January 30, 2023 - 5:16pm

Peter Hitchens was one of this country’s most ardent and vocal critics of the Government’s lockdown policies during the Covid pandemic. On Twitter, his Mail on Sunday column and in various interviews (including UnHerd), he relentlessly questioned No10’s decision to implement lockdowns, which he argued would do little to prevent the spread of the virus.

What he did not expect, however, was to feature in the Government’s very own weekly ‘anti-disinformation report’ from as early as June 2020. According to a new report by Big Brother Watch, the journalist and author was one of several figures to have been surveilled by the Government over his anti-lockdown opinions.

In conjunction with the 77th Brigade, “a combined Regular and Army Reserve unit” in which solders were asked to carry out “non-lethal psychological warfare”, Hitchens was marked out for sharing articles that criticised the Government’s approach to handling the virus. He remains unsure as to whether he was shadow-banned or censored.

“The Government is looking at what journalists are doing,” Hitchens told UnHerd‘s Freddie Sayers, “it’s a form of very soft censorship.” More than that, “it’s a complete outrage against the principles of freedom of speech in a free society, and one which we should be very worried about.”

It was only thanks to a whistleblower from the 77th Brigade that this information came to light. “He didn’t think he joined the army to do the sort of thing he’d been asked to do [online surveillance of British civilians],” said Hitchens. “It really isn’t the job of government to decide what views should get more exposure, is it?”

Speech monitored by these bodies was not restricted to coronavirus-related talking points: also under attack were journalists’ criticism of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, MPs’ doubts about NATO, and now Ukraine. Here Hitchens sees clear parallels from being called a “Covid-denier” to a Putin apologist. “If you raise the question ‘Is the policy of pursuing a long war against Russia by sending more weapons mistaken?’ you’re accused of being in favour of a Russian victory”.

In the context of foreign wars, Hitchens views the existence of such government units as reasonable. “In modern warfare, there is a lot of information warfare, and any country which doesn’t have defences against that is being very foolish,” he says. “So I wouldn’t be against the existence of such a unit, if it were actually working on the disruption of the combatting of disinformation by the country’s enemies or potential enemies.” However “if it turns to internal monitoring, that’s a whole different matter.”

Indeed, the basic liberties of freedom of speech, thought, press and assembly should not be “negotiable”. But, Hitchens fears, they are now “more and more under threat”.