The troll pipeline: How ‘mainstream’ UK media figures use anonymous right-wing sources

Remember when you put neo-Nazi conspiracy theories on The Sun's front page, Tom Newton-Dunn? Because we do.

Share

Six months ago, outgoing Sun political editor and soon-to-be star TimesRadio presenter, Tom Newton-Dunn put a far-right conspiracy theory on the front page of The Sun. His story, sourced largely from far-right websites, alleged that former British intelligence officers had uncovered a ‘hard-left extremist network’ at the heart of the Labour party. It was the GIF of Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia standing wild-eyed in front of his ‘string theory’ board. 

The map, which Newton-Dunn directed his readers towards, was built from a range of extreme rightwing sources, including the antisemitic conspiracist site Millennium Report, and defunct neo-Nazi group Aryan Unity. The spider’s web of the conspiracy pulled in leftwing journalists, the IRA, Hamas, the Farc in Colombia, uh… members of the British Medical Association, anti-war groups, and dead philosophers including Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish.  

On the same day that Newton-Dunn’s conspiracy theory story hit the front page, it was removed from The Sun’s website. It has not been referred to since, and Newton-Dunn, after some brief social media sparring has totally ducked all criticism, simply refusing to engage with it or answer for his use of far-right, antisemitic sources in an election where he and others spent a substantial amount of time raising the undoubted issue of antisemitism within the Labour Party.  

Publishing theories sourced from neo-Nazis has not had any effect on Tom Newton-Dunn. He’s still invited on to TV shows to opine on politics, still gets to present What The Papers Say on Radio 4, and has been rewarded for his work on The Sun with the elevation to a daily show on TimesRadio, which is designed to attack Radio 4 head-on. He’s a fixture of the British media, his father was an MEP for decades, and he’s got lots of pals at different papers who think he’s a well-spoken charmer. All of that means he’s allowed to get away with a crypto-fascist scoop. 

More recently, and in a less clear cut way, the Mail on Sunday had a pivotal role in giving false legitimacy to the conspiracy theory that Covid-19 entered the general population after escaping from the Wuhan Institute which had been experimenting on bats, backed by American research money. As Bartholomew’s Notes… um… notes the Mail on Sunday series was penned by Glen Owen, the paper’s political editor, a man more expert in converting government briefings into stories than investigating the ins-and-outs of virology research. That the ‘China did this deliberately’ line is helpful to the government is probably just a coincidence… 

As well as using far-right online sources to feed stories, right-wing papers and columnists also use anonymous accounts to do their dirty work for them. When I was recently attacked by a national newspaper columnist -- something that I’m now taking legal action over -- one of the loudest voices really putting the boot in was The Core, a Twitter account that styles itself as a news organisation. With the trollish handle SocialM85897394, it dedicates all-day every day to attack figures on the left, usually, journalists and politicians that right-wing papers are already obsessionally against.

 

The last and most blatant part of the troll pipeline is the continuing success of Guido Fawkes alumni in the British media. While current Guido staffer Tom Harwood is rarely off our screens, others who have spent time under the tutelage of the site’s founder Paul Staines, are now in plum positions at The Sun, Politico, and The Guardian. They move from the mucky business of Guido’s gossip and character assassination machine into more ‘respectable’ roles without having to ever really account for their previous behaviour. Their colleagues at other publications welcome them with open arms because many of them treat the whole exercise as a game. 

In a future newsletter, I’ll talk about how Guido Fawkes has come to be vastly more influential than its traffic figures might indicate. But for now, keep an eye on the media you consume and see where you can spot the troll pipeline in action.