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Cast your mind back to a time when you had a big idea – an idea you thought could be your big break. Some procrastinate, and then there is me and my group of friends. We put our entire life into our idea and we never expected it to end in tears of panic and the threat of being sued for the little money we even had left.
That’s the story of DemocracyUnlocked, a project a group of passionate readers-turned-writers put everything into: the story of me and my friends when we saw a gap in the market for honest reporting, not dodging the facts but heading straight for them, no matter what the political dynamics at play.
We saw it as our duty, as writers, to give our readers the absolute truth.
We invested everything in this – it wasn’t even about just the money, but the relentless hours brainstorming our next big idea, passionate and full of energy at any hour of the day, hoping that our readers would come to love our passion for the truth: something which has recently been lost in translation.
We were never politically swayed, our group of writers had many different views and everybody knew that facts were more important than that. We didn’t want to fit into a political box, but we wanted to be bold and honest in everything we did.
Part of that was looking for the real story. The one nobody would mention.
So we decided to publish the story of Dan Wootton and his alleged behaviour towards people who considered him to be a reputable journalist. Little did they know, as Byline Times has reported, that Wootton was using that exact mindset to pursue them in secret, under his alias ‘Martin Branning’ (a fake online identity he has never denied being or being connected, although he does deny criminality). It’s something we sat in shock comprehending.
We saw it as our duty to look into these revelations and to get them out as quickly as possible, all the accusations compiled in an easy-to-follow format. We did our due diligence, reached out directly to Wootton, and gave him a very fair deadline hoping that we could get his response in. The deadline passed and absolutely nothing hit our inbox. We held out and, finally, it came through.
It wasn’t what we usually received – it was a law firm. We were shocked as we hadn’t dealt with this before. Our naivety showed. It felt like we had been slapped into place, but I had a gut feeling that we still needed to go ahead and publish. So I responded to the email and thanked the law firm for its response.
At this stage, I didn’t seriously consider that Wootton would want to take action against a small site. It just seemed so unlikely.
We were wrong.
We wrote to Wootton’s representatives again, giving them a very fair deadline of 48 hours – this was a story progressing minute by minute and we knew we didn’t have long to push it out and give our readers the rundown. We wanted a response as quickly as possible and tried everything possible to reach his representatives, emailing five different people for one comment. We didn’t want to deny Wootton the opportunity to comment on the allegations against him.
Then came another legal letter – this time even harsher, basically telling us we had no right to publish these allegations and that there was no public interest in them (despite Wootton trending for days across social media but no established media outlet reporting on them).
After the second letter, things changed. We went into complete panic mode.
This project we had put our own money in felt like the reason we could end up in court. And for what? Telling the truth? For the free speech that figures like Dan Wootton chant on about every single day?
We thought DemocracyUnlocked was the type of outlet that free speech seekers would admire; that they might not agree with everything we published or even respect the facts as presented to them, but that they would admire us for expressing the freedom we had to click publish.
#MediaToo investigation AND CROWDFUNDER
This is the start of a wider report into the toxic culture of the national media. We want to keep telling the story. Contributions to our #MediaToo crowdfunder will go directly to funding our journalism.
Little did we know this was just the start of it. Time and time again, we would receive letter after letter and threat after threat. We started to not even pay attention to them. Again, our naivety showed.
After a while – when I think they had witnessed us giving up caring about their letters – the tone completely changed. It went from a gentle slap to a giant punch in the mouth. Wootton’s representatives sent us a very worrying letter that made us certain we were about to be dragged through the legal system.
At this point, we knew it was right to look into finding a solicitor. We already had people volunteering in our group who had good legal knowledge and their advice changed from calm to panic. We rang every single firm local to us, trying to find one we could afford – it was hard but we knew that we had no choice.
We are so young compared to the people up against us. We are not from privileged backgrounds. We had to work for every single penny that we had. That’s why our site meant the world to us. We put our hard-earned cash into it and the thought of that being the reason we also lost everything had us in tears.
We knew we had nothing in terms of resources compared to Wootton – he not only had a giant platform of people who we knew would come for us but also money we could only dream of. A legal case could have put every single one of us in financial trouble to the point where we felt we had no option.
The legal letters, the threats, our website even being hacked briefly, network attacks, and the panic of thinking we had no chance of defeating this man – the end was reached. We had to let go of a project and the site we had loved. It felt so sombre, but it was the only way we could all walk away without being dragged through the legal system.
Upon reflection, it was Dan Wootton who promised his viewers no spin, no bias, and no censorship – but it was ultimately the people who wanted to achieve such goals that ended up silenced, out of fear of what he would do to us for publishing the allegations against him.
The DemocracyUnlocked community was set up to unlock the very truth that is still going unheard. And now it is gone.
Olly Boon was a founding member of DemocracyUnlocked