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Is it bad to write for hard-right outlets?

There is no doubt that the Overton window has shifted to the right during the last decade or two.  It is now common to hear people saying things that, even in 2010 would have been thought to be frankly fascistic.

I recall a conversation with the great biophysicist, Sir Bernard Katz, in 1992. He had come to UCL in 1936 to escape from the Nazi regime in Leipzig.  When I suggested to him that he must have been very pleased about the reunification of Germany, he pulled a long face and said “hmm, let’s wait to see what crawls out from under stones”.  He was, as so often, right. The radical right party, Alternative für Deutschland, has gained strength, especially in the former East Germany.

It isn’t long since we used to laugh at the USA for the far-right tendencies of Fox News.  Now we have its direct equivalent in GB News and Talk TV. Neither carries much advertising.  GB News lost £42 million last year.  In an evening of watching GB News, the only advertisement that I heard was for boxt.co.uk who sponsored the weather forecast. So, who is paying for them?  It seems to be much the same people who are paying for other far-right sites like Spiked Online and for slightly more subtle organisations that have sprung up to push hard-right views.  These include UnHerd, Quillette and The Critic. Mostly it’s super-rich business people whose wealth allows them to push for laws that make them even more wealthy while pretending to be on the side of the people against the “elites”.  In the case of Talk TV it’s Rupert Murdoch.  In the case of GB News, and UnHerd, and the Free Speech Union, it’s Sir Paul Marshall.

Paul Marshall (read more about him) is a very wealthy hedge fund manager -one of the elite group of wealthy people who find it convenient to pretend that they are on the ’side of the people’.  A curious characteristic of the hard right is that they seem to believe this: a sufficient condition to believe something is that it isn’t true.  In order to join their cult you must be against vaccines, against lockdowns, against climate change mitigations, against electric cars, against science, against universities, against the BBC, against any sort of regulation.  It is all weirdly contrarian.  What they claim to be for is free speech, though naturally that’s more important for people they agree with.

There are some quite ingenious people behind the hard-right’s attempts to take power. The attempted coup was obvious when Trump urged his supporters to storm Congress on January 6th, 2021, and it’s obvious in his rhetoric in 2024.  In the UK it is more subtle, but equally dangerous.  The idea seems to be to get people indignant about things like climate change by producing a non-stop deluge of misinformation.  The fact that 99.9 percent of scientists agree that climate change is a danger to the future of our planet means nothing to them -they seem to regard it as proof that there is a conspiracy by the “elites” to oppress the people. 

Spreading conspiracies is a useful tool for the far-right.  They vary from the slightly plausible to the batshit crazy (Jewish space lasers, anyone?). In the words of Steve Bannon, “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”. In other words, provide so much misinformation that people get disorientated.

Some good fact-checkers have arisen in an attempt to counter the flood of misinformation.  Needless to say, the hard-right are against them.  BBC Verify does a good job in telling us what’s true and what isn’t. And the BBC appointed its first specialist disinformation and social media correspondent, Marianna Spring.  She’s done a terrific job in investigating conspiracy theorists.  She’s talked to some of the more extreme people -those who claim that the Covid virus doesn’t exist and that the pandemic was a hoax, and that the Manchester Arena bombing was staged.  Needless to say, she’s incurred the wrath not only of Twitter trolls (many thousands of abusive messages and death threats), but also of UnHerd, which pretends to be moderate.

Simon Cottee published in UnHerd, “The hypocrisy of the BBC’s misinformation war: Marianna Spring is as dogmatic as her trolls”.  (Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.) It includes gems like:

. . . an entire industry of journalists, academics and experts has arisen to hunt down, track and police misinformation. In some ways, this industry is just as creepy and alarming as the conspiracy culture it gorges on, mirroring its familiar pathologies of distortion and hyperbole.

So the people who warn about dangerous conspiracies are just as bad as those who spread them?

Conspiracy culture, for those who are part of it, offers a profound spiritual enlargement of the world, imbuing it with hidden meanings, mysteries and secrets. Conspiracies can be engaging and fun and thrillingly transgressive.

So that’s all right, then.

There is a lot of information about the organisations and people involved in the recent burgeoning of hard-right sites in a fascinating paper by Huw C. Davies and Sheena E. MacRae: An anatomy of the British war on woke (https://doi.org/10.1177/03063968231164905). One name that keeps cropping up is Toby Young.  You can read more about him on his Wikipedia page. Despite the fact that he’s edited his own page 282 times, it’s less than flattering.  He ran Lockdown Sceptics, and now runs The Daily Sceptic and the Free Speech Union.  His character can be judged also from this selection of his puerile tweets from 2009 (when he was 45 years old, not 15).

A dilemma

Outlets like UnHerd, The Critic and Quillette are somewhat less extreme than Breitbart and Spiked.  They are designed to seem reasonable and to tolerate, even to invite, some progressive opinions.  I’d argue that this makes them even more dangerous than the more extreme sites.  If you want to know where their political sympathies lie, look at comments on their articles (but hold your nose before doing so).   At a time when we have the most right-wing government in my lifetime, their number one enemy is that very government. They are fiercely critical of any Conservative who isn’t a member of the group of far-right insurgents whom John Major called “bastards” in 1993, and whom an ally of David Cameron, 20 years later, called swivel-eyed loons.

The stimulus to write this piece came when I noticed that some of my heroes had been writing for them.  That has created a dilemma for me, so I’ll put both sides of it.  First, though, the problem.

First, I noticed that Sense About Science is debating at the Free Speech Union. Sense about Science is an organisation that advocates good science and explains it in an accessible way.  It has written good pamphlets on a lot of topics, though the fact that it’s taken money from industry inevitably means that it will be regarded with a bit of suspicion. Being involved with Toby Young’s blatantly anti-science Free Speech Union can surely only add to those suspicions.

Then I got another shock when I saw that Alan Sokal was also involved with the Free Speech Union.  I loved Sokal’s book, Intellectual Impostures, in which he, with Jean Bricmont, talk about his spoof paper which demolished the absurd pretentiousness of post-modernist philosophers.  The cover of his book appears on the masthead of my blog, where I have posted about his work.  I was therefore very surprised when I found that he, a physicist, had spoken at Toby Young’s anti-science Free Speech Union.  It’s on YouTube.  

I was even more astonished when I found that Margaret McCartney and Deborah Cohen were publishing in UnHerd.  McCartney is a GP in Glasgow and a prolific journalist. Cohen is a first-rate investigative medical journalist. They are both people whose work I admire hugely.  Why on earth are such people giving succour to the hard right?

Declaration of interest. I count Sokal, McCartney and Cohen as friends. I have huge respect for all of them. McCartney, Cohen (and I) have all received the Health Sense UK award. We were all what was described as sceptics before that word was purloined by the forces of anti-science.

My dilemma

It could certainly be argued that I’m wrong to be upset that people with whom I agree on almost everything, are engaging with the hard right.  Talking is good and they are taking their messages to people who will often not agree with them, not preaching to those who already agree. 

On the other hand, they are attracting readers to organisations that are far to the right of anything I’ve known in my lifetime. Organisations that, if they got their way, would result, I believe, in an authoritarian government which would have much in common with fascism.

One possible explanation lies in the cleverness with which the hard-right has used wedge issues to divide people.  If you put the word ‘transgender’ into UnHerd’s search box, you get 466 hits. It’s a topic that is an obsession of all the new hard-right sites. They bang on about it incessantly.  That seems odd because only 0.5 percent of the population are affected by it.  It’s also odd because the same people who would, at other times, be saying that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, are now seeking to appear as champions of women’s rights.

I suspect that this is a clever calculation on the part of hard-right outlets, which are generally opposed to science.  It’s designed to win over rationalists by asserting again, and again, and again, that biological sex can’t change. Of course it can’t.  I don’t need people like Toby Young to tell me that. Most people nevertheless think that people with gender dysphoria should be treated with kindness. I have given my opinions on the transgender question already.  It isn’t that hard.  Yet the heat that is generated has allowed otherwise reasonable people to be sucked into the orbit of the hard-right. 

That is tragic.

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20 Responses to How do we stop a resurgence of fascism?

  • George says:

    David — you seem to view ideas you label ‘far-right’ dangerous and infectious — liable to render the infected irrational — rather than as positions that can be challenged with argument. That is odd for a sceptic and a liberal.

    • I certainly think that far-right views are dangerous, I’m wondering whether they have infected you, but your anonymity prevents me from offering a diagnosis.

      Of course they can be challenged with argument.  That is one intention of this post.

  • Hi there David, hope you’re well again after your recent bout of Covid. You write a lot of sense, as usual, and I too am saddened when people I respect try to use ‘biology’ (or myriad other spurious arguments) to oppose trans rights or are suspicious of gender dysphoria all together. Unfortunately, at the bottom of all this hostility lies an emotional repulsion against trans people, or particularly transwomen as the anti-woke rarely mention trans men.  It’s very much the same kind of pattern that used to be applied to oppose gay rights and villify gay men in particular. Ultimately, I believe the anti-woke crowd are not going to be susceptible to rational arguments because their views come from deep seated emotional positions. The wedge issues that the right focus on need to raise strong feelings. On a positive note, young people are much more likely to be left-leaning, minority-supporting and, I suppose, woke, so the future might be brighter. 

    • Thanks very much. It’s nice to get a comment that isn’t just telling me I’m wrong.  It has been  a problem I think that some  people insist that you must say ” women are women”.  That’s  obviously not literally true, and it does play into the hands of people who wish to use the trans question as a weapon. 

      I think that it’s probably right to pause the use of puberty blockers because they haven’t  been adequately tested. But what the anti-trans lobby never seem to admit is that there have been trans people around for ever, and they should be allowed to live in  peace. 

      I guess that nobody really knows why the number of people  seeking help has increased recently. There’s a good account of the numbers here.

  • Dealing with young people in this context is very difficult and I feel I must defer to the experts, who I hope will be guided by science and empathy. On a related topic, I saw a documentary recently about the treatment of intersex children who are often subjected to surgery and given hormones when very young to make them more typically female, in line with parents’ wishes to make them conform. These now grown-up children in the documentary wanted this process banned allowing intersex children to make informed choices themselves when they were old enough. This doesn’t seem to be on the radar of anti-trans warriors. I wonder how they weigh up the conflict between parents’ wishes and hormones in this situation. 

    • Yes, it is very difficult. The problem seems to be that evidence about the consequences of different approaches is lacking, so experts disagree about the best thing to do. That means that there is a choice of which experts to defer to.

  • Dr Peter R Ashby says:

    David you have got it wrong I’m afraid. Those people are on those platforms because those are the only ones they are now allowed to be on as the left have banned them. The modern Left is now utterly intolerant of any dissent whatsoever.
    Woke is a modern secular religion, you have failed to note that one too. Think about how the slightest dissent is a howling heresy. Transphobe! for eg is just a modern heretic. Count me recognising biological reality and you cannot change sex as you should know amongst the heretics. As an atheist I cannot be other. 

    • Firstly, I do not believe that nobody else would print their stuff.

      Secondly, even if that were almost true, I wouldn’t think it anything approaching a sufficient reason to attract readers and revenue to sites like UnHerd or the FSU,  Such sites are far to the right of the Conservative party, and are therefore a threat to all of us -please don’t be deceived by their carefully-cultivated appearance of moderation.

      You may have notice that I didn’t once use the word “woke”in the whole piece. That  word is used only by the hard-right to discredit anyone who has a bit of human empathy, or anyone who is slightly  to the left of Attila the Hun.

      Perhaps you didn’t reach the end of my post.  I said

      I suspect that this is a clever calculation on the part of hard-right outlets, which are generally opposed to science. It’s designed to win over rationalists by asserting again, and again, and again, that biological sex can’t change. Of course it can’t.  I don’t need people like Toby Young to tell me that.”

       It’s perfectly possible to believe that without giving succour to the Toby Youngs or  Nigel Farages of this world.  I’m  surprised that you seem to have been taken in by them.

      Furthermore, your generalisations about the “modern left” are, in my opinion, as baseless as any generalisations about large groups of people. Like “the British people think . . .”. Yes, some use hyperbole, and some can be almost aggressive as the far right. Most people are somewhere in the middle. I have, in my time, voted Labour, Lib Dem and Green (but never Conservative). I’m the archetypal liberal.

  • UnHerd continues to publish anti-scientific stuff in a way that’s typical of far-right conspiracy theorists.  A recent example is an interview with Martin  Kulldorff, an author of the infamous Great Barrington Declaration.  The title makes their  position very clear: “Fired by Harvard for Getting Covid Right”. 
    Either the people who run UnHerd are totally ignorant about science, or  they are following the advice of Steve Bannon to “flood the zone with s**t”.  Most likely, it’s a bit of both. 

  • Hannah Arendt put it very well, in The Origins of Totalitarianism 

    The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

  • Jane Sherberkov says:

    Excellent article and am delighted to discover this blog.
    As it  happens  I joined Unherd briefly due to the range and quality of journalists – Julie Bindel, Terry Eagleton etcetera.  I do think there is an issue with gender critical feminists getting published.  The Guardian is an obvious offender here.  I do not support the extreme anti trans positions held by some but there are issues that the left are sweeping under the carpet.  Things like trans activists misogyny and the misogyny/homophobia of Islamists.  Of course misogyny and homophobia have always been present in all three major monotheistic religions and in secular science.
    I agree with you that if Bindel and co read the comments, I do not understand how they can in conscience continue writing for these publications.
    On the Unherd forum I encountered rabid antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia and all round racism.  It was deeply depressing.  There were a few decent individuals on there who weren’t bigots but were offended by simplistic platitudes on the left.
    I contribute and work with Hope Not Hate who have opened an investigation into Paul Marshall.
    I do believe in free speech but am still debating whether to report the Unherd forum moderators for allowing someone to use antisemitic hate speech against me. I have the evidence.  This was not in relation to Israel either – I’m not a Zionist although I oppose the knee jerk ‘Zionism is colonialism’ narrative.
    You’re right – Unherd is much more dangerous than GB News because it is attracting writers with far more credibility than the average far right media outlet.

    • Thanks for your comment. It’s good to hear a calmly-stated opinion. They are in rather short supply.

      In particular, I’m baffled by the bile that is aimed at JK Rowling.  In her famous tweet, the first four sentences are explicitly generous to anyone who who doesn’t conform to sexual norms.
      Famous tweet from JK Rowling

      The last sentence says that people don’t deserve to lose their jobs for expressing a view.  To lose your job will be, for many people, a very serious punishment.  It seems to me that it’s just bizarre to call this tweet transphobic.
      You said

      On the Unherd forum I encountered rabid antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia and all round racism.  It was deeply depressing.

      It seems to be a standard method used by the far-right to accuse those who oppose them of doing what they are doing themselves.

  • Yet another reason to think that UnHerd is a far-right outlet. Aris Roussinos says he wants to undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

  • On 27 March 2024, Sokal gave a talk at the FSU with the title What is Science and Why Should We Care?
    I found little to disagree with in it, BUT he focussed only on obvious cases -homeopathy, post-modern relativism and (yet again) the binary nature of sex.  Nobody that I know disputes any of them. 
    He failed entirely to discuss any of the topics on which FSU shows its anti-science views -vaccination, the Great Barrington Declaration, climate science etc etc.
    That is very disappointing. It smacks of cowardice. 

  • After Sokal’s talk, I asked a question.  Needless to say, it wasn’t selected. Free speech is evidently selective at the Free Speech Union.

    I wonder why you dealt only with obvious examples, ike homeopathy on which everyone I know agrees, but avoided the anti-science views of your hosts on vaccination, epidemiology and climate change?

  • In today’s contents of UnHerd (I read it so you don’t have to) there’s a piece by Philip Pilkington that takes the side of Russia against Ukraine. He describes Donald Tusk and Emmanuel Macron as  irresponsible and hysterical because they warn about the danger to the rest of Europe if Putin wins.  It’s the Trump line, but more grammatical, 

  • Les Rose says:

    Your point that “the hard right is….against any sort of regulation” struck a chord with me. This is exactly what has happened over the last decade or so. Even the General Medical Council is pathetically weak at times. When I complained about a consultant physician recommending homeopathy for coronavirus, the GMC said “she is entitled to hold an opinion”. You know about my battle with the Charity Commission, which allows just about any quackery to register as a charity, even astrology. Trading Standards has good people, but hardly any of them because of budget cuts. It all fits with the libertarian mindset of the present government.

  • Here’s yet another example of the hard-right nature of UnHerd and, in particular, its readers.  They recently featured an article by Freddy Sayers, the editor in chief of UnHerd, which was devoted to deploring the “disinformation industry”. 

    I guess that isn’t surprising that a site that runs so many anti-vaccination pieces, and regularly deplores efforts to avert the climate crisis, should not like the efforts of fact-checkers and disinformation specialists.

    I left a comment on this piece

    I’m puzzled by the inverted commas surrounding “insurrections”. Would you use them if the armed and violent mob had attacked to Houses of Parliament?”

    This elicited three responses, all of which explicitly supported the Trump view of Jan 6th. One, from an ‘Allison Burrows’, even said “The FBI had at least 200 agents provocateur in the crowd to scale walls and toss smoke bombs for cinematic effect,”

    Do these extremists really believe such daft conspiracy theories? Or are they following Steve Bannon’s advice to “flood the zone with s**t.”?  Either way, a few years ago comments like that would have been unthinkable.  Some nasty things have emerged from under stones.

  • Today’s mail from UnHerd advertises  these two gems.They’d make even the Daily Mail blush.
    1. Defending Trump (the title is, believe it or not, “Trump’s conviction is an assault on democracy Yesterday was a darker day than January 6”), and
    2. pillorying Ursula von der Leyen for buying a lot of Pfizer-BioNTech covid vaccine in April 2021.
    UnHerd masquerades as a champion of free speech with an intellectual veneer. In fact it pushes absurd hard right pro-Trump and anti-science stories.

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