Mon 25 October 2021

Sam Bright and Sian Norris explore the growing threat to journalists and press freedom from conspiracy theorists with large online followings

Incidents of abuse directed at journalists are rising. The escalating, angry rhetoric of populist leaders and fringe conspiracy theorists has made the job of reporting the news more dangerous – both online and on the streets.

This was in evidence near Downing Street last week. To the subsequent horror of fellow journalists – and even the Prime Minister himself – BBC Newsnight‘s political editor Nick Watt was chased and verbally abused by anti-lockdown protestors in front of dozens of Metropolitan Police officers.

Two men have been charged with using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with the intention to cause harassment, alarm or distress.

The incident was captured by ‘GB Resistance’ – a platform run by William Coleshill, a former Conservative Party councillor who is now part of the anti-lockdown movement. Many of the videos on GB Resistance focus on anti-lockdown events.

The start of the clip captures Watt walking up Whitehall past the gates of Downing Street. No one seems to be aware of his presence until he is approached by Coleshill, who asks Watt how he can justify “lying to people” by exaggerating Coronavirus statistics – a question premised on a fringe conspiracy theory.

For the next minute or so, Coleshill follows Watt around, asking more questions as the journalist tries to escape his attention, which attracts the interest of the crowd. Coleshill can be heard telling people that Watt works for the BBC.

After roughly a minute-and-a-half, Coleshill gets close to Watt again and asks “how can you sleep at night?” while a growing crowd boos. The situation then escalates as Watt attempts to hurriedly exit the scene. A crowd of 10 or more protestors runs after Watt, including Coleshill. One person can be heard shouting: “Run you f**king c**t. Traitor.”

Coleshill reaches the front of the group and again interrogates Watt, asking: “Why are you lying by saying lockdown is legal?”

This is when Watt turns and runs back towards Downing Street and the police presence, dodging through protestors hurling abuse. Coleshill sets off behind Watt until they both reach the gates of Downing Street. No police officer visibly takes any action to prevent this from occurring.

The video was uploaded to YouTube under the title: ‘Top BBC Stooge Chased Out Of Anti-lockdown Protest Over BBC Lies’.

Coleshill was not one of the two men who were charged by police over this incident.

No Objective Truth

The incident epitomises the growing threat to journalists and press freedom from conspiracy theorists with large online followings.

According to the anti-racism organisation Hope Not Hate, many people within anti-lockdown movements, as well as the far-right, “have begun to self-identify as ‘journalists’ in an age when trust in traditional media outlets is low and increasing numbers of people get their information via social media”. Their aim, the charity says, is to create the sense that there is no objective truth – a key theme of Donald Trump’s term as US President, during which he regularly criticised the “fake news media”.

While we are perhaps more familiar with this happening on social media, the Watt incident outside Downing Street suggests that the rage and distortion happening online is translating into hostility offline too. Yet, the channels playing host to these theories are poorly understood by the mainstream media, politicians and law enforcement.

While anti-lockdown conspiracy theorists gain thousands of hits online and amass a political presence – five right-wing populist parties are standing in the upcoming Batley and Spen by-election – little is being done to meaningfully counter this worrying trend.

Indeed, this is not the first time William Coleshill has been involved in controversy. A former Conservative councillor in Enfield in London, he was suspended by the party in September 2018 when, in a debate about school spending, he asked if the Turkish family of a Labour councillor had “brought a classroom with them” to the UK. A year later, he allegedly harassed Labour MP Jess Phillips in Parliament Square, according to a journalist and lawyer who were present, as well as the MP herself.

Since the start of the Coronavirus crisis, Coleshill has become involved in the anti-lockdown movement. He was charged with participating in an outdoor gathering without a reasonable excuse after attending an anti-lockdown rally in Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park, last November.

In April, he hosted a video/podcast on GB Resistance with Piers Corbyn – a regular propagator of COVID conspiracy theories. Corbyn is facing a police investigation over leaflets sent by him likening COVID-19 vaccination efforts to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. On GB Resistance, Corbyn said that he was part of a movement “to destroy the new normal and the new world order”.

William Coleshill (left) with Piers Corbyn (centre-right)

Also in April, Coleshill attended the vigil for Sarah Everard in Clapham Common, London, as part of a group of activists accused of ‘hijacking’ the event to spread an anti-lockdown message. He was identified as introducing Dr Heiko Khoo, a Marxist who used the vigil to give an anti-lockdown, anti-policing speech. “There were people there who hadn’t come to fight for women’s rights or against state violence,” one attendee told Byline Times.

The following day, Coleshill live-streamed the ‘Kill the Bill’ march organised by Sisters Uncut in protest of the Metropolitan Police’s heavy-handed tactics at the vigil. GB Resistance called the protest “a mostly communist rally left alone by the police” – spreading the conspiracy theory that only anti-lockdown events are subject to Coronavirus restrictions. It also accused feminism of being “part of the neocom [neo-communist] agenda… Radicalised minorities + women are the new vehicle for abolition of our liberties to erect a new totalitarian neo-communist state”.

Coleshill used to work in the office of Conservative MP Nick de Bois, yet is now on the frontline of the conspiratorial anti-lockdown movement – arguably an example of the process of ideological radicalisation that GB Resistance now itself risks perpetuating.

On the channel’s Facebook page, an admin claims that Coleshill left the Conservative Party because “he realised they were not fighting for the good of the country” and that he has “grown” and “changed” based on a “succession of life events”.

In response to the incident involving Nick Watt, the BBC said that “all journalists should be able to carry out their work without intimidation or impediment”.

A Metropolitan Police spokesperson said that “while officers were on scene as part of the policing response to the ongoing protest, it was not clear at the time exactly what had taken place but after reviewing the video footage, a number of possible offences have been identified and an investigation has been launched”.

GB Resistance and Coleshill did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment.


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