Brendan O’Neill

The censorious war on lockdown sceptics

The censorious war on lockdown sceptics
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Britain at the start of 2021 doesn’t only have a Covid problem — it has a censorship problem, too. The germ of intolerance is spreading. Anyone who dissents, however slightly, from the Covid consensus will find him or herself branded a crank, even a killer. They will be hounded and demonised; online mobs will demand their expulsion from media platforms and from public life. I fear that this Salem-like hatred for sceptical voices will, like Covid itself, have a long-lasting and severely detrimental impact on this country.

In recent days, the censorious fury over Covid scepticism has intensified. The pitchforks are out for experts and commentators who query the seriousness of the pandemic or who suggest that lockdown is not an ideal policy. Karol Sikora, Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan and others — all are now routinely branded as reckless, dangerous spreaders of ‘disinformation’, as toxins in the body politic. ‘Stop platforming them!’, columnists and their intolerant army of online cheerleaders scream at the BBC or anyone else who dares to give these sinning sceptics three minutes of airtime.

It’s the venom in the assaults on the sceptics that is most disturbing. First up for the pitchfork treatment was Karol Sikora, the ‘positive professor’, the celebrated oncologist whose speechcrime is that he spent much of 2020 cautioning against hysteria about Covid-19 and predicting it would fizzle out eventually. Last week, Owen Jones, cancel culture’s witchfinder-general, wrote an extraordinarily vindictive piece about Professor Sikora in the Guardian, accusing him of spreading ‘disinformation’ and of being ‘dangerous’. He should be No Platformed by the media, Jones demanded, the regressive left’s answer to every opinion or argument they disapprove of.

Spreading disinformation is an incredibly serious charge to make against someone. Disinformation doesn’t only mean being wrong — Professor Sikora, like pretty much everyone else, got some things wrong about Covid-19 in 2020. It means deliberately promoting false information in order to deceive people. Does Mr Jones think Professor Sikora did that? That he concocted a knowingly false narrative in order to hoodwink the British masses? That such charges can be made against clearly honourable medical experts shows how out of control Covid intolerance has become. Just being wrong is now proof of malevolence. ‘You made a mistake? Get to the stocks.’

Next up was Sunetra Gupta. She’s been getting flak from the mob for months but it reached a crescendo yesterday when she was on the Today programme. Why is the BBC giving space to a nutter, people asked? She isn’t a nutter, of course. She’s an infectious disease epidemiologist at Oxford University. But she bristles against the Covid consensus and that makes her a bad person, virtually a witch, in the eyes of the zealous protectors of Covid orthodoxy. Professor Gupta has written about the barrage of abuse she receives via email. ‘Evil’, they call her.

Like Sikora — like everyone, at various points, when confronted by this novel virus that exploded in early 2020 — Professor Gupta has got some things wrong. She overestimated how much herd immunity had been achieved last year. But her chief crime, judging from the hysterical commentary about her, is that she is critical of harsh lockdowns. She is a founder of the Great Barrington Declaration, which proposes that instead of locking down the whole of society we should shield the elderly and the vulnerable while allowing other people to carry on pretty much as normal. It is this perfectly legitimate discussion of a social and political question — the question of lockdown — that has earned Gupta the most ire.

This became clear in a piece written by Sonia Sodha for the Observer towards the end of 2020. Scandalously, the article refers to Gupta and others as ‘agents of disinformation’ — again, that unsustainable charge that they are purposefully propagating false information in order to deceive the public. The idea that there is an alternative to lockdown is ‘magical thinking’, Sodha suggests. Making such claims is ‘corrupt[ing] legitimate debate about social restrictions’, Sodha says.

There you have it, in black and white. The current surge in intolerance towards sceptical voices is not merely about holding scientists to account for factual errors — it is about chastising them, and others, for making certain social arguments, for criticising political decisions, for challenging the ideology of lockdown. Under the guise of upholding scientific truth, the crusaders against scepticism are in fact circumscribing social discussion about how society responds to crises.

This is an assault on the freedom of everyone — experts and non-experts alike — to engage in robust discussion about policy and liberty. Apparently lockdown dissent is not a legitimate use of freedom of speech. As Sodha says, ‘Academic freedom does not imply freedom to spread disinformation’. (Remember: ‘disinformation’ now largely means ‘people saying things I disagree with’.)

We have a precedent, of course, for this chilling of social and political discussion under the cover of protecting science. For years now, anyone who criticised any aspect of climate-change policy — who challenged the alarmism of it all, who argued that economic growth must take precedence over environmental policy — has been denounced as a ‘denier’, as an anti-science heretic.

Even those of us who accept that climate change is happening, but who think that in a world in which three billion people still live in poverty we nonetheless need massive and ambitious programmes of industrialisation and progress, will be denounced as sinful ‘deniers’. And if you want a taste of how terrifying the censorious war on lockdown sceptics looks set to become, remember that mainstream environmentalist thinkers have previously called for ‘deniers’ to be put on trial. Green author Mark Lynas proposed setting up ‘international criminal tribunals’ for climate-change deniers because they will be ‘partially but directly responsible for millions of deaths’.

We’ll hear this in relation to Covid sceptics, too, I guarantee it. Chase them off their airwaves, get them out of the universities, hold them responsible for death and destruction. Yesterday’s mercifully brief deletion of talkRADIO’s YouTube channel, apparently on the basis that talkRADIO hosts Covid sceptics, was a disturbing glimpse of how ruthless Covid intolerance will become.

There’s a great deal of scapegoating going on here. Britain has been in and out of lockdown for nearly a year and the virus continues to spread. Some in the pro-lockdown lobby are looking for people to blame for the failure of the policy they themselves argued for and supported. And they have landed upon sceptics. Just as eccentric elderly women were held responsible for inclement weather and crop failures in pre-modern times — and often burnt as witches — so sceptical voices are treated as the devils of our time, making Covid worse, causing people to die.

Covid is real. Hospitalisations are rising. Many people are dying. But that does not mean we should suspend public debate about what works and what doesn’t work. On the contrary, in times of crisis we need more discussion, not less. And in times of stifling conformism, such as we have now, we need more heresy.

It’s the heretics who ensure that we don’t all sink into nodding-dog conformism. Through promoting alternative, possibly eccentric views about Covid and lockdown, they shine an essential light on the possibility that we are currently making a terrible mistake with our constant lockdowns. Sikora, Gupta and others are doing a great service to society; it’s their demonisers and aspiring censors who are wreaking damage by seeking to restrict public discussion and in the process shrink the possibilities for how to deal with viruses and other social challenges.

Robert Ingersoll, the 19th-century American lawyer, writer and sceptic, put it best: ‘Heresy is the eternal dawn... Heresy extends the hospitalities of the brain to a new thought. Heresy is a cradle. Orthodoxy, a coffin.’