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‘Cancelled from a Civil Service Talk for Retweeting a Liz Truss Parody Account’

Kate Devlin explains why an invitation to address Ministry of Justice staff was rescinded because of Government ‘due diligence’ of her social media accounts

Conservative MP and former Prime Minister Liz Truss. Photo: Mark Thomas/Alamy

Cancelled from a Civil Service Talk for Retweeting a Liz Truss Parody Account

Kate Devlin explains why an invitation to address Ministry of Justice staff was rescinded because of Government ‘due diligence’ of her social media accounts

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Of all the reasons why I thought I’d end up on a Government blacklist, retweeting Parody Liz Truss wasn’t one of them. But, behind the almost laughable excuses given for the Ministry of Justice cancelling my lunchtime talk is a more sinister undercurrent regarding freedom of speech.

An article by Edward Lucas in The Times on Monday recounted that “respected guest speakers are being barred from Whitehall because of their ‘problematic’ social media history”. Lucas shared the experience of his friend, an expert whose government conference speech was cancelled. “He cannot complain publicly: if the blacklisting becomes known, other clients will suspect the real reason was indiscretion or incompetence,” he wrote. “Professional ruin beckons.” 

I’m only too happy to complain publicly.

It happened to me. I was asked to speak on something important but not controversial. And the invitation was rescinded when it emerged that I’m not a big fan of the current Government. 

In October, for Ada Lovelace Day, I was invited to speak to part of a civil service group – the Ministry of Justice’s branch of  Humanists in Government – on women in tech.

I was made a patron of Humanists UK last year so was delighted to be asked. I’ve worked in computer science for more than 20 years, including campaigning for better recognition for women in my field. I regularly take part in outreach activities and, during my academic career, I’ve given evidence and often attended events in the Houses of Parliament. 

“We’ll have to do due diligence on your social media accounts”, I was told. I replied saying that, as a director of the Open Rights Group, I have regularly tweeted criticism of the Online Safety Bill in its current form. I thought that might be the one bone of contention. I had already agreed that I wouldn’t be talking about anything directly political.

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Two days later, I received an apologetic email from the organiser who told me that my talk had been cancelled by the department as I “had made a criticism of Government policy via social media”. After a brief online search, I unearthed a 2021 story about a leaked memo stating that invitations should not be issued to those who have “spoken against key government policies” and that “all cross-government networks must carry out due diligence checks on all speakers”. 

In November, I submitted a Subject Access Request to get hold of the correspondence relating to the decision that had been made about me. After some delay, in February I was sent a redacted email chain discussing me. The Ministry of Justice itself was content to let the talk proceed, but then ran the idea past its press office in an email in which I was described as “a fairly outspoken, left-wing academic”.

Five examples of my seditious tweets were given.

First, one I fired off as I watched the new King’s acceptance speech: “Yer man’s just given someone a country. ‘I’m giving him Wales’. Like, an actual country, and people think this is normal? When was the last time your da gave YOU a country, population 3.19 million?”

Then, cementing my anarchic reputation, I tweeted about a fake sign on my road saying birdwatching was banned during the state funeral of the late Queen: “Crossing my fingers this isn’t one of Norwich City Council’s, because if it is then I’ll have to make the tough decision of inciting rebellion or staring at a goose.” (To be fair to department, it did add “the words were not as serious I do not believe [sic]”).

Then the retweets that got me into bother: one linking to Mic Wright’s newsletter discussing media coverage of the death of the Queen (Mic is my husband and, although we share a home, we don’t necessarily share the same political views). Next, a thread by journalist Catherine Mayer, co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party, exploring why Liz Truss’ premiership was not a symbol of equality for women. And, finally, the damning lines: “She also retweeted anti Truss Parody posts.”

On an internal Ministry of Justice email dated 10 October 2022, it was stated:

“We’ve been sent the below external speaker request (I’ve also attached due diligence here) from D&l for an internal staff event by our humanist staff network, to invite Dr Kate Devlin. This is a fairly outspoken, left-wing academic who has posted some anti-government content on social media as well as some anti-monarchy content around the mourning period, but the team is looking at mitigating this by the event focussing very specifically on just women in AI/tech and the speaker has been made aware of Civil Service code etc. However, we are also aware that there has been media coverage of speakers who have been perceived as political – e.g.  

“Do you think this speaker could be an issue/present a press risk?”

The link in this email – to a Guido Fawkes article mocking “woke credentials” – shows Whitehall running scared of backlash and over-indexing the views of right-wing publications. (Guido Fawkes is run by Paul Staines, who in many people’s view, is not a journalist but an activist).

The irony was not lost on me that, as my own talk’s cancellation was unfolding, the same Government was pushing hard on its proposed Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – legislation that would allow speakers to seek compensation if they are no-platformed by universities or student unions. I was ‘no-platformed’ by the same Government trying to push through a no-no-platforming law.

In the due diligence form I was asked to complete, I wryly note the following line: “Please be aware that we have a duty to remain impartial. This should be taken into consideration when planning events.”

Kate Devlin is Reader in Artificial Intelligence & Society at King’s College London

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