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  • Alastair Cavendish

Who Guards the Guardian

George Monbiot’s proposal that the government should clamp down on Covid lies (Guardian Opinion, 27 January) is clearly well-intentioned. Its results in practice would be disastrous. The disaster would encompass not only free-speech enthusiasts (a term which, paradoxically, has become synonymous with “bigots” in the left-leaning media) but the public in general, Mr. Monbiot’s supporters in particular, and, ultimately, the planet he has worked so hard to protect.

Perhaps I should mention here that I count myself as one of Mr. Monbiot’s supporters. I have read several of his books and many of his columns, always with respect and often with admiration and agreement. It is only natural that someone who is so scrupulous in his use of scientific data should be just as infuriated by lies and conspiracy theories about coronavirus as he is by similar nonsense about climate change. Such lies should clearly be challenged and dismissed, and this is being done. Not one mainstream media outlet countenances such statements, nor are they aired on platforms such as Talk Radio, which Mr. Monbiot doubtless regards as well beyond the mainstream.

So far as the misinformation is concerned, it is impossible to know the extent of the problem. When people put themselves and others at risk, are they responding to misinformation? Do those arrested at raves and house parties quote Piers Corbyn or declare that Donald Trump is the rightful president of the United States? Do people act on the basis or conspiracy theories, or use them retrospectively as an attempt to justify their actions? While there may not be reliable answers to these questions, it is easier to be certain about the proposed solution. Will further government coercion improve matters and save lives? Have the government’s draconian polices and extensive, bombastic propaganda campaigns been useful so far? Do we trust the government to use its current powers, let alone any further powers it may claim, in a responsible manner for the benefit of the British people? The answer to these questions is clearly “No.”

The difficulties with using government action to address any problem are greatly magnified in the case of this problem and this government. A virus demands a fast, flexible, specifically targeted scientific and medical response, not the juggernaut of big government. It also demands a response from people who have some idea what they’re doing, and are not principally concerned with increasing their own power, and the wealth of their cronies. Have you ever faced a difficulty and thought to yourself: “If only I had the vast intellect of Matt Hancock at my disposal, or the integrity and decisiveness of Boris Johnson, or the limitless compassion of Priti Patel, then this obstacle would be as dust beneath my chariot wheels…”? No? Neither have I.

The incompetence of the current government is exacerbated by the fact that it has itself been the source of so much misinformation and gratuitous scaremongering about the pandemic. To give such a mendacious administration a veto over the views that may be expressed will be to arouse suspicions in many who might not otherwise have entertained them. To watch the dedicated research team who produced the Oxford vaccine discussing their labours inspires confidence. To see Gavin Williamson use the vaccination process as an excuse for an ill-judged display of nationalism does not.

It is the characteristic fault of left-wing authoritarianism to see debate and dissent as luxuries which must be among the first casualties of a crisis. Peter Hitchens can be tolerated most of the time, but this is an emergency. Mr. Monbiot even includes in his list of undesirable opinions those of Professor Sunetra Gupta, though he stops short of suggesting that her views should be made illegal. As a layperson who has grown very tired of the disclaimer “I’m not an epidemiologist but…” I should have thought that the ideas of a very distinguished professor of epidemiology at the University of Oxford might be welcome at this time. But it appears that Professor Gupta is the wrong kind of epidemiologist for Mr. Monbiot, and other liberals who brook no dissent.

I have already pointed out that the results of the authoritarian clampdown Mr. Monbiot suggests would be a disaster, not only for the public, but for the planet. This is a vital point which appears to be overlooked by environmentalists. In the very near future, we shall all have to make sacrifices to protect the planet and ourselves from an existential threat very much greater than the one we currently face. It is to be hoped that any restrictions imposed will be economic and largely voluntary, rather than authoritarian and coercive. A carbon tax may place the Andes and the Himalayas out of reach, but you will at least be able to go for a walk in the Peak District without being harassed by the police.

For these restrictions to work, we will need public trust and understanding, not grudging compliance based on the fear of punishment. People will have to believe that the limits placed on them really are for the protection and flourishing of the planet, rather than to increase state power. Mr. Monbiot has no doubt encountered the common charge against environmental campaigners, that they are “watermelons,” using a green exterior to conceal an agenda as red as the Soviet flag. If he wants to give credence to this particular conspiracy theory, and set the green agenda back by many years, he could scarcely find a better way than to demand even more authoritarianism from a government which is already abusing the power it has.

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