Lawfare: Court Room PR
Part 1 of our series examining the functions of lawfare
Lawfare: A Multi-Pronged Strategy
A common strategy for many years in the US used by the likes of organisations linked to the Council of National Policy and Koch network is litigation; they have the money and legal teams available to constantly bring legal challenges against policies they disapprove of. Once again being right isn’t important, and when it comes to legal challenges against covid measures winning in court isn’t even the main purpose.
Legal action provides a rallying point, a shortcut to raising the media profile of individuals, campaigns and organisations, and creates a revenue stream via donations to legal funds. Many covid legal challenges use payment sites that don’t require verification of who is donating, and under UK rules only donations over £500 are subjected to any scrutiny, which does allow a single source to go below the radar by making many smaller donations under different names. Disinformation and misinformation also seems to be treated as having more credibility when submitted as evidence to court, and we have seen quotes from court cases used repeatedly in disinformation groups literature, even if they produced the evidence themselves they will treat the court documents as though it was another voice in agreement with them.
Losing a court case allows more revenue raising with appeals and new legal challenges and for those seeking to undermine faith in institutions they can frame every failed legal challenge as evidence of the mechanisms of the state suppressing the “truth”. It’s a campaigning tactic not available to genuine grassroot groups without the funds for expensive legal action. The pandemic has certainly provided a lot of business for the teams of lawyers who have supported the sceptic movement.
This short series will look at the three main uses of legal teams by disinformation networks, PR and propaganda, funding, and SLAPP. This first piece will look at examples of how legal challenges have been used as PR and to generate propagandas.
Latest UK example
On Monday 26 July the UK courts heard the case against vaccinating 5-11 year olds. The case was brought by the Children’s Covid Vaccine Advisory Council which is just one of several campaign groups created by Ros Jones and other members of the disinformation group HART which include the Safer to Wait campaign.
An example of their propaganda
Safer to Wait leaflet produced by members of the interlinked groups HART, Pandata and UK Medical Freedom Alliance.
Ros Jones has also been a key member of the group Us For Them which has opposed all measures to reduce transmission in schools, arguing that children should be allowed the “benefits of natural immunity”. Us For Them have claimed to have nothing to do with the Safer to Wait campaign, going as far as to threaten people with legal action (an example of SLAPP), however in an article against child vax for The Critic, founding member Molly Kingley even encouraged readers to promote the campaign.
The official account did the same
As did other members of the group
While each disinformation group claims to be independent the #HARTleaks reveal how each group is merely a different mouth of the same hydra designed to reach different audiences.
#HARTleaks reveals the planning behind the coordinated campaign against under 16 vaccination which produced several new campaign groups including Safer to Wait and the Children’s Covid Vaccine Advisory Council to add to the “independent” voices of the pre-existing groups.
Ros Jones who also goes by Ros Maidmont is even the signatory for evidence submitted to the Education Select Committee on behalf of Us For Them
25 July Court Case
John Bye, an ally of the Counter Disinformation Project reported on the court’s damning summary of the evidence provided by Ros Jones and Stephen Jackson of Jackson Osborne and the organisation Law or Fiction that operates as a cluster of lawyers serving covid sceptics in doomed legal proceedings.
“The claim is totally without merit”, Ros Jones is “not expert evidence”, and yet Jones and her HART colleagues who helped prepare the evidence for the case have provided evidence not just to the Education Select Committee at the request of its chair Robert Halfon MP who is a vocal advocate of Us For Them, but have had debates against child vax held in Westminister Hall on their behalf and been quoted by various MPs in Parliament. In his review of Us For Them's newly released book Robert Halfon claims they have provided undeniable evidence children and schools have a minimal role in covid transmission. The book thanks Ros Jones for her contribution and also thanks the Great Barrington Declaration authors Gupta and Bhattacharya.
HART have also provided evidence to the Covid Recovery All Party Parliamentary Committee, although this Committee is funded by Collateral Global which includes amongst its members Sunetra Gupta, Jay Bhattacharya, Martin Kulldorff, Ellen Townsend who has been advising Us For Them since the beginning. Jenny Moran of HART is the APPGs secretariat.
Why are politicians relying on an evidence base that’s been thrown out of court rooms in every country its been used? How are the same groups able to buy their own APPG?
The same court cases are being brought around the world and the same evidence bases are being used. In each country there is a small group of lawyers who take up almost every challenge to measures and vaccines.
Thread by Mallory Harris shows what courts across the states have thought of Jay Bhattacharya's reliability as an expert witness.
Court Room PR
The #HARTleaks demonstrate how court cases court cases are used to generate PR, losing isn’t an issue, they will seek to spin the results to claim hollow or moral victories. Quotes will be cherry picked from what is said in court, sceptic media will write up stories along the lines of “experts tell court room about the harms of…” either without reporting the court’ findings or claiming a miscarriage of justice has occurred.
The same tactics in each country.
Legal challenges launched sceptic groups
On 1 May 2020 Simon Dolan started legal proceedings to challenge the UK Government’s decision to impose lockdown. A businessman and investor on the Sunday Times Rich List made his money through accountancy services, his company Jota Aviation suffered financially from covid measures, although it was awarded a government contract to transport PPE and repatriate stranded UK citizens. eventually shutting for business on 16 April 2022. He was represented by Michael Gardner of Wedlake Bell LLP and Francis Hoar of Field Court Chambers. To pay for the legal action Dolan raised £210,000 in donations by 10 June.
Francis Hoar is also a member of Pandata which formed in April 2020 as previously covered in the Pandata File. Another member of their lawyers group is Stacey Rudin.
The legal challenge garnered media attention for Dolan who invoked Human Rights as he called for the right of workers to get back to work without protective measures while running his business from the safety of his home in Monaco. Of the back of the media platform provided by the legal action Dolan launched the Keep Britain Free (KBF) campaign group in June 2020 which claims to represent the silent majority of millions, KBF was associated with anti-maskers who initially used smiley faces in their profiles, with vaccines they moved onto yellow stars to the outrage of victims of the hollocaust before changing to flower blossoms with five points like a star.
When Dolan initially made the news, being platformed across the media as he spoke about human rights and draconian authoritarian control the outlets amplifying Dolan failed to mention that he had been the executive producer of Renegade in 2019, a documentary about conspiracy theorist David Icke. While mainly a vehicle to report and raise funds for Dolan’s ongoing succession of legal actions, the total cost of which must be considerable, the KBF website also drifts into conspiracy theory with headlines such as “URGENT: Stop the WHO taking over our Democracy” and a campaign against child vaccination which links to the Children’s Union organisation which platforms prolific anti-vaxxers such as Ros Jones of HART and Us for Them.
Dolan and Hoar would go on to be one of the ten signatories to an open letter to the security services of the UK and US claiming lockdowns were part of a Chinese conspiracy, despite this he still appears at times in those elements of the right wing media that extensively platform disinformation over genuine experts. David Icke and his son Gareth jumped straight into the covid conspiracy grift with the group Save Our Rights. Francis Hoar, also a signatory of the Chinese lockdown conspiracy letter is one of the lawyers of choice for the sceptic movement supporting many of the interconnected groups in the covid disinformation network. Hoar also sits on the committee of Lawyers for Britain, a campaign group of lawyers set up in 2016 to support the Brexit campaign. One of the founding members of Lawyers for Britain is Eric Phillips of Slaughter and May.
Legal challenges against the concept of lockdown were attempted in many countries, those involved often then launching their own campaign groups.
Schools have been a key focus for disinformation groups, be it claims children are considerably less infectious, exaggerating the harms of lockdown or opposing child vaccination.
As Sunetra Gupta said at the launch of the Great Barrington Declaration, allowing the virus to circulate freely in younger age groups is an important part of a herd immunity strategy. Even assuming there would be no harm to children or onward transmission to their families the GBD response to educators safety is that “teachers should be willing to sacrifice themselves” and that not many of them would die as a result of this strategy.
Supporters of mass infection have repeatedly argued any attempts to limit transmission in schools would merely prolong the pandemic, and that the earlier children are infected the better. Is it just a coincidence those now arguing that infection is better than vaccination for children are also the same people who advanced the idea children are less likely to be infected and rarely transmit to adults?Who argued masks don’t reduce transmission and harm children, and also dismiss any talk of improving ventilation and filtration?
We are naturally more protective of children, by focusing on children, in particular when it comes to vaccination, disinformation groups seek to override critical thinking to trigger emotive responses.
“Reopen Schools!” The UK Version
On 31 May the Daily Mail ran a story that school closures breached human rights laws, reporting that three mothers Molly Kingsley, Christine Brett and Liz Morris were considering suing the government because children were being “treated like they are germs” despite “overwhelming evidence lockdown is having a devastating impact on children's well being, draconian social distancing rules will cause long term mental damage.” They said “Many parents are now too scared to admit they want to send their children back to school after unions opposed the reopening of classrooms”, suggesting unions were bullying parents into silence and were driving government policy the three mothers having met online had decided to set up a group called Us for Them to campaign for a full reopening of schools without measures such as social distancing or masks.
Despite having only formed a few days before, they claimed Us for Them had already been “deluged” with messages from parents, teachers and even psychologists thanking them for their bravery in starting the campaign and had already set up a a legal team including a top QC to look at whether the Government’s actions and social distancing rules had been unlawful. They had already written an open letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson claiming the support of over 2,000 parents stating “The risk of transmission between children is minimal, according to the experts, whereas the risk of the damage to their wellbeing is high.”
As with Simon Dolan’s KBF legal action, Us for Them’s threat of legal action grabbed the attention of the press, particularly those outlets pushing for an end to lockdown while promoting Sunetra Gupta’s “Oxford Report”, Thomas’ J-Value calculations and Viner’s systematic review on the infectiousness of children.
The “overwhelming evidence” base referenced by Us for Them was Viner’s systematic review and a paper by Esther Crawley of Bristol University titled “Wider collateral damage to children in the UK because of the social distancing measures designed to reduce the impact of COVID-19 in adults” which states “School closures may have a limited impact on preventing deaths in adults” assuming lower risk in children means negligible risk.
Viner’s systematic study was a review of other previously published papers, as this was published in April 2020 it used many papers on influenza and other coronaviruses to conclude that children would have a negligible impact on transmission. This paper was quoted by governments and organisations around the world and formed the basis for UK government policy.
Esther Crawley was the subject of controversy before the pandemic into a series of research papers treating chronic conditions in children such as CFS/ME as psychological rather than pathological. Many of the issues with Crawley’s work have been repeated throughout covid by a succession of studies which seem almost designed to produce the results the government needs to support its policies.
These include a 2011 study published in the BMJ that came under sustained criticism due to Crawley failing to undergo ethical review in identifying previously undiagnosed patients, and the BMJ also came under criticism for seeming to have published the paper without the expected review process,
In 2016 CFS/ME campaigners won a court victory to release data from the PACE trials published in the Lancet which Crawley had produced the paper for. Run by Queens Mary University London and part funded by the Department for Work and Pensions the PACE trial was assessing the value of biopsychosocial interventions at the same time the DWP was using the biopsychosocial model of disability to help justify cuts to disability spending. The trial claimed to be a decisive success however repeated FOI requests by campaigners worried the trial was providing justification for the government to replace expensive medical treatment and research with cheaper talking therapies. The PACE trial was considered a scandal by members CFS/ME community, the design of the trial and the way in which it was conducted meant that results were always likely to produce results that matched the researchers preferred approaches. Factual inaccuracies were left uncorrected even after being reported to the researchers.
Long covid is inconvenient for the Government and others advocating for policies that allow high transmission rates, and many sufferers are concerned they will now face the same battle to be taken seriously as those afflicted with CFS/ME. Since long covid first came to attention by late Spring 2020 we have seen similar efforts to discredit those scientists raising concerns about the condition as with the Science Media Centre’s hostile briefings against CFS/ME campaigners who criticised the PACE trials.
Multinational Law Firm
Us for Them never revealed who their top legal team was, however a Freedom of Information request by the Byline Times obtained a copy of the pre-action protocol letter, showing Us for Them has been represented by DLA Piper, a multinational law firm, the third largest in the US with revenue in the billions. Their team consisted of partner Paul Stone, senior associate Jonathan Blunden and associate George McLellan. Stone had advised the Department for Transport on Heathrow expansion in 2019 and Blunden also worked for the same department on rail franchising. In 2020 Blunden was working within the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) “to provide contentious and non-contentious public law advice in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The evidence provided in the letter relied on evidence from the Royal College of Paediatric Care and Health (RCPCH) and one of its paediatricians Sunil Bhopal, a key foundation for the evidence was based on the work of the RCPCH’s then president, Russel Viner, other evidence came from Ellen Townsend, a supporter of Us for Them’s future campaigns she would go on to be a signatory of the Great Barrington Declaration, and be involved in various groups including HART, Collateral Global and PCRclaims.
Neither DLA Piper or the DHSC would comment to Byline Times regarding if Blunden was representing Us for Them whilst on secondment to the department. DLA Piper did not represent Us for Them in future cases, later in the year George McLellan was criticised online by the Auschwitz Memorial account for putting a yellow star on his profile which was promoted by various disinformation groups included Us For Them.
Us for Them’s later legal support has come from a group of sceptic lawyers including Francis Hoar, Stephen Jackson of Law or Fiction and Lawyers4Liberty.
Only a few days old the campaign already had secured a fully fledged legal team with a top QC and was making headlines and getting interviews across the national media.
Legal challenges create media pressure on policy
On 26 June Us For Them submitted their letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, calling on the Government to return pupils of all year groups to schools without social distancing or protective measures as they claimed schools make negligible contributions to transmission and that the overall risk from COVID-19 to children is too small to worry about, concluding that “the evidence cited for these arguments has serious limitations”.
The pre-action protocol letter prepared by DLA Piper was said to be “ a contingency”. The letter noting the group “had originally anticipated serving this letter” but did not do so due to “some cause for hope that the Government is working towards a more directive policy to require schools to re-open… However, we are prepared to pursue such a course if the need to do so persists”.
As Byline Times reported
“On the same day the correspondence from US For Them was received, Gavin Williamson forwarded it on to a Government email account – Sec-OF-STATE.PS@education.gov.uk – the identity of which was redacted. This account then further forwarded the correspondence onto the Department for Education’s operations centre and several other advisors stating “urgent response required please”.
On 26 June, the day after the letter was received, a Government official in the Department for Education – whose name has been redacted – expressed concern about the threat in an email to colleagues: “I’ve just today become aware that they’ve sent the attached letter notifying us that they intend to use the attached pre-action letter for a judicial review, depending on the outcome of next week’s announcement.”
On 1 July, the Government sent an official response to UsforThem one day before the rest of the country was informed of the new re-opening plans: “We are working to ensure that all schools can re-open fully in September. We believe that it is vital for all children to return to school to support their education and wellbeing.”
Schools returned in full with limited measures such as trying to keep year groups apart and a reliance on the problem stricken Test and Trace system and limited guidance for school leaders to manage their own contact tracing. Students were told to wear masks on the bus to school but were expected to take them off at the school gates.
It is difficult to estimate the influence of such legal PR campaigns, they certainly increase media coverage for people, groups and narratives. Groups have increased their profile and they will always want to tell their supporters they are responsible for any favourable policy decisions.
There is also the question if in some countries and jurisdictions, the actions of these campaigns aren’t changing policy makers minds but are instead creating the space in public debate that allows politicians to enact the policies they already had in mind. Disinformation campaigns often don’t intend on persuading, the tactic is about spreading confusion and creating doubt.
Three Month Anniversary
Us For Them sent a newsletter to its followers in August 2020 which shows meetings with ministers and working with newspapers behind the scenes.
It’s been revealed that their private PR adviser is Ed Barker who was involved in Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign, has provided services for the parliamentary offices of a number of senior Conservative MPs and the vote leave campaign.
It’s quite remarkable that Ed Barker, a man who must be incredibly busy also advising opaquely funded lobbying groups, foreign billionaires and senior politicians found the time and inclination to provide extensive support to a few plucky mums who say they met by chance in the replies of a Tweet by the Telegraph’s Alison Pearson.
Lawfare Part II will examine the financial donations around lawfare