How the Pandemic has given rise to a new counter-consensual and freedom-loving media.
For military historians, it is guerrilla wars that most fascinate. Russia’s opportunism saw off Hitler and Napoleon. Decades could not salvage Afghanistan for the USSR or America.
When a mighty nation’s armies face off against a band of freedom-loving opportunists, all bets are off. Guerrilla tactics make wars uncertain and often unwinnable.
There is a guerrilla war going on right now. I am not talking about Ukraine, but right here, in the British media. The establishment is going to ever greater lengths to nail down the press; aided by cancel culture and increasingly draconian free speech restrictions.
Big tech has also joined in; aggressively censoring opinions it does not agree with, especially on Climate change and Covid. The latter is particularly sinister given how much they profited from the pandemic. To help them in their crusade, a plethora of unregulated fact-checkers have been unleashed. For these organisations, their job is to suppress any opinions or evidence that does not correspond to the ideals of their big state and big-tech paymasters.
Unfortunately, the more the mainstream media kow-tow to autocratic government, the more they lose their audience. We can see the casualties everywhere.
Top of the list is the BBC, whose propagandist coverage of everything from lockdown to identity politics, has cost it its status as a once loved national treasure. Licence payers are in freefall, as younger audiences turn their backs on its patronising dullness. At nearly twice the price of an Amazon Prime membership, over two thirds of Britons no longer support the licence fee. It is only a matter of time before the Beeb is put out to grass.
Even Big tech is beginning to implode. Facebook’s perpetual breaches of trust and Orwellian censorship is turning off its audience. A profit warning and the realisation that growth is over saw $220bn wiped off its value in a single day. Not even Nick Clegg can save this one.
In newspaper land, the statist mouthpieces are faring no better. The Financial Times – the rag of choice for the Davos elite – lost £34.5m in 2020. Quite a feat for a paper charging £4.30 a copy. Once known for precise financial reportage and corporate scoops, the FT board now applies strict editorial censorship over its contributors. The result is an overpriced pamphlet of neoliberal op-eds.
The Guardian has been declining for years, with round after round of redundancies and losses. As its dwindling band of readers are unwilling to pay for its content, the paper is reduced to chewing its way through a billion pound endowment fund. Ironically, ‘the Guardy’ has become everything it despises: A trust fund brat that throws its own staff under the bus.
This is not just a British phenomenon. The once formidable CNN is in its death-throws. Having been captured by the woke brigade, what was formerly America’s top news channel has become mired in scandal and seen an unprecedented 70% collapse in its audience.
But if statist media is losing, then who is winning?
The answer is a plethora of new media outlets founded by an energetic rag bag of veteran journalists and writers. While very different in output and outlook, the new media all care deeply about freedom of expression and its importance to society. They are wary of the state’s creeping expansion into every aspect of our lives. They share a profound understanding of history; particularly the horrors of the 20th century, made possible by state-sponsored repression.
Unsurprisingly, their diverse output reflects these values. They are not afraid to publish alternative perspectives, however uncomfortable. This is where you find experts who the statist media have shunned. Names like Sunetra Gupta pop up again and again. Gupta is the UK’s most qualified epidemiologist who was silenced because she predicted (correctly) that lockdowns would cause an even bigger mental and physical health crisis than the disease itself.
Perhaps it is this quality of thought that explains their willingness to stand up to the deep state; whether that be civil servants, big tech, big pharma, sinister fact-checkers or NGO’s. Again and again – on lockdowns, vaccines, climate change predictions, China, renewables, and even heat pumps - The guerrilla media have been proved right. In this battle, David is destroying Goliath one pebble at a time.
But it’s not just debates they are winning, it’s audiences.
Perhaps the best known example is the Spectator. The 194 year old weekly has gone from obscurity to become Europe’s fastest growing current affairs magazine, thanks to its anti-establishment op-eds from the likes of Rod Liddle, Lionel Shriver and Julie Burchill.
During lockdown, one of its editors, Toby Young, started The Daily Sceptic to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy on lockdowns, and give a voice to the myriad experts who were silenced by the mainstream media. The site has gradually morphed into a more general home for disaffected journalists and academics taking on overzealous government officials, giant corporations and shadowy NGOs. What began as a bedroom project less than two years ago now boasts 2 million viewers per months and a staff of seven.
Unherd has seen a similarly stratospheric rise. The site’s explicit aims is to push back against consensus thinking and ‘provide a platform for otherwise unheard ideas, people and places.’ Ironically Unherd’s writers are no longer unheard. Readership has grown more than six-fold in 18 months and the editors seem to be on a perpetual recruitment drive.
While mainstream publishers cancel their own authors, Skyhorse is picking up where they left off, scooping up best-selling writers that the mainstream have cancelled, such as Norman Mailer. The courageous publisher explicitly stands against censorship and abuse of power, and publishes books covering almost every genre imaginable. Profit and purpose rarely go together, but Skyhorse seems to have found a particularly lucrative gig, defending free expression while becoming one of fastest growing and most profitable publishing houses in the world. I like to imagine there’s an old till at Skyhorse that gives a loud ‘kerching’ every time a protest kicks off at Random House.
Then there is the Conservative Woman (‘Defending freedom’), Spiked Online (‘Humanity is Underrated’) and The New Culture Forum (‘Challenging the orthodoxies dominant in our institutions’).
Across the pond, there is The Daily Wire - thought to be the fastest growing media company in the US. The Daily Wire focuses on conservative, anti-woke and counter-cultural news and opinion. Its founders, Ben Shapiro and Jeremy Boreing, turned a profit within 14 months of setting up. They describe themselves as ‘noisy, opinionated and having a good time.’ Substack is also proving a happy home for many jaded writers. With newspaper readerships (and salaries) collapsing, veteran journalists are discovering they can earn far more through paid newsletters and maintain their integrity.
And most famously of all, Joe Rogan, whose podcasts have viewed over 250 million times. In spite of the establishment’s best efforts, the former comedian has proved too big to cancel.
This stratospheric growth is seeing their creators - the likes of Toby Young, Kathy Gnygell and Tony Lyons - emerge blinking into the limelight. For people who have spent their lives standing up to consensus, they cannot quite believe their popularity. Meeting Young in person, I was reminded of the astrological description of a supernova; a body that is on the brink of being exhausted by its own energy. It is that boundless energy that is their greatest weapon. Just like a Guerrilla army, this movement feasts off an ideological belief in freedom.
While these journalistic cottage industries barely register against the BBC or Google; that ignores the big insight of California’s venture capitalists: in online media it is not size that counts, it’s the growth rate. When it comes to the internet, growth is self-feeding: the more viewers you get, the more people talk about you and share links. Thus, online media can spread like a virus. The converse is also true. As CNN and the BBC are discovering, once you start to lose your audience, things can implode pretty quickly.
If anything, these trends are likely to accelerate. While cancel culture, surveillance and the growing restrictions on free speech may have given birth to the Guerrilla Media, it is the Pandemic that has really set it alight.
Thanks to Covid, the established media has blown its trust with the public. We expect journalists to question and to investigate. Ask any journalist what their favourite film is and the most common response will be ‘All the Presidents Men,’ which tells the story of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward; the two journalists who risked their careers and personal safety to uncover the Watergate scandal.
Yet when it came to Covid those high ideals were forgotten. Mainstream media unquestioningly published whatever the government told them to, while suppressing those voices who opposed them. The result was the biggest breach of freedom in the history of mankind and a lost generation of children; all justified by made-up forecasts and falsified statistics. Already one major Danish newspaper has apologised for its one-sided coverage. As the true depths of the scandal are uncovered more will likely follow. It is like being married to pious a vicar for twenty years only to discover they’ve been having string of affairs. This is the blancmange across the kitchen moment: But I trusted you!
In the end, censorship and repression ultimately backfire on those who peddle them. In the USSR, the communist dailies, Pravda and Izvestia would dish out their propaganda, laughably detached from reality. Their names, Pravda and Izvestia, mean "the truth" and "the news" respectively. Hence the popular joke, "There's no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia". Meanwhile youngsters would set up illegal aerials to listen to western radio and watch US sitcoms, while the black market trade in rock n’ roll records and Hollywood movies flourished. No amount of deceit can save a rotten regime. It just makes it more rotten.
Statist media is not only devoid of integrity, it is also dull. Do we really want to be piously admonished every day for our lifestyles, our carbon footprint, our gender, skin colour and our beliefs? Where is the fun? Where is the surprise?
Is it any wonder that more and and more of us are going out of our way to find more authentic, more entertaining, and more human voices?
For anyone who believes in individual freedom and personal responsibility, the world can feel pretty dispiriting. There are the horrors of Ukraine, government overreach, the cost of living crisis, surging taxes and the relentless advance of cancel culture. Are the lights going out on Western Civilisation? Not quite. There are bright spots. And the brightest of all is the guerrilla journalists and the new wave of free media.
In 1849, inspired by the struggles for freedom across Europe, the English poet Arthur Clough wrote his most enduring poem, Say not the Struggle nought Availeth. It serves as a reminder that the battle for freedom is a long one, where triumphs are often subtle and hard-won.
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.