Nafeez Ahmed and Karam Bales report on a ‘free speech’ campaign with ties to the Hungarian Government and its record of curtailing freedom of expression

A right-wing political network in the UK with links to the Charles Koch Foundation, the Reclaim Party and the pro-Putin Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán, is using the idea of free speech to promote pro-Russia narratives about the Ukraine war in schools and universities. 

The network is also opposed to climate action, gender pronouns, anti-racism movements, and regularly peddles disinformation rooted in far-right narratives. 

The chief vehicle for the campaign is the ‘Free Speech Champions’, a project run by Toby Young’s Free Speech Union in partnership with the Battle of Ideas charity, which is the campaign’s chief funder. Free Speech Champions claims to be promoting ‘free speech’ in schools and university campuses.

In recent months, the Free Speech Champions (FSC) project has published several articles and posts revealing a pro-Russia bias on the invasion of Ukraine – including calling for Ukraine to compromise with Russia and opposing Western sanctions on Russia. Other articles published by organisations in the network linked to the FSC have demanded that the West cease sending weapons to Ukraine.

Although describing itself as a nonpartisan campaign, the FSC’s chief funder, the Battle of Ideas (BOI), is closely allied with far-right political movements, especially through its trustee and chair who has ties to the ruling far-right Fidesz Party.

In May, the BOI’s chair Frank Furedi spoke at the US-based Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) hosted in Budapest. CPAC is an annual conference organised by the American Conservative Union (ACU), the foremost Republican organisation in the US.

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The CPAC event in Hungary featuring Furedi involved an all-star line-up of far-right activists including promoters of the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, racists, antisemites as well as anti-abortion and anti-LGBTIQ activists.

During his speech at the CPAC event on 19 May, Furedi described how he believed conservative movements should be trying to “take over institutions” including schools because there is “no way to win without young people”. Furedi is also an employee of a pro-government Hungarian think-tank with close ties to Orban’s Fidesz Party, and a history of Holocaust revisionism.


The Battle of Ideas

Furedi’s comments at CPAC’s Budapest gathering raise urgent questions about why his charity, the Battle of Ideas, is funding the Free Speech Champions to target schools and universities in Britain through publications and events. The Battle of Ideas – which has direct ties to Lawrence Fox’s anti-woke Reclaim Party and is also part of the Koch-funded Spiked network – is the FSC’s principal funder.

Documents seen by Byline Times confirm that the FSC received a total of £85,574 from the Battle of Ideas from 2020 to 2021. The BOI’s annual report for that year describes the FSC as a “two-year, non-partisan programme aimed primarily at universities and schools”, and also claims that the project was “initiated by Inaya Folarin Iman”.

However, as Byline Times previously revealed, the FSC was in reality conceived, established and controlled by Toby Young and his Free Speech Union, where Iman is also a director. Toby Young is an avid defender of pseudoscientific research claiming a genetic basis for racial and gender differences in IQ, funded by the Pioneer Fund – a notorious Nazi endowment established in the US before the Second World War. Several students involved in the FSC’s creation had told Byline Times that they believed the project was little more than an ‘astroturfing’ exercise – the practice of masking or downplaying the interests sponsoring a message to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants,

‘Free speech’ Czar RoleLinked to Toby Young’s Free Speech Union & US Right-Wing Funding Network

Nafeez Ahmed

Political Ties

The BOI also has direct ties to right-wing political lobbies and parties through its sister identity, the ‘Academy of Ideas’, a private limited company run out of the same registered address as the BOI. The Academy of Ideas shares several personnel with BOI.

Its chief executive, Geoff Kidder, is simultaneously the Academy of Ideas’ director of memberships and events, whereas BOI’s secretary Alastair Donald is also the Academy of Ideas’ associate director.

Former Brexit Party MEP, Baroness Claire Fox – who was nominated for the peerage by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2020 – is the director of the Academy of Ideas. She also sits on the advisory board for Toby Young’s FSU.


Reclaim Party Links

In 2021, the Academy of Ideas partnered with the Reclaim Party to run what it called the ‘People’s Lockdown Inquiry’. The inquiry and its report were commissioned by the Reclaim Party, which is largely funded by Jeremy Hosking, a pro-Brexit multimillionaire on the Sunday Times Rich List who previously donated to the Conservative Party, the Vote Leave campaign, and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

In April, the Reclaim Party published a blog post insinuating that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a conspiracy engineered by “elements contained deep in the US permanent establishment, who at some point got around a table and played a little game titled ‘how might we encourage a spot of regime change in Russia?’”. The post also put forward the fake claim that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is “now worth over a billion dollars”.


Koch network Ties

The BOI also has ties to powerful US right-wing lobby groups. According to a joint investigation by the Guardian and DeSmogUK, Claire Fox and the Battle of Ideas are part of the Koch-backed Spiked network of organisations. From 2016 to 2018, Spiked US Ltd – the network’s US fundraising vehicle – had received $300,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation to produce public debates in the US about free speech.

The Koch network operates with a distinctively pro-Russia bias. Koch Industries, owned by Charles Koch, has continued to operate in Russia despite the war, and a wide range of organisations funded by the Charles Koch Foundation are publicly opposing economic sanctions on Russia. This bias is mirrored in content published by the BOI’s Free Speech Champions project.


Hungary Government Ties

Since 2019, the chair of BOI, Frank Furedi, has been employed as a Senior Research Fellow at Hungary’s pro-government 21st Century Institute. The Institute is closely allied with Prime Minister Victor Orban’s Fidesz Party, and run by Orban’s former chief advisor Maria Schmidt, a well-known pro-government commentator..

Schmidt, Furedi’s boss at the Institute, has been accused of promoting “anti-Semitic discourse” and Holocaust revisionism designed to sanitise genocidal mass murders of Jews as an unintentional, secondary effect of collateral damage. As a result, her various Holocaust Museum projects funded by the Orban government have been boycotted by prominent Jewish historians and scholars due to their grotesquely antisemitic and historically false narratives.


Promoting a Very Specific Kind of Speech

In addition to these political connections, the views put forward by the chair of the BOI’s trustee board raise urgent questions about how the FSC campaign is using ‘free speech’ as cover to normalise a specific set of far-right political views for children and young people. As BOI is a charity, it should not be functioning as a vehicle for partisan political campaigning.

In May, prominent UK Jewish groups such as Community Security Trust criticised Lord Wharton, the chair of the Government’s Office for Students, for speaking at the CPAC event in Hungary, which had featured a notorious far-right antisemite – Zsolt Bayer – who has described Jews as “stinking excrement”. In a tweet, Furedi sarcastically criticised these Jewish concerns:

“Jewish groups should be aware that this conference was so anti-semitic that the first person to speak was a Jewish Rabbi. Get a reality check!!!”

His comment was retweeted by Academy of Ideas director Claire Fox.

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Furedi himself spoke at the same CPAC conference, opening his talk with a ‘joke’ that he was delighted to be invited to an event where he was not asked for his preferred pronouns. He went on to criticise “the left” for saying that “the past is just a story of oppression, there is no positive in it,” and claimed that this is why people are trying to get rid of statues. He went on to explain his interest in targeting young people:

“The cultural struggle begins with the toddlers and in the crèche, and in the West they are already told that they are racists. Many American conservatives do not take seriously the need to take over institutions. Schools need to be taken back because there is no way to win without young people. We need to reconnect with the past, we need a conservative renaissance, and we need to take our language back. We know from Orwell that whoever controls language also controls minds.”

He also promoted a Spiked article demanding more investment in fossil fuels as a solution for “cheap and plentiful energy”, criticising “green pieties” such as solar and wind.

In his own article for Spiked, Furedi claimed that “Much of the responsibility for encouraging Russia to invade Ukraine must be evenly shared by the US and Germany.” Perhaps his most bizarre intervention was a claim that Western militaries have been “morally disarmed” by encouraging staff “to publicise their preferred gender pronouns”:

“As Russia invaded Ukraine, sections of the MoD appeared to be more interested in exploring their sexuality and gender identity than in devising a strategy for containing military aggression.”

Describing this as “infantile behaviour”, Furedi went on to opine:

“The West must recover the historical ideals that underpin a culture of democracy. Otherwise, while it is playing with pronouns, its own Rome will burn.”

This is all consistent with Furedi’s longer history of defending Russia. In 2018, he blithely dismissed all evidence of Russian efforts to interfere in Western elections, and attempted to cast doubt on the clear evidence that the Salisbury poisoning just months earlier involved Russian military intelligence (GRU) officer Colonel Anatoly Chepiga. Instead, Furedi demanded that the West “treat Russia with the respect that any great nation deserves”.

Viktor Orban is unabashedly pro-Putin. He has refused to send weapons to Ukraine, avoided personal criticism of Putin, and skimped on the EU embargo on Russian oil. In late May, Orbán cited the war in Ukraine as justification to push through a constitutional amendment allowing the government to enact laws by decree without parliamentary oversight – to the total silence of Furedi and his come colleagues at the BOI, FSC and FSU.

Given Furedi’s intimate ties with a propaganda arm of the pro-Putin Fidesz Party, it is legitimate to ask whether his call for conservatives to “take over institutions” like schools means that the BOI is actively using the mantra of ‘debate’ to legitimise extremist currents of right-wing political ideology which align closely with Russia and the far-right.


Championing Disinformation

Through the FSC, for instance, the BOI has been laundering similar pro-Russia narratives to students under the guise of cultivating freedom of speech. These narratives are couched carefully with criticisms of Putin’s tyranny, acknowledging how terrible Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is, but invariably land on conclusions demanding the softening of Western measures.

With its BOI funding, the FSC is now publishing a magazine for students, The New Taboo. One FSC article by Niloo Daliri published in The New Taboo focused on defending the Canadian truckers ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests, despite it having become a magnet for far-right and COVID-19 conspiracy theorists. It provides an insightful example of the kind of disinformation the FSC is pushing in the name of promoting ‘debate’.

The article falsely described the protests as a family-friendly affair of mothers and children, pretending that it was “the longest most peaceful mass protest anyone had ever seen”, despite ample reports of rock-throwing, property damage and harassment. The article completely ignored the presence of QAnon supporters and pro-Nazi activists holding swastika banners, instead referring to “just a few bad apples rubbing shoulders with counter-protestors and law enforcement”.

The article went on to criticise climate action, claiming that “combating climate change has meant an overall decrease in oil production, so where will we get our oil to fuel our self-defence?” It then strayed into opposing sanctions on Russia:

 “Sanctions and censorship will predominantly affect Russian citizens who are uninvolved or opposed to invading Ukraine, as well as Russian-Canadians who are trying to send money home to their families.”

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A separate article published on the FSC website is devoted entirely to opposing a ban on Russian media, concluding that: “The ban on Russia Today, then, goes flatly against the liberal principles the West claims to be fighting for.”  

The FSC website also features an interview with a high school pupil who founded a free speech project called ‘F.O.S Campaign’ to promote freedom of speech in schools. The interview confirms that the FSC had provided support to the pupil over a period of several weeks. The F.O.S Campaign’s Instagram feed featured only 15 posts, one of which once again appears to oppose sanctions on Russia:

“Freedom of speech matters NOW more than ever. If western governments want to implement sanctions to cripple Russia’s already crippled economy then that’s fine, but not at the expense of normal citizens like us. We shouldn’t have to pay for Putin’s actions.”

The F.O.S Campaign’s Instagram followers include in addition to the FSC, the Conservative Friends of Education, which describes itself as “the vanguard of the conservative movement’s fight against radical leftist ‘indoctrination’ in education”. Its funders include top senior Tory donors such as Sir Michael Hintze, Sir Rocco Giovanni Forte, Lord Stanley Fink, among others.


A Liberal Veneer

Through the FSC, the Battle of Ideas is actively ramping up its efforts to target students at both universities and schools.

However, its political ties suggest it is far from being a non-partisan group. Rather, it is actively promoting a specific right-wing ideology that is using the mantra of ‘free speech’ to legitimise extremist views among young people.

Given the BOI chair’s partisan alliance with the government of Hungary – a government which is “systematically” curtailing freedom of expression through changes in law and policy that “exert control over public opinion” – it is difficult to believe that its Free Speech Champions work with schools and universities is genuinely concerned with nonpartisan debate.

It is telling that neither the FSC, nor BOI, nor Furedi will criticise the severe decline in Hungary’s press freedom. The overriding concern, it seems, is to convince young people that far-right voices on race, gender and geopolitics should be integrated into mainstream public discourse.

It would seem that the FSC is not an innocuous charitable programme, but an insidious effort to promote the fringe political views of its sponsors – from Toby Young to Claire Fox to Frank Furedi – among young people.

Free Speech Champions, the Battle of Ideas, the Academy of Ideas, the Free Speech Union, Claire Fox and Frank Furedi did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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