Michel Barnier infect Boris Johnson?”, in which Owen and co-authors tried their hand at amateur contact tracing.

2. The institute does appear to have handled live bats for some research, though. A 2017 paper by researchers there includes the detail that

A total of 450 bats of eight different species were captured in Longquan city and Wenzhou city, Zhejiang Province in the spring of 2011 (Figure 1 and Table 1). Similarly, 155 bats representing eight species were captured in Hubei Province in the spring of 2012.

Recent media reports have referred to “605 bats”.

3. Gaetz, of course, is infamous as the congressman who recently wore a gas mask on the House floor, apparently as some kind of joke about coronavirus. It’s not clear to what extent Gaetz has a general objection to animal experiments; certainly, the research at Wuhan is no more “dangerous and cruel” than research undertaken at comparable institutions in other countries, including the USA. For instance, live mice were infected with the bat virus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2016 (this in turn has now become a focus of speculation, with the risible Chanel Rion of OAN [One America News Network] citing a certain “Greg Rubini” as a source. Little is known about Rubini other than that he controls a Twitter account and supports the QAnon conspiracy theory, He uses a photo of Keir Duella from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey as his Twitter profile image, and Rion mistook this for his actual likeness).

Media Criticised In Wake of Cardinal Pell Acquittal

At Sky News Australia, conservative commentator Andrew Bolt reads a list compiled by Gerard Henderson of media figures the two men argue were among those prominent in a “pile-on” against Cardinal George Pell ahead of the recent quashing of his child abuse conviction:

Philip Adams of the ABC; Richard Ackland of the Sunday Paper; Paul Bongiorno of the Sunday Paper (disgraceful); Barrie Cassidy (I’ve just mentioned); Sarah Ferguson (you [i.e. Henderson] just mentioned); Peter FitzSimons of Nine Newspapers (Peter, hang your head in shame, mate); Ray Hadley of 2GB who called me “creepy” for defending George Pell (Ray, I expect an apology tomorrow); Derryn Hinch (disgusting); Fran Kelly of the ABC; David Marr; Louise Milligan; Tim Minchin (Tim, not everything’s a song for you, mate. Not everything’s a highlight. Your song slamming Pell was a disgrace); Lucie Morris-Marr, formerly of the Herald Sun, (I’m glad that she’s no longer there); Leigh Sales of the ABC; Tim Soutphommasane, former National Discrimination Commissioner; and Jack Waterford for the Canberra Times.

Bolt was one of a number of commentators who pointed out various implausibilities and difficulties in the case against Pell; counter-arguments ranged from the complacent suggestion that we can never know as much as a jury, through to the malicious assertion that anyone who thinks that Pell might be innocent is in fact approving of the sex crime of which he was accused. The general consensus among liberal-minded people who might in other contexts be critical of the police and willing in principle to entertain the possibility of a miscarriage of justice (e.g. a member of a minority accused of terrorism) is that Pell is certainly guilty despite the High Court outcome and that those who are doubtful or sceptical are wicked.

Thus we have the odd situation that it has been largely left to conservatives to critique the conduct of Victoria Police. Here’s what Bolt wrote a year ago:

The suspicion must be that the jury, like many Australians, had its opinion of Pell poisoned by decades of venomous media attacks, including false claims that he abused other children, offered hush money to a victim of paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, and sheltered other paedophiles.

Sadly, Victoria Police helped to destroy his reputation. Graham Ashton, now chief commissioner, falsely told a parliamentary inquiry that the Melbourne Catholic diocese under Pell had not referred any victims of paedophile priests to the police, and falsely claimed that victims compensated under a scheme set up by Pell had to sign confidentiality causes.

Then, with Pell vilified, police set up an inquiry into sexual abuse by him without having had a single complaint. It instead advertised for accusers, and after years of publicity about the compensation the church was paying.

In the same column, Bolt also noted that Lucie Morris-Marr had reported on details of a private phone call between Pell and Monsignor Charles Portelli; Bolt infers (while noting Morris-Marr’s denial) that Pell’s phone may habe been bugged by police and the details leaked to the media. Why should this be of interest and concern only to conservatives? (1)

Meanwhile, the media figures criticised by Bolt and Henderson appear to have chosen to double-down rather than reflect. David Marr wrote a piece for the UK Guardian in which he warned of a “storm of rage from the cardinal’s supporters”, which seems more like a projection of the “rage” long-directed against sceptics, while Lucie Morris-Marr has announced on Twitter that she has “filed a complaint against Gerard Henderson to the Australian Press Council”, apparently for alleged “bullying”. This echoes Morris-Marr’s previous strategy against Bolt, which I discussed in 2016 here. (2)

Excursus

Commentary on the Pell case is extensive. However, I would like to draw particular attention to a piece that appeared in the UK Catholic Herald last year, by my friend Catherine Lafferty. Catherine’s piece is particularly useful as it places what happened into a broader international context:

…In 2016 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship 60 Minutes programme aired a documentary about the cardinal. It featured British anti-abuse activist Peter Saunders, then a member of the Vatican’s advisory commission on sexual abuse, saying that Pell was a sociopath. What viewers weren’t told was that Saunders heads an organisation that holds eccentric beliefs about Satanic Ritual Abuse and so-called recovered memory.

The Australian programme has a track record of hysterical claims. The year before it aired a breathless documentary, entitled “Spies, lords and predators”, into the so-called Westminster VIP paedophile scandal which was then convulsing the news. It promised to expose what it called “the biggest political scandal Britain has ever faced”, which it said involved “a secret network of the highest office holders in the land, past and current members of parliament, cabinet ministers, judges, diplomats, even one of the country’s top spies”…

The secretive network was then being investigated by the Metropolitan Police under “Operation Midland”, a title which like the Guilford Four, has become synonymous with scandal. Just as with Pell, the claims being investigated in Operation Midland were historic, lacked any supporting forensic evidence and should have been treated with caution not credulousness.

Catherine discussed these points further in discussion with Damian Thompson, as I noted here; this was shortly before Saunders was disgraced after it came to light that he had had an opportunistic drunken sexual encounter with a vulnerable adult in a restaurant toilet during a work-related meeting. Meanwhile, “Spies, Lords and Predators” has not fared well under scrutiny, as I discussed here.

Notes

1. Also worth noting is Rod Dreher’s speculation that Pell may have been framed by the ‘Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia. While based in Rome, Pell was put in charge of reforming the Vatican bank, and Dreher notes a 2013 report stating the view of Calabrian Mafia investigator Nicola Gratteri that such banking reform “could prove a problem for the ’Ndrangheta, Italy’s most powerful Mafia”. Dreher says that this same mafia “control organized crime on Australia’s East Coast” and “are said to have infiltrated every part of the Australian establishment.”

2. Morris-Marr’s account of her dispute with Bolt was also carried uncritically by the UK Guardian, despite an older report in the same paper that raises questions about her journalistic ethics. The story concerned a journalist named Mark Covell who had been beaten up by police in Italy during the 2001 G8 protests; Morris-Marr, who at the time was just Lucie Morris of the Daily Mail, visited Covell in hospital the next day without disclosing that she was a journalist (he had assumed she was from the British Embassy) and later wrote up a piece falsely accusing him of “helping to mastermind” anarchist riots during the protest. As explained by Roy Greenslade in 2005:

[Covell’s lawyers] pointed to a possible breach of his privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights and a similar article of the Italian constitution, not to mention a contravention of data protection laws. Morris appeared to have breached three clauses of the editors’ code of practice, having invaded Covell’s privacy, intruded into his grief and shock, and entered a hospital bedroom, where he surely had a reasonable expectation of privacy, without permission.

Costs, damages, and a rare letter of apology followed.

A Note on 5G Coronavirus Conspiricism

A couple of Tweets from the Guardian‘s technology editor Alex Hern (2 April):

The Sovereign Citizens and the 5G Truthers are merging. Someone has emailed to say “a Notice will be hand delivered by the military police” and “reported to the World Court and Interpol and your Liberty will be removed without further notice” if I don’t reveal the truth about 5G [here]

Oh there’s a little bit of Coronavirus conspiracy in there too: “5G is lethal to humanity and all living things, it produces irreversible damage to DNA and kills any living being, as demonstrated in Wuhan Radiation [experiment]”. The square brackets are in the original. [here]

5G scaremongering has actually been a staple of “Sovereign Citizen” activism in the UK for a while (see e.g. the website of a group called the “New Chartists”). The crossover with Covid-19 conspiracism ought be to be a particularly absurd outlier, yet in the context of a national crisis it appears to have been responsible for a recent shift from people sounding off online to committing acts of arson against 5G masts.

The crossover has been addressed in a article by Ryan Broderick for Buzzfeed:

The UK’s early push into 5G cellular coverage has led to an especially active British anti-5G movement. In 2018, the Democrats and Veterans Party, an offshoot of the British far-right political party UKIP, hosted at their party conference British YouTuber and conspiracy theorist Mark Steele, whose speech on the dangers of 5G is featured regularly in conspiracy theory videos. The dangers of 5G were also a major talking point in the 2019 election for UKIP and its supporters.

Steele (who confusingly also goes by the name of Anthony Steele) also has a presence on Twitter, where he describes engineers working on the masts as “criminals working to kill children” and suggests that “anyone not covering the 5G crime is an enemy of the people”. If this is not incitement to violence, then what is?

Steele also promotes the specific 5G coronavirus  theory – indeed, he may even be its originator, as back in February he was already claiming that “WUHAN had the 5G in the Streetlights”. Some of his Tweets incorporate short to-camera videos, in which there is more of a hint of a smirk as he expounds his various claims and allegations; and when he opines that Boris Johnson “MUST HAVE BEEN STANDING TO [sic] CLOSE TO A 5G TRANSMITTER” you have to wonder whether his wild conspiracy-mongering is nihilistic and performative rather than simply delusional.

I wrote about the Democrats and Veterans Party conference here, although I didn’t note Steele’s presence specifically. Steele’s appearance was as an influencer within the UK conspiracy milieu – other speakers included UKIP’s Godfrey Bloom and Bill Etheridge, Sir WIlliam Jaffray (misspelt as “William Jaffrey”) Jon Wedger and Belinda McKenzie.

Steele’s anti-5G activism has also been amplified on conspiracy podcasts (hosted by e.g. Lou Collins and Richie Allen), as well as, erm… by Mail Online, which in 2018 ran an article reporting that 5G “radiation given off by state-of-the-art street lamps is wreaking havoc on the residents of Gateshead, according to local Mark Steele.” This was several months before Steele was fined for threatening councillors.

In September 2019, Steele appeared on a panel at an event titled “5G Apocalypse London“. The panel was headed by Sacha Stone, founder of a pseudo-court cosplay outfit called the International Tribunal for Natural Justice.

Some Media Notes on Farah Damji

From the Daily Mirror:

A former New York art gallery owner who made the life of a church warden “complete hell” has been sentenced to 27 months in prison.

Farah Damji, 53, was jailed for five years in 2016 for stalking the engineer after meeting him on an online dating site in October 2013.

…The businesswoman, who ran an art gallery in Manhattan in the 1990s, was convicted in February of two counts of breaching the restraining order on April 2018 and June 2018.

There now just remains the small matter of apprehending her – she has declined to make herself available to the authorities, and sentencing took place in absentia.

Damji’s scofflaw antics have provided the media with fodder for years; here’s Guy Adams writing about her in the Independent in 2006:

Damji, the socialite daughter of a prominent Asian property tycoon, has become a notorious figure in the media village. She last made headlines in October after being jailed for three-and-a-half years for using stolen credit-cards to fund her free-spending lifestyle.

As that case approached trial, she dropped another gift into the laps of headline writers by impersonating David Blunkett’s secretary and two members of the Crown Prosecution Service, in a failed bid to have the charges against her dropped.

Damji absconded that time as well, bringing her further fame as “Britain’s first on-the-run blogger”, and Adams observed that “recent coverage of her tale has been remarkably sympathetic” despite the fact that many of her frauds during this period “involved other journalists”. This was also the case even though there was evidence that Damji was not just crooked but also vicious, with a former lover (the author William Dalrymple) having called in the police.

Following her release from prison, Damji easily re-established her position as a London socialite involved with literary/media matters – the publication of her memoir Try Me in 2009 was covered by the Lifestyle section of the Evening Standard under the headline “Confessions of London’s most dangerous woman”, and the gushing profile amplified various grievances she had included in the book:

we find tales of incest, rape and kidnapping; allegations of an alcoholic father and a mother incapable of love: of pimping — Damji was once a madam for a New York “escort agency”—and of numerous sleazy, dangerous men, all named. There are drugs and drug-dealing, prison and escape and, yes, high glamour both here and in New York. How much of it we can believe isn’t clear, as Damji’s chequered past makes her a very unreliable narrator. But her version of her own life is compelling.

This media plug was published while Damji was persisting in criminal behaviour, and just a few months later she was jailed for ripping off landlords and engaging in benefit fraud. The Daily Mail covered the case at the time; due to what I assume is a technical error the article was recently re-dated from 2010 to 2020, but the original can be seen in the Internet Archive here and her age as given in the piece signals the error.

Despite being jailed for 15 months at the end of January 2010, she was (bafflingly) out in time to participate in the Stoke Newington Literary Festival in June (in conversation with Darcus Howe) and to take part in a subsequent event at a local library in August (where she appeared alongside Shaun Attwood). Perhaps inevitably, she also set herself up as a prison reform activist – the Sunday Times cast a critical eye over her attempts to monetise this with a 2011 piece headlined “Fraudster eyes Tory rehab cash“, but although her plans fell through she remained available as a rent-a-quote on prisons in the years that followed.

Frustratingly, however, despite her name continuing to appear in the Evening Standard diary column (e.g. here in 2012) there was no media interest in the fact that she was also engaging in harassment against multiple targets (I discussed one case here). She wasn’t brought to book until 2016, by which point it was at last very clear that the previous “colourful rogue” media framing was not appropriate:

The court heard that between December 19, 2013 and January 5, 2014 Dan [Damji’s legal surname], using a number of false identities, made 186 silent or hoax calls and texts to the victim’s mobile.

She also tried to plant stories in the media about the company where the man’s company.

She even sent sexually explicit texts and made silent calls to her victim’s 16-year-old son.

…Some of the more disturbing messages included threats of sexual violence against members of the victim’s family including his six-year-old daughter.

Damji continues to maintain her innocence, and alleges a widespread conspiracy against her involving her victim and the authorities. So adept is she at playing the system that even while in prison in 2017 she managed to get the UK Parliament Public Accounts Committee to upload a document to the Parliament website that amplified her version of events and tormented her victim further with incredibly vile allegations (although he wasn’t named) – this was achieved by inserting the details into what was supposedly a report on mental health services in prison, thus taking advantage of the liberal principle that serving and ex-prisoners may have some useful and valid insights into prison conditions.

Damji’s most recent conviction and sentencing were covered by Court News UK, and it is likely that the Mirror article is derived from their work. However, it is reasonable to suppose that media interest in Damji has declined, and this is likely to have been the case even without the current pandemic. That may be harder for her to bear than yet another prison sentence from which there is very little chance she will emerge either rehabilitated or subdued.

Metropolitan Police Compensates Blogger Three Years After Arrest

A letter from the Metropolitan Police to blogger Simon Just and his wife:

11 March 2020

Dear Mr and Mrs Just

Re: Your request for financial compensation from the Metropolitan Police – PC/27 [Redacted]

As agreed, by way of full and final settlement of your claim, please find attached a cheque in the sum [Redacted] which includes [Redacted] settlement fee and [Redacted] payment on account of costs.

Yours sincerely

[Redacted]

Lawyer

Directorate of Legal Services

The letter has been published on Simon’s blog, as evidence of police malpractice in relation to his arrest on allegations of stalking January 2017 over his online writings (as well as social media accounts he says he had nothing to do with). He explains:

I had taken a stance that there was a public interest in the online behaviour of various individuals and I wasn’t going to be strong armed into silence, simply because it supposedly impacted on their feelings providing that I was limiting my posts to observations and opinions of my own or opinions based on other evidence. There was no intent to harass anyone, there were posts which were made with the wider public interest in mind and to create a timeline of events which could later prove useful. In the latter regard that has proven absolutely crucial in other matters.

I wrote about the case in May 2017, after the police dropped the case. Simon’s writings were concerned with problematic “VIP abuse” allegations, and he was also helping a man named Darren Laverty with his defence against an allegation of stalking. The case against Laverty reached the CPS, but was dropped when “further evidence” came to light – and it is reasonable to suppose that this was evidence that the police had been negligent in not putting before the CPS earlier.

It is also reasonable to suspect that Simon’s arrest and bail were primarily part of a strategy to undermine Laverty, and that the case against him was dropped when it no longer served this purpose. As Simon writes:

Laverty’s case being investigated and prosecuted effectively by the exact same officers who had nicked me… no agenda there at all then? I’m being sarcastic.

So when the officers found out that they were effectively witness intimidating me the look of shock on their faces was a picture to behold. Whoops. They were also potentially compromising any defence material that had not yet been passed over to the defence team and were possibly doing so deliberately.

It should be noted that Simon’s arrest had been celebrated by what we might call the “Operation Midland cheerleader” crowd, with Tweets from the likes of Exaro‘s Mark Watts crowing about “green bottles” falling. This was during the dying days of the Operation Midland fiasco, at a time when it was obvious that “Nick’s” allegations were not going to lead to the earth-shattering revelations on which Watts had banked all of his journalistic credibility. The arrest of a sceptic, then, served as some psychological consolation prize.

Simon draws some parallels with Midland (square brackets in original):

The same errors which appeared in Operation Midland and the seriousness of the search warrant issues apparent within the Met was flagged up yet again in today’s [Friday 13th March 2020] HMICFRS Inspection report….

The officers concerned had actually worded the warrant as though I was threatening individuals [I wasn’t and nor were the accounts actually under investigation to the best of my knowledge] and even worse that I was the owner of things that had no relation to the material they were really investigating. i.e. they named old twitter accounts which I’d already admitted were mine not the ones they were investigating.

In fact, I’d not been on twitter with an active account for around 18 months before the time of my arrest.

This raises an important question:

…If offences had been made out [by whoever was operating those specific accounts that were actually under investigation] then why didn’t the investigation into the real identities of those accounts continue and alternative means of identity be investigated?…

The cops don’t just normally ditch what is meant to be a valid case just because they have the wrong suspect.

Or putting it another way, the complainants were using the police as a private army and to hell with the consequences.

One further notable aspect of the police action is the disproportionate resources involved. Simon lives far from London, in Cumbria. Yet Metropolitan Officers were dispatched first to Liverpool, to take a statement from an accuser there, before descending on Simon’s home. Although Simon’s police interview took place at his local station, one wonders if there was a reluctance to liaise with local officers for some reason.

There is also this very telling and troubling detail:

I also had received a letter from the SIO in the case against me asking me to collect my computer equipment from Wimbledon Police Station over 300 miles from where I live. I replied back saying that the Met had a duty to return the equipment either to me directly or to my local police station. They eventually hand delivered the equipment in November 2017 but there was no apology nor acceptance that they’d screwed up.

It is difficult to believe that the police simply failed to think about whether it was reasonable to ask someone to undertake a 600-mile round trip just to pick up their property. It looks to me that this was a calculated and petulant attempt to create massive inconvenience as some kind of revenge. This is what is known in police jargon as “oppressive conduct”, and it raises concerns about what kind of culture of policing there is at Wimbledon Police Station.

The above are just a few points from the post that I have chosen to highlight. Simon took on the Metropolitan Police as a litigant in person, and his post includes a “checklist at the end of this article in order to assist others in future if in similar situations to mine”. The full post also has further context.

The Evening Post Examines the “Westminster Paedophile Ring” Conspiracy Theory

At the Evening Post, a long-read by Joshi Herrmann addresses a pertinent question:

For a few years, between the autumn of 2012 and some time in 2015, a set of MPs, journalists and police officers came to believe in what amounted to a wild conspiracy theory about the British establishment. The question is, why?

The conspiracy theory was that Westminster politicians in the 1970s and 1980s had engaged in organised child sex abuse with complete impunity, in some cases even killing boys at orgies. Police investigations were mysteriously shut down, while the tabloid press – which thrived on sex scandals and openly derided “poofs” – somehow missed the action or chose to remain silent for decades after receiving threats.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse rejected claims about the existence of a “Westminster paedophile ring” just a couple of week ago – and as is well known, the false accuser and hoaxer Carl Beech, who triggered the Metropolitan Police’s “Operation Midland” fiasco, has been convicted and is now in prison. However, the damage is likely to be lasting – zombie news articles from the earlier period remain online, and for the determined conspiracy theorist any kind of counter-evidence can be assimilated into a narrative of establishment manipulation and cover-up.

And for those whose sense of virtue and superior discernment is bound up with their online denunciations of the “powerful” and of anyone urging caution, resistance to a new self-image as someone who was duped or whipped up into self-righteous rage is likely to be strong. The “Westminster paedophile ring” is also an idea that is unlikely to die on the political fringes, where it can be assimilated into conspiratorial interpretations of police failings in relation to grooming gangs and be bolstered by American conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate and Q.

Herrmann’s article is a tour de force that synthesises several strands of the story, in particular placing Beech into a wider context that includes BBC Newsnight‘s reporting on Cyril Smith and stories about the notorious Elm Guest House (a “gay brothel”) in 1980s west London. There are insights from psychologists and observers of conspiracy theorising, and interview material with several individuals who were part of the story.

The whole thing is worth careful reading, but here I would like to draw attention to a few specific new details.

Newsnight and Cyril Smith

In 2015, BBC Newsnight reported a claim made by an anonymous former police officer that the MP Cyril Smith had been arrested in London in the 1980s following a child-abuse party, and that there was even a tape recording. The officer alleged to Newsnight‘s Nick Hopkins that the investigation had been shut down by a more senior officer who had seized the evidence and then warned him and his colleagues that they would be in breach of the Official Secrets Act if they ever spoke about it. The source declined to appear on camera, but the Newsnight segment did include an assessment by a different ex-officer, Clive Driscoll (previously blogged here), whose view was that the claim was “very credible”. However,

What Newsnight didn’t tell viewers is that Driscoll was not examining the claims for the first time. In fact, it was impossible for him to be an objective arbiter on the allegations, because he had brought Hopkins the story. 

Herrmann has since spoken with Driscoll by phone. Driscoll revealed to him that he actually believes that the former officer is “paranoid”, and that he had actually refused to even meet anyone from Newsnight. But if this person was fearful of repercussions, why come forward at all? It seems to me that the most economical explanation is that he wished to avoid scrutiny. Investigations by police have failed to substantiate his claims.

Mike Broad

A new name in the saga is a trade unionist named Mike Broad. Broad was present at a meeting with Tom Watson, the MP who in 2012 had raised the question of a “powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament”. Watson, of course, went on to become the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, and his name is now closely associated with the allegations and how they unfolded.

According to the account, Broad claimed that Leon Brittan and other prominent people had visited Elm Guest House, and that when the place was raided in the 1980s, “two transit vans had taken away ten boys and one three-year-old girl” (I suspect the “ten boys” here might be a garbled claim about a boy or boys aged ten years old). However,

Others who had dealings with Broad considered him to be unreliable. When he visited another MP around the same time as the visit to Watson, he pointed at people he said were members of Special Branch and told those he was meeting that the security services were reading his lips via the CCTV cameras. Broad was also known for calling parliamentary researchers late at night and muttering things like “Papers tomorrow, Leon Brittan, young boys, rape scars” and then hanging up.

Herrmann’s source believes that Broad’s reference to Brittan may have influenced Watson’s thinking – I discussed his investment in allegations against Brittan here.

Parliamentary researchers and the media

Another thread in the story concerns Simon Danczuk, a buffoonish celebrity politician with a chaotic private life who was writing a book about Cyril Smith. Herrmann spoke with his parliamentary aide, Matt Baker, who recalls:

“Every day we were being blitzed with emails by these people who were basically saying ‘Establishment cover-up blah blah blah… I don’t know who they were but they were sending various YouTube videos and links and saying all these key figures are paedophiles, investigate this and investigate that.”He adds: “I’ve no doubt that with some MPs, it had probably had a bit of an effect on them…A lot of the splashes were nonsense. And half the genuine stuff has been lost.”

Another parliamentary researcher added:

“There was a huge fight to get the stories… I had national journalists calling me on deadline at 6pm, and they were printing whatever I told them without checking. It was really worrying… they were more interested in beating their rival titles to the story than getting to the truth”.

Simon Danczuk and Mark Williams-Thomas

According to Herrmann, Danczuk also met with the former police officer turned journalist Mark Williams Thomas (previously blogged here):

He asked Danczuk to use his parliamentary privilege to publicly out the former home secretary Leon Brittan as a paedophile in parliament, so that Williams-Thomas could get the broadcasting scoop by being in position outside Brittan’s house, ready to knock on his door with the cameras rolling.

However, Williams-Thomas says he merely asked to be “tipped off”.

Zac Goldsmith and David Hencke

Herrmann spoke with someone who was present at a meeting about the Elm Guest House called by Zac Goldsmith MP and attended by Watson and his aide Karie Murphy, Tessa Munt and Danczuk. The group was addressed by David Hencke, a journalist for Exaro, which had been at the forefront of promoting Carl Beech’s claims:

 “Hencke gave everyone sheets of paper – it was all over the place, all these scandals all around the country. There wasn’t any trace of doubt in his voice. All of this was gospel.” The MPs wanted to put pressure on the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to appoint a panel to examine the issue. They agreed that it would be useful to have another Conservatvie MP on board, and soon the former Children’s Minister Tim Loughton was part of the group. By the summer, they had drafted a letter to May.

Herrmann goes on to remind us that Goldsmith later spoke publicly about the Elm Guest House, but that his information had come from the convicted fraudster Chris Fay. Herrmann judges that “at some point… Goldsmith must have realised he had fallen for a hoax”, but it seems to me that unless Goldsmith can be pressed on this point we won’t know for sure.

BBC News vs Panorama

Beech’s claims were given credence by the BBC: its Home Affairs correspondent, Tom Symonds,  met him, and the two attended a play about Jimmy Savile together. However, BBC Panorama had been digging into Beech’s story and were finding elements that failed to stack up. It appears that Symonds discouraged their efforts:

…As they went about their work, Symonds made calls to a member of the Panorama team to chide them – half-jokingly the Panorama staffers thought – about being on the wrong track regarding Beech. “He was just saying he would be proved right and Panorama would be wrong,” recalls a BBC staffer. Eventually a senior BBC executive called a meeting to diffuse the tension between the team around Symonds at BBC News and the staff of Panorama. Representatives of both teams gathered in a dingy meeting room to make peace, only for the meeting to descend into bickering. 

“You are trying to shit on our journalism,” a producer from the news team complained. 

“What journalism?” a Panorama staffer shot back. 

I discussed the documentary here. Herrmann also spoke with Daniel Foggo, who presented it:

the story often seemed like a house of cards. “You could see over time that things had been conflated with other things, and then later used as corroboration,” he told me. “You start wondering if the ultimate provenance of these allegations was that some of these blokes looked a bit off.”

***

Herrmann also relates an encounter with David Aaronovitch, a journalist who expressed scepticism from the start. This fairly sums up the issues at stake:

Just before Carl Beech’s trial, I met David Aaronovitch. “Allow me for a moment to express my intense fury at the idiots who did this,” he said soon after we had sat down in a coffee shop near King’s Cross. He said he was referring to the sections of the media who promoted stories about elite paedophile rings and cover-ups without bothering to check if they were true… Aaronovitch is certainly angry with Exaro, but he sees a wider responsibility on the part of the media, which he thinks put the police under pressure to investigate made-up stories. “They [the police] are intimidated by us,” he said. “This one is our fault.”

Herrmann’s essay not the full story, of course: elements that do not appear include Wiltshire Police’s investigation into Edward Heath; the travails of the former MP John Hemming (again involving Hencke); and John Mann’s “Dickens dossiers” grandstanding. My hope is that Herrmann will expand on his work in a book-length treatment.