Septic Sceptics: Toby Young, Allison Pearson and the Art of Being Wrong

We all know that January can be a tough month: post-Christmas blues, dark nights, depleted bank balances.

Spare a thought, then, for Toby Young and the group of right-wing, pseudo-intellectual shills he identifies as his “fellow lockdown sceptics…Allison Pearson, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Peter Hitchens and Lawrence Fox.”

Young and co. entered this challenging period trying to digest three almighty receipts: years of “libertarian” support for Donald Trump culminating in a deadly, anti-democratic assault on the US Capitol Building, Brexit posturing resulting in a trade deal as sweet as a lorryful of dead fish, and months of Covid-related scepticism coming back to bite them via 60,000 cases a day, a new variant and record UK death tallies.

Here’s Toby Young in the summer:

Poor Toby. It can’t be easy being wrong for a living, marketing yourself to employers as a sort of Nostradamus-in-reverse.

The most puzzling thing about Young and his not-so-merry band is that they never appear to go out of style. The wronger they are the righter they seem to be (for mainstream media outlets, at least). You’ll find them in the Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Spectator, LBC, Talk Radio…and, most curiously, the BBC they love to hate for being so hopelessly “woke” it, um, continually invites them on.

This article will seek to answer a pressing modern mystery: how a group of deeply unappealing figures, with a track record of being continually and embarrassingly wrong, maintain significant platforms in some of the most influential media outlets in the country.

Toby Young: How to Lose Arguments and Alienate People

Toby Young to the biggest scale we can bear

Toby Young’s bio leads like a mildly amusing digression in a Thackeray novel. He claims to be a descendent, on his mother’s side, of Sir Robert Moorsom, “the captain of the Revenge, a ship that played a vital part in the Battle of Trafalgar,” but concedes that he represents “a sort of end-point in the gradual decline of the Moorsom family.”

The Free Press make no comment on that! In any case, Young isn’t just of the old aristocracy; his father is Baron Young of Dartington, a prominent sociologist said to have coined the phrase “meritocracy – somewhat ironically given that he has been accused of using his influence to squeak Toby into Oxford!

According to the Guardian, Young “failed all but one of his O-levels at King Edward VI comprehensive school.” He enrolled in another school in a bid to make it to Oxford, “missed the grades he needed (he got B,B,C) but after a call from his father he was allowed in”.

Young continued his *meritocratic* rise with a placement at The Times, who sacked him after six months (interesting parallel with his former Spectator editor Boris Johnson). He then spent two years at Cambridge on a PhD he never finished.

Toby enjoyed some success with a memoir about being a failure, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, but his penchant for controversy came back to bite him when he tried to move into a serious role as Head of the New Schools Network.

Toby’s charitable eugenics for the poor suggestion – “once this technology [genetically engineered intelligence] becomes available, why not offer it free of charge to parents on low incomes with below-average IQs?” – made its way into the headlines along with some not very “Me Too” comments on women in the public eye:

The resulting fall out saw Young resign the position before he’d taken it up, while a government investigation into the affair found “political interference” and “serious shortcomings in terms of the fairness and transparency” of the recruitment process. This led to Boris Johnson’s brother Jo, the apparent author of this “political interference”, being sacked from his role as universities minister.

Connections like this may be your first clue to Young’s success…

How to Be Wrong

The Free Press have got better things to do than document all of Toby Young’s mistakes. This is an article, after all, not an omnibus!!

You’re welcome to investigate other “self-owns” by @toadmeister (we’ve presented you with a flavour in the image above), but this article will focus on his response to the biggest crisis of 2020: Covid-19.  

Young has, after all, been one of the most prominent sceptics when it comes to the pandemic. He regularly writes about the issue on Twitter, his Lockdown Sceptics blog and in newspaper articles.

Unfortunately, not particularly accurately, as this early contribution demonstrates:

It takes a lot to draw an intervention from IPSO, the hilariously toothless press regulator controlled, as Hacked Off point out, “by the newspapers it claims to “regulate””.

Toby Young managed it.

On Thursday 14th January IPSO upheld a complaint about a “significantly misleading” Telegraph article in which Young suggested that many people could have “a natural immunity (to Covid-19) because they’ve already successfully fought off other coronaviruses, such as the common cold”.

MP Neil O’Brien has taken the time to highlight ALL OF THE THINGS Young has said about Covid-19 that haven’t stood the test of time. As you’ll see, it’s a long list.

Perhaps Toby should take the advice he willingly dishes out to climate change activists (Toby, inevitably, associates himself with climate change scepticism)…

There is, of course, a serious side to all of this. On the same day Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis questioned Young on his “no second wave” claim, 868 people in the UK died of Covid-19. On the day that IPSO rebuked Young for claiming the common cold offered protection against Covid-19, 1248 died of the disease.

No wonder Paul Mason wrote in the New Statesman that “the final circle (of Hell) has to be reserved for prominent lockdown sceptics such as Toby Young, Allison Pearson, Laurence Fox, Julia Hartley-Brewer and Peter Hitchens… It is thanks to them, and their media backers, that the Tory handling of the pandemic has lurched from incompetence and hubris to catastrophic mismanagement.”

Interestingly, Mason identifies an economic reason for Young’s “scepticism”:

“We are printing money so that the government can borrow it. It’s capitalism, Jim, but not as we know it. And that’s sparked another form of denial among a section of both the population and the media elite.”

Any guesses as to why Toby, who’s made a career writing for papers owned by billionaires, would trumpet displeasure at policies that negatively impact wealth and capital?

Toby’s Fellow “Free Speech” Enthusiasts

A union so free left-wing students quit an associated campaign as their views were censured

Surely Toby Young is an aberration? The British free press, comprised of aged respectable journals like The Times (“trusted, insightful journalism”), The Spectator (“world-class journalism”) and The Telegraph (“committed to quality journalism ‑ the very best reporting, comment and analysis making sense of the day’s biggest stories”), couldn’t tolerate more than one chronically incorrect, attention-seeking loudmouth…

Here’s Rod Liddle, who’s written for two of the above three papers, explaining in The Spectator (“world-class journalism”!) “the one thing stopping me from being a teacher was that I could not remotely conceive of not trying to shag the kids. It seemed to me virtually impossible not to, and I was convinced that I’d be right in there, on day one.”

Liddle appears to share Young’s deep respect for women – again in The Spectator “So — Harriet Harman, then. Would you? I mean after a few beers obviously, not while you were sober…” – and has received a rap on the knuckles by a press regulator (PCC) for racist comments:

The overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community. Of course, in return, we have rap music, goat curry and a far more vibrant and diverse understanding of cultures which were once alien to us. For which, many thanks.

Liddle hasn’t been as outspoken as Toby Young on Covid-19 (in an interview on why he changed his mind on lockdown he points out that “I rather liked lockdown, you don’t have to meet people, just fucking great mate!”), but his toxic views are never too far away.

“Is there any profession in the country which has had an easier, stress-free nine months than the teaching profession?” he jibed in December 2020 – you know, amidst a rising winter wave where teachers (many of whom are 50+ and in the risk category for Covid hospitalisation) were exposed to full classes and the risks of contact with tens, if not hundreds, of households a day.

Professional contrarian Peter Hitchens (The Mail on Sunday) and new kid on the “anti-woke” block Laurence Fox have been more outspoken on lockdown measures.

Hitchens, a self-styled traditional conservative who’s spoken of the solution to drug abuse being “a deterrent criminal justice system…the majesty of justice”, earned a column in Private Eye 1539 dedicated solely to his Covid pronouncements:

“I see very little evidence of a pandemic” (March 23rd, 2020)

“As the coronavirus itself retreats, how are we going to cope with the panic that lingers everywhere?… Those who caused it must publicly admit they were wrong, that they hugely overstated the danger of Covid-19 and made a terrible mistake” (May 31st, 2020)

“Rather than admit he hugely overestimated the danger of Covid, (Boris Johnson) continues to insist it is a deadly plague and that it will be back soon in a terrible second wave.” (September 13th, 2020)

One of Peter’s pet hates throughout the crisis has been the government’s enforcement of “muzzles” – face masks to you and I.

Laurence Fox, as you’ll see below, mocks the concept of wearing a mask to protect others, but seems in favour of them when they make you look cool on your motorcycle…

Fox is something of an outlier amidst our survey. His background is in acting rather than the media. He does, however, share the privileged private school/Oxbridge background of Young and co. Fox attended Harrow (40K annual fees) and was expelled for bullying younger boys. “In boarding school when you get to the top you get more power and you decide to exercise it. But you forget that the younger kids are much more sensitive than you are.”

Scrolling through his Twitter timeline offers a reminder that he is still more than happy to punch down. “Compliance is violence,” has been his take on the restrictions, “if the NHS can’t cope, then the NHS isn’t fit for purpose.”

Fox has also encouraged people to hug rather than social distance and continually ferments discontent with the restrictions.

It won’t end until we all say “enough”

That day is coming.  

You may be beginning to think this article will never end…bear with us a little longer.

Allison Pearson and Julia Hartley-Brewer are the last two members of the unholy alliance we’ll be looking at – and we’ve arguably saved the worst till last.

Pearson and Hartley-Brewer have clear connections to Toby Young. Both are listed as advisers to his “Free Speech Union” (along with other luminaries such as David “so many damn blacks” Starkey).

The Free Speech Union brands itself as “non-partisan” but undercuts this within the space of a few bulletpoints (highlights our own):

How might we protect you?

  • If you find yourself being targeted by a digital outrage mob on social media for having exercised your legal right to free speech, we may mobilise an army of supporters
  • If you’re no-platformed by a university—a feminist professor who challenges trans orthodoxy, for instance—we’ll encourage you to fight back…

Indeed, the union is so committed to “free speech” that a group of students quit one of their campaigns after claiming “they were censured if they disagreed with the group’s right-of-centre orthodoxy”!

Allison Pearson is very free with her speech. Watch in awe how she utterly contradicts herself in a pair of tweets separated by 39 minutes.

A reminder: these are issues of life and death under discussion. Try to reconcile the above tweets with the fact that Pearson is a Cambridge-educated journalist formerly of The Financial Times, Evening Standard and Daily Mail.

“There will be no ‘second spike’ – not now, and not in the autumn either,” she confidently declared via her platform in The Telegraph (“analysis making sense of the day’s biggest stories”!). “The virus has melted into thin air. It’s time to get back to normal. The terrible Coronabeast will be gone from these isles by September.”

Julia-Hartley Brewer, another Oxbridge grad (Oxford), has written for virtually all of the right-wing press: The Daily Telegraph, The Sun, Mail on Sunday and The Spectator. She was a broadcaster on LBC and now hosts a show on Talk Radio.

Here she is, following Pearson’s lead, completely contradicting herself on Covid restrictions within the space of a few hours:

“At least 91% of Covid cases are false positives,” Julia declared in September 2020. “There is no evidence of a second wave.”

In early January 2021, with said non-existent second wave rolling through the nation (carrying 50,000 plus cases a day), you may have expected Julia to be eating some humble pie.

That isn’t the style of the lockdown sceptics. Better to divert attention elsewhere – to those hypocritical liberal elites, the rich and the powerful, look at them Joe Public, despise them!

Right-wing elites, meanwhile, can jet off for Christmas secure in the knowledge that the true service they provide – presenting views conducive to their billionaire owners as patriotic or anti-elitist, disingenuously presenting themselves as spokespeople for the ordinary Brit while pushing policies that could kill them – will safeguard them.

A reminder of the economic base of the media outlets discussed above:

The Sun – owned by billionaire Rupert Murdoch

Daily Telegraph – owned by the billionaire Barclay Brothers

The Spectator – owned by the billionaire Barclay Brothers

Daily Mail – owned by billionaire Lord Rothermere

Evening Standard – owned by former billionaire Alexander Lebedev

LBC – owned by Global Media & Entertainment (total assets £1.7 billion)

TalkRadio – owned by Wireless Group, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. with assets in the billions

Was the Left Right?

Looking into the future is a tricky business (we hear Devil’s advocates saying). Perhaps we could stitch up anyone with the approach we’ve taken in this article – cherry-picking ridiculous comments that don’t stand the test of time.

The truth is: we didn’t select Covid-19 for this survey, it selected itself.

Big names, in any field, are expected to get the big issues right. How long would you be a surgeon if you couldn’t tell an artery from an abscess? How many star sportsmen never read the play?

The mainstream media stands in splendid isolation as a field where the most prominent figures get it hopelessly wrong at the biggest moments and thrive because of it.

Climate change

The Iraq War

Austerity

Journalists don’t even have the excuse that these issues – which, let’s not forget, impact the lives of millions – are tough to call.

Here’s John McDonnell in early October calling for a “severe lockdown” to get on top of a second wave of coronavirus:

Acknowledging his views were “hardline”, McDonnell added: “I’m really worried that we face the nightmare situation that we were worried about four months ago, that we now go into the normal flu pandemic situation and that the coronavirus spike happens at the same time.”

Here’s Jeremy Corbyn on the 15th of March, before the UK went into its first lockdown:

“We are suffering a pandemic. It is very, very serious and the government just seems to be complacent and behind on this.

“They are giving advice which is different to that given in almost every other European country. This is something strange.”

“It seems to me that at every stage, the government just isn’t on it and isn’t fast enough.”

How many lives would have been saved in the UK had Corbyn and McDonnell been in charge of the Covid response rather than Toby Young’s former chum at The Spectator, Boris Johnson? Unlike Johnson, who seemed more concerned about the wellbeing of capital, Corbyn and McDonnell had the humility to listen to what the experts were saying.

And it’s not the only big issue on which Corbyn had the correct receipts in January.

Here’s Corbyn on Trump’s state visit to the UK in 2019, which he, virtually alone among the British political class, boycotted: “Theresa May should not be rolling out the red carpet for a state visit to honour a president who rips up vital international treaties, backs climate change denial and uses racist and misogynist rhetoric.”

How did the press that platforms Toby Young and co. respond?

Take your pick from the below:

Look again at the list of media owners – then consider why the likes of Young and co. are platformed while leftists like Corbyn and McDonnell, who favour taxation, redistribution of wealth, regulation of industry, are the ones considered immature, unfit to lead, playing with (student) politics.

It clearly has nothing to do with terms like “accuracy”, “insightful”, “world-class”, “quality”, “best reporting”, “making sense of the day’s biggest stories”.

Conclusion

In a functioning democratic society the media play a vital role. This is accepted by virtually everyone. The UK government’s recent statement on the media in Uganda seems a fair summary of the kind of  rhetoric journalists and politicians love to churn out: “People need free, independent, and impartial media to provide them with accurate and reliable information and informed analysis if governments are to be held to account”.

Why, then, does the UK media provide a platform to consistently incorrect, barely credible individuals like Toby Young?

Are they accurate? Nope.

Reliable? Ha!

Free and independent? Check out that list of owners again…

Most frightening of all is that Young and co. are merely the outriders, the ones willing to go furthest for the corporate cause. Behind them are the massed ranks, armed with subtler knives – the Pestons, Kuenssbergs, Aaranovitchs – crucifying Corbyn, attacking Assange, authorising austerity, cheerleading wars.

They get it wrong again and again and never pay the cost.

Which leads to only one conclusion. Make sure you’re sitting down for it…

The role of journalists for large corporate outlets in the UK IS NOT TO PROVIDE ACCURATE AND IMPARTIAL COMMENTARY ON THE WORLD – it is to PROVIDE THE PARTIAL, INACCURATE PICTURE OF THE WORLD FAVOURABLE TO THE INTERESTS OF OWNERS AND ADVERTISERS.

Covid killing the stock market? Downplay it. Trump/Johnson less likely to tax than Sanders/Corbyn? Crucify the “commies”. Oil in Iraq? They’ve got WMDs. Carbon emissions causing global warming? Suddenly I’m a sceptic!

All mainstream journalists understand, implicitly, that they can be as wrong as they want, as many times as they want…so long as the errors are always in the direction of capital.

As comedian Stewart Lee puts it:

“Sometime around 20 years ago Toby Young started being nasty about people less fortunate and privileged than him, and, like a shit Clarkson, he found it was easy to do and paid good money.”

Toby Young and co. are the lunatic fringe, the ones willing to go to the very edge, but every corporate journalist, one way or another, strikes a similar deal.

They learn to punch down.

To move up.

Postscript

Is it a coincidence that in early January Toby Young announced that he’s “installed an app…that deletes all tweets more than a week old”? In a courtroom that might pass an admission of guilt – destroying the evidence.

Either way, employing an algorithm to act as an Orwellian memory hole for statements over a week old hardly seems compatible with a thirst for free speech. If only there was a union who could look into that…

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