We’re up against industry giants at the British Journalism Awards for our work on the NHS, politics and civil rights
OpenDemocracy has been shortlisted for the most prestigious prize of its 22-year history: news provider of the year at the British Journalism Awards.
We are one of six news organisations to be shortlisted for the award, putting us up against industry giants Sky News, The Guardian, The Times, the Daily Mail, and the Financial Times.
The news follows a year in which openDemocracy broke scandal after scandal in the UK, revealing the hands of lobbyists, corporations and vested interests behind crucial decisions about the NHS, housing, the Covid inquiry and restrictions on protest.
Satbir Singh, the CEO of openDemocracy, said: “Being shortlisted for an award of this size is such a well-deserved boost for this brilliant team. And being up against five much larger newsrooms shows we really do punch above our weight.
“I’m extremely proud of how far we’ve come and look forward to our next chapter.”
Ramzy Alwakeel, the head of news, said: “I’m beyond proud of everyone. To come out of this year with our biggest-ever award nomination is a giant credit to this team’s brilliance and commitment.”
openDemocracy reporter Adam Bychawski has also been individually shortlisted in the health and life sciences category.
A Cabinet Office scientist who raised concerns over ‘stay alert’ was told it was ‘too late’. SAGE was not even asked
The government’s scientific advisers said they were cut out of decisions on pandemic messaging and compared Boris Johnson to Donald Trump after he tweeted out new guidance before they could flag concerns.
The Covid inquiry today heard the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was not given the chance to advise on the ‘stay alert’ slogan before it was announced by the PM on social media in May 2020. The new messaging, which replaced the ‘stay home’ slogan as the first wave of the virus began to ease off, was heavily criticised at the time for being confusing.
An email was shown from Theresa Marteau, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), in which she told fellow members that the ‘stay alert’ messaging had “the potential to do much damage” and said “our advice has not been sought”.
Marteau said the proposed new guidance could increase the R number – the average number of secondary infections produced by a single infected person – bringing “all the expected negative health and economic consequences”.
She told colleagues that government officials should be urgently made aware of their “concerns” and they needed to “intervene” before the message went out to the public that evening.
But further emails showed the scientists’ responding to Johnson tweeting out the message before they were able to advise on it. They expressed concern about his decision and one wrote: “We have learnt so much from Donald Trump…”
Another email shown to the inquiry revealed that a behavioural scientist in the Cabinet Office who worked on government communications did raise concerns about the guidance after finding out about it, “only to be told it was too late”.
The official said, in another email shown to the inquiry, that their team had not been consulted. In the email to SAGE members, they wrote: “The messages are kept so elusive by a small group of mainly number 10 advisers”.
They added: “I am so sorry that despite being the behavioural scientists inside the government communications service we don’t have a handle on this either. It’s so often partially political and in this case I was also told they wanted to keep it deliberately small so that there’s not too many cooks, which is also a cultural issue.”
In another email, the head of the SPI-B group of behavioural scientists said chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance had issued a warning that members of SAGE and SPI-B should avoid “getting drawn into a govt operational move and losing reputation as a response”.
The email also suggested those inside No.10 were “concerned about our correspondence”.
Lucy Yardley, co-chair of the SPI-B group and a behavioural science expert, said following this incident: “Things didn’t improve in terms of being consulted…on the whole the communications tended to go ahead with very little input from SPI-B.”
Days after the new messaging was announced, Johnson was accused of misleading Parliament by suggesting Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Whitty had signed off on it.
James Rubin, who chaired the group alongside Yardley, earlier told the inquiry that their advice was not heeded and that it “seemed to disappear into a black hole”.
Rubin gave the example of explicitly advising the government against using fear in their messaging when a new variant of Covid arose in December 2020.
“We argued against [using fear] on multiple occasions,” he said.
The inquiry was then shown WhatsApp messages from Matt Hancock, then health secretary, and Simon Case, cabinet secretary.
In the exchanges, Hancock and Case said they intended to “frighten the pants off everyone with the new strain” and that “ramping up..the fear/guilt factor [is] vital”.
Yardley also expressed her concern about the government’s Eat Out to Help Out campaign.
“The ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ slogan… that came at a really crucially problematic time, because it was during the summer and that was when there was a really missed opportunity. That was when the infections were low and we could have all hopefully kept them low”, she said.
The conflict in the Middle East has led British political actors to try and redefine what is ‘acceptable speech’
As a humanitarian crisis unfolds in the Middle East, the UK government and its backers in the media have sought to marginalise and silence dissenting voices by targeting protest movements showing solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
Hundreds of people in Israel were killed, just over a week ago, in a brutal attack by Hamas. In response, Israel has moved swiftly against Hamas and the Palestinian population living in the Gaza strip. It has cut off their electricity and prevented the entry of food, water and medical supplies as it commences a devastating bombardment of homes and civilian infrastructure, leaving hundreds dead.
The reaction to these unfolding events in Britain has been one of shock and anger. Amongst the political class, a closing of the ranks has occurred, shoring up support for Israel as it strikes against the Palestinian population. And as part of this, political actors have sought to demarcate new boundaries on what is acceptable speech in the UK.
Foreign secretary James Cleverly on Tuesday urged pro-Palestinian protesters to stay at home. And home secretary Suella Braverman wrote to police chiefs asking them to take action against acts of protest that – in whose eyes it was not clear – might indicate support for Hamas.
She singled out the waving of the Palestinian flag in particular as being illegitimate “when intended to glorify acts of terrorism”, and asked that the police “consider whether chants such as: ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ should be understood as an expression of violent desire to see Israel erased from the world” and therefore a “racially aggravated” crime.
The Telegraph has also reported that Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, has commissioned officials in the Home Office to consider how they could revoke visas and expel foreign students who “praise Hamas”.
There are undoubtedly circumstances in which the use of particular chants or imagery could be inflammatory or even threatening. But the purpose of these statements is not to protect British communities (that much is clear from Braverman’s failure to issue a similar letter warning against attacks on Muslim or pro-Palestinian groups). The purpose is rather to intimidate would-be protestors and delegitimise criticism of Israel by aligning it with criminality.
The government’s views on acts of protest are mirrored by the official opposition: a diktat sent out by Labour Party general secretary David Evans warned members, councillors and MPs against attending pro-Palestine demonstrations. Labour has gone further still by also forbidding debate on Israel-Palestine in local party branches – a censorship not even attempted by Tony Blair during the lead-up to the Iraq war.
The results of Braverman’s provocation can already be seen. On Wednesday, Greater Manchester Police arrested four people for breaching the peace “during events… marking the Hamas-Israel conflict”, later de-arresting three of them. A video taken at the scene of the arrest and posted online shows a young man being led into a police van, a Palestine flag wrapped around his shoulders, as concerned onlookers shout at officers: “He has done nothing wrong,” and: “Freedom of speech.”
The Metropolitan Police Service itself appears to have ruled out any crackdown on people waving the Palestinian flag. But on Thursday night, the Palestinian Literature Festival was forced to cancel a book launch for Jewish American journalist Nathan Thrall’s latest book ‘A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: A Palestine Story,’ “after the Metropolitan Police Service contacted the host organisation and asked that it be cancelled ‘due to security concerns’.”
And at London’s ‘March for Palestine’ demonstration on Saturday, legal observers from Black Protest Legal Support witnessed the police make arrests of protesters who had refused to remove the ‘keffiyeh’ – a chequered black and white scarf that is symbolic of Palestinian nationalism and is traditionally worn around the head. In a statement, the Met Police confirmed four arrests for failing to remove face coverings that concealed the arrestee’s identity – at least one person has been subsequently charged, whilst others have been referred to youth offending teams.
These events (and the statements that preceded them) should be of concern not just to advocates of the Palestinian cause, but to anyone concerned about the erosion of democratic norms: here is the government using the murder of Israeli civilians abroad to attack free speech and the right to protest here in the UK.
One lawyer who spoke to openDemocracy this week linked Braverman’s crackdown on Palestinian flag-waving to the Public Order Act. That piece of legislation (which received royal assent in May 2023) was intended to break the backs of the climate movement, making it far easier for police forces to deem acts of protest illegal and criminalise those in attendance or organisers, for even minor disruption.
And last year, the Met Police used the spectre of Covid to target and criminalise those protesting against police brutality at a vigil for Sarah Everard, who was murdered by police officer Wayne Couzens.
Each crisis – climate, Covid, war – is seized upon by the state, government and media, as an opportunity to stifle dissent and curtail free speech. And it is through this framing that we can understand the response of the political and media establishment in the UK to Israel-Palestine: not simply as solidarity with the Israeli people but as an opportunity to attack our rights.
Attacks on freedom of speech relating to Palestine are not new. Palestinians in Britain have long experienced marginalisation and silencing, especially when giving voice to views on the “Palestinian experience of colonialism”.
This has been seen in particular within academia, which has become a battleground over acceptable speech on Israel-Palestine. In British schools, pupils have been sanctioned for expressing vocal support for Palestine, including with detentions and suspensions. Fear about reprisals, including referrals to the government anti-extremism programme Prevent, has been described as having a ‘chilling effect’ on engagement of students with the topic of Palestine.
This is part of a broader effort by the UK Home Office to identify protest movements and left-wing struggles as being outside of acceptable debate, with recent changes to the training on Prevent categorising “socialism” and “anti-fascism” under the heading “terrorist ideologies”. This process of delegitimisation is often backed by the media. In recent days attacks on free speech on Palestine have intensified.
On Wednesday, a report in the Times was published that “identified a dozen academics at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities who have posted statements appearing to justify the weekend’s attacks on Israel”. In one case, an academic had simply called for solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.
Much of the right-wing press has also chosen this moment to campaign for the BBC to refer to Hamas as a terrorist organisation, a term the BBC says does not meet impartiality rules – with the front page headline of Thursday’s Daily Mail eschewing proclamations on the outbreak of war and instead asking: “The King Calls Them Terrorists, Why Can’t The BBC?”. Defence secretary Grant Shapps also criticised the BBC on Radio 4 over the decision in a combative interview. The prominence this demand has been given raises questions about the priorities of the British press at such a high stakes moment.
Gaza is already partially reduced to rubble by Israeli airstrikes. More than two million people are experiencing total siege, bombardment and the removal of all basic human rights. Chemical weapons have now been confirmed as being in play and preparations are underway for a ground offensive by Israeli troops, with the 1.1 million Palestinians living in the most populated area of Gaza given 24 hours to move further south. This will almost certainly mean further atrocities.
The government and opposition both stand steadfastly behind Israel. Number 10 has said the UK will send surveillance aircraft and two Royal Navy ships to the eastern Mediterranean in plans “to support Israel”. The foreign secretary, James Cleverly, has himself travelled to Israel to “underline UK’s unwavering solidarity in the face of terror”. And both the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, and his shadow attorney general, Emily Thornberry, have refused to criticise Israel’s actions in Gaza or describe the “collective punishment” of civilians as a war crime.
This shocking complicity must be loudly challenged. Yet, as with the arrival of any shocking event, the political class moves quickly to turn the dial down ever further on legitimate speech.
If a ceasefire does arrive, without dissenting voices, the missing context – the dislocation of Palestinians in 1948, the occupation of the West Bank since 1967 and the 16-year blockade of Gaza – will continue not to be heard. As long as this silencing act continues, both the Palestinian and Israeli people will continue to suffer.
In June, Braverman used secondary legislation – which is subject to less parliamentary scrutiny – to allow police to restrict or shut down any protest that they believe could cause “more than minor disruption to the life of the community”.
A cross-party parliamentary committee said this is the first time secondary legislation has been used to make changes to the law that have already been rejected by Parliament. Akiko Hart, interim director of Liberty, which launched initial legal action in June, described the move as “the latest power grab from this government”.
The government previously tried to insert the new powers into the Public Order Act 2023 in January, but was blocked by the Lords. Liberty’s lawyer, Katy Watts, accused Braverman of “sneak[ing] in new legislation via the back door, despite not having the power to do so”.
Hart said: “We all want to live in a society where our government respects the rules – but the home secretary has deliberately done the opposite. The home secretary’s actions have enabled the government to circumvent the will of Parliament.”
She continued: “This is just the latest power grab from this government, which has shown it is determined to erode the ways people can hold it to account, whether that’s in Parliament or on the streets. The home secretary’s actions give the police almost unlimited powers to stop any protest the government doesn’t agree with – and the way she has done it is unlawful.”
The home secretary has long called for more police powers to tackle peaceful methods of protests by climate activists, such as road blocking, ‘locking on’, and slow marching, which she said “bring misery and chaos to the law-abiding majority”.
One supporter of Insulate Britain previously told openDemocracy that protest is “our only legitimate means to achieve the changes needed within the time frame we have”.
Another of the group’s supporters said that the criminalisation of protest – in particular, of environmental protest – “is an example of attempting to shoot the messenger” and that elected politicians “obviously don’t really care about protecting people’s democratic rights”.
Watts, Liberty’s lawyer leading the case, said Braverman’s circumventing of the Lords’ rejection is “a flagrant breach of the separation of powers that exist in our constitution”.
She added: “The wording of the government’s new law is so vague that anything deemed by police to cause ‘more than a minor’ disturbance could have restrictions imposed upon it. This same rule was democratically rejected earlier this year, yet the home secretary has gone ahead and introduced it through other means regardless.
“It’s really important the government respects the law and that the home secretary’s decision is reversed immediately.”
Liberty has also claimed the new legislation was not consulted on fairly. It has accused the government of only consulting parties it knew would support the amendments, such as the police.
Protesters facing criminal convictions are being punished twice as National Highways and TfL seek costly injunctions
Climate activists have told openDemocracy they are being hit with “crippling” bills totalling thousands of pounds because of legal action brought by government and public bodies to prevent protests.
Injunctions – orders issued through civil courts, usually to ban something – are increasingly being used to crack down on climate demonstrations, activists say, in what they believe is an attempt to silence dissent.
Both National Highways and Transport for London (TfL) have named supporters of environmental campaign groups Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil on injunctions intended to stop protests on certain roads in recent years. One person named on a TfL injunction told openDemocracy they have never even protested in London.
Breaching an injunction can lead to a contempt of court conviction, which is punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine and the seizure of assets.
One Just Stop Oil protester said they had been warned by their lawyers that those who go to trial to fight an alleged breach and lose could be made to pay up to £150,000 to £200,000 in legal fees, while accepting a breach could incur costs of between £5,000 and £20,000.
The protester told openDemocracy that the costs could leave defendants vulnerable to “the kinds of debts which could cripple you and potentially make you homeless”.
Raj Chada, a partner at law firm Hodge Jones & Allen who represents a number of Insulate Britain supporters, said the way injunctions are now being used is “astonishing” and something he’s never seen before in 15 years of working with protesters.
“The injunctions that are currently being used have always been there but it has never been the case that National Highways Agency or TfL would seek injunctions to completely prevent protests in certain areas,” he said.
Yesterday, it was reported that Rishi Sunak is considering weakening the government’s net-zero commitments, including by delaying a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, watering down the phasing out of gas boilers, and scrapping plans for new energy-efficiency targets for private rented homes.
Chada agrees, saying: “This government in particular doesn’t like being challenged by groups such as Just Stop Oil or Extinction Rebellion.”
National Highways is a government-owned company responsible for operating, maintaining and improving motorways and major A-roads in England.
According to a court document seen by openDemocracy, National Highways initially sought costs of £727,573 for legal fees incurred in securing injunctions blocking protests on and around the M25. Split between more than 130 climate activists it named on its injunctions, this would have worked out at more than £5,000 per person.
Those named in an interim injunction must go to court to negotiate its full terms, or to try to have their names removed or the injunction overturned. During this process, which can take years, the terms of the interim injunction – which can be harsher than the final parameters – are binding.
In the National Highways case, the court granted a final injunction against 24 people who were found in contempt of court for breaching the interim injunction. It also issued an anticipatory injunction against a further 109 people, meaning they were injuncted in anticipation of potential wrongdoing.
The court ruled that the 109 people who weren’t found in contempt of court should pay £1,500 in interim payments towards National Highways’ legal fees, while the remaining 24 will pay £3,000. The full extent of the costs will be determined at a later hearing.
Labour councillor Giovanna Lewis, an Insulate Britain supporter who has been fighting the National Highways injunction on behalf of all defendants, says the financial consequences are far-reaching. Some of the 133 people injuncted have had to set up payment plans to pay legal fees. Missed payments could result in a visit from bailiffs.
Annie, a 66-year-old retired grandmother from Dorchester, is among those paying off the £1,500 ordered by the court. She believes the government is “trying to squash” protesters.
After being left feeling “shocked” and “horrified” to hear of people dying of cold in their own homes, Annie took part in three road-blocking Insulate Britain protests in the south of England in September 2021. She was arrested and charged with wilful obstruction of the highway, a criminal offence. Thinking that was it, the injunction issued days later came as a shock.
“We were suddenly getting these people in black knocking on the door and trying to deliver massive letters to us,” she said. “This is both National Highways Ltd and TfL. I’ve kept everything, it’s all in a box and there’s between 10 kilograms and 12 kilograms of mail.”
Annie described feeling hounded by lawyers trying to deliver injunction documents. “It came to a point where if I knew that I was making arrangements with friends, I’d ask them not to knock on the front door and come around the back. I just stopped answering,” she said.
A spokesperson for National Highways said people were added to the injunction due to evidence that they “had previously been engaged in protests on or near our roads shortly before or after the injunction order was made, and therefore posed a risk of breaching the injunction in future”. They added that such evidence typically came from the police after arrests.
A spokesperson for TfL also said the names of protesters it included on an injunction that it sought due to “continuing threats of disruptive protests from Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain” were disclosed by the Metropolitan Police.
‘Anxious and vulnerable’
Organisations applying for an interim injunction don’t have to prove any of the claims they make, according to Green and Black Cross, a grassroots project that helps protesters with legal matters. Companies can name specific people, wider groups, or ‘persons unknown’ who have protested against the organisation or are believed to be likely to do so.
Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil supporters told openDemocracy that those who are named are being forced to front expensive legal fees to fight the injunction. The hourly rate for a solicitor in London with more than eight years’ experience is £512, according to government guideline figures.
If they lose the case and are injuncted against, the activists can also be made to pay the legal fees of the winning side. The court has discretion over how much they should pay.
They try to impoverish people so that they’re more concerned about earning to pay things off than campaigning on the climate crisis
Mya, who is also the subject of multiple injunctions, was arrested in November 2022 after attempting to climb a gantry over the M25 with Just Stop Oil. She told openDemocracy that costs for people who admit to breaching a National Highways injunction range from £5,000 to £20,000.
These figures were described as “broadly correct” by National Highways, though they said the amount would “vary from person to person, taking into consideration individual circumstances, the severity of the breach and the number of breaches”.
Mya said: “I think the injunctions are there to try and deter people. And then they’re there to also keep people caught up in all these legal proceedings and to try to impoverish people so that they’re more concerned about trying to earn money to pay things off, rather than trying to campaign on the climate crisis.”
As well as the hefty financial costs, Chada told openDemocracy that the human impact of the injunctions has left people feeling “concerned, anxious, vulnerable and fearful of what the cost of their actions will now be”.
“It really is just quite astonishing – the chilling effect of what all of this could be,” he said.
A National Highways spokesperson said: “Our primary concern is always safety – protesting on the strategic road network is extremely dangerous to the protesters and motorists.
“It’s right that dangerous and reckless protesters who disrupt our strategic road network should face the necessary consequences; anyone intending to protest on these roads should know that they run the risk of imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. People rely on the strategic road network for so many things and they have a right to expect it to operate as it should.”
TfL said it is “doing all it can to ensure that London’s road network operates safely and efficiently and that vital emergency service vehicles are able to move freely through the city”.