Artillery Row

And the screaming fell away

Legal threats being made against Brexiteers was news, them going away wasn’t

As the pips of the BBC’s Today programme went off through my Alexa alarm my fate was revealed, I’ll never forget my name being announced alongside the words ‘Metropolitan Police’. It was July 2018 and I was now aware through Auntie Beeb that I had been referred to the Metropolitan Police and fined £20,000.

In March of that year, the so-called Vote Leave whistleblowers, whose accounts the Electoral Commission had relied upon, were also given an entire half hour of Channel 4 News to narcissistically opine on how I was a patsy for the Leave cause.

Fast-forward a year and I had won my court case against the Electoral Commission. The Notice issued by the Electoral Commission was dismissed as wrong in both fact and law in the High Court. Accounts by whistleblowers had been exposed as inconsistent and inaccurate. That next morning I tuned into the Today programme, eagerly, but naively, anticipating their announcement of my win. It did not come.

What about Channel 4 News? Its news chief at the time infamously branded Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a “known liar”, but maybe it would be honest enough to inform its audience of my proven innocence? No such luck. I had hoped those supposedly brave journalists, who purported to “speak truth to power”, might be keen to report on a state quango that was out of control: to expose the Electoral Commission as having allowed itself to become part of the #FBPE mob. No siree. Again, silence.

This week served up yet more evidence of this remarkable media bias on all matters Electoral Commission. The state quango suffered yet another damning defeat in the High Court, this time with Leave.EU’s Arron Banks and Liz Bilney forcing the regulator to agree terms of settlement over their announcement in November 2018 of its referral of Banks and Bilney to the National Crime Agency for further investigation.

Despite the National Crime Agency itself putting Banks and Bilney in the clear more than six months ago in September 2019, the Electoral Commission refused to give in, only now agreeing to “accept” the NCA’s conclusions following legal action. This is a state regulator which has been entrusted with safeguarding our democracy, and yet time and again it has been more interested in continuing relentless campaigns against a particular person or persons, even after both the police and NCA have cleared them of any wrongdoing. It’s truly mind boggling. Any truly independent regulator that made a referral and had an answer given back to them by a dedicated law enforcement agency would then immediately accept the findings.

A lot of proudly cynical journalists have been very easily spoonfed by lowgrade Remain spinners

Any number of news outlets were falling over themselves to splash the original allegations all over their websites and news broadcasts, guaranteeing millions of hits around the country and beyond. The BBC, at time of writing, has reported that Mr Banks and the Electoral Commission have now reached an “amicable settlement” and the commission has removed two press releases from its website, but stops short of saying that the settlement was in Banks’ favour. Channel 4 News? Not a peep.

What a contrast to the Carole Cadwalladr tinfoil hat conspiracy theories, that felt like a permanent fixture at one point in my early twenties, splashed upon The Observer’s front cover each week, that the media class so hungrily lapped up. It is hard to come to any other conclusion about this stark discrepancy than that of an underlying, pernicious bias against the truth and professional standards. Was it good journalism for so many to unquestioningly parrot (the prize-winning …) Cadwalldr’s wildest theories? It was dark money, Russian bots and a nasty Vote Leave conspiracy wot won it you see. Sadly for so many supposedly hard-nosed hacks it wasn’t about ‘holding truth to power’, it was about not missing out on what was trending on loopy #FBPE twitter. And that’s when it wasn’t just partisan prejudices by hacks hysterically spilling over during the long post-Referendum frenzy.

In recent years, these sections of the UK media have proudly promoted themselves as ‘the real opposition’ to powerful governments – first to New Labour, and now to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. Self-important journalists bleat on about their vital democratic role, and their place in fighting the #FakeNews spewed by others. Yet what to honestly, accurately say of the way accusations against people like me were reported when they were made, compared to the near total media silence when they’re exposed as the empty smears they always obviously were? A lot of proudly cynical journalists have been very easily used and spoonfed by lowgrade Remain spinners: this is not to their credit. It is just a basic failure of professionalism and craft that the people who pompously raved about me have not, when the story changed, sought to do their job and hold the Electoral Commission to account for its repeated failings.

The BBC’s charter clearly states that the BBC “should provide duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming to build people’s understanding”. I look forward to a Panorama programme investigating the Electoral Commission’s horrendous waste of taxpayer’s money and scandalously bad practice. I got the rough edge of the BBC’s sword and I was innocent. Why the hell should this constitutionally vital, lavishly funded Quango be spared the treatment that was meted out to me in my early 20s? At every stage in the BBC’s byzantine structures, manager after manager has to make a decision on what they do and do not report, what gets pushed up the news list and what gets pushed down. It’s remarkable, isn’t it, that I was headline news when there was a chance that my being so was bad news for Brexit, but then when it wasn’t, not so much. Real people make these real decisions. What a remarkable similarity of thought they all have.

All of this might lead you to believe that I might support the House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s calls for a regulator in response to its report on ‘Disinformation’ and #FakeNews. I could not disagree more. Anyone who has reflected on the Electoral Commission’s behaviour over the last four years should be deeply alarmed by this proposal. A disturbing feature of government is that public officials have their own interests. The American economist William A. Niskanen tried to identify the particular interests and objectives of bureaucrats in his 1971 book, Bureaucracy and Representative Government. He suggested that people in public agencies typically seek to maximise their budgets and remits – gaining for them, power, status, comfort, security, and other benefits.

Imagine a ‘disinformation’ regulator, or if the Electoral Commission was given the brief of policing disinformation during our elections, with some liberal left darling as its commissioner. All this would amount to would be yet another taxpayer-funded quango that is open to capture by liberal biases and vested interests, skewing and distorting its independence until it too becomes part of the metropolitan liberal elite mob, armed with the enforcement powers of the state. Thanks but no, I’d rather take my chances with lawyers and the law as it is. It’s a damn sight easier to appeal in court than it is to get out of the clutches of regulating Quangos.

I went through hell because of what the Electoral Commission did to me: no one at the Electoral Commission has taken responsibility for the choices they made, let alone resigned. The last thing we need is another regulator along these lines, as it’ll end up manned by exactly the same irresponsible, self-regarding people.

Parliament has oversight of the Electoral Commission, and there must be a reckoning. As for our publicly owned broadcasters? I have a feeling that shifts in demographics and a flowering of free, non-government owned or sanctioned media outlets spells trouble. They deserve it, if only for the pitiful quality of their journalism.

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