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HomeNewsThe NHS's preposterous reasons for cancelling my talk

The NHS’s preposterous reasons for cancelling my talk


In June 2023 I reported about how a talk I was due to give at the NHS Health and Care Analytics Conference 2023 was cancelled not because of its content (it was about Bayesian network applications) but because of my ‘controversial views’ about the covid vaccines.

In July 2023 I reported on the heavily redacted response from Birmingham University (who were hosting the conference) to my subject access request. In August 2023 I reported on the astonishing response from the NHS to an FOI request that somebody, who I did not know, had made about the cancellation.

After that I finally got a response from the NHS to my own subject access request about the cancellation. For legal reasons I never reported on that or what happened thereafter because The Free Speech Union lawyers submitted a formal request for an apology on my behalf and a small payment to a charity. Because there has as yet been no resolution there are still limits to what I can say publicly. But I can reveal some snippets of what the NHS and their lawyers said.

The NHS response to the subject access request contained a covering letter and 17 different heavily redacted documents, each of which contained a thread of one or more emails about me. Four of the documents were simply email threads in which I had participated before and after the cancellation – so nothing new there. Nine of the documents were correspondence from, presumably, members of the public who had made formal complaints to the NHS about my cancellation.

It was nice to know that people had complained on my behalf, but the most interesting aspect of the exchange was that the documents contained no responses from the NHS and no information as to whether the NHS ever did reply to these complaints.

The remaining four documents were internal communications announcing, and later confirming, that my talk was cancelled, instructing people to remove my name, close down the associated Eventbrite announcement, etc. Hence, there was little new in the subject access request response to shed light on the real reasons and process that led up to their decision to cancel my appearance. And, to this day, the Conference Chair Ben Goldacre has refused to respond to any of the multiple requests for information about this.

However, following the Free Speech Union letter the NHS lawyers sent a lengthy response that contained many remarkable and offensive statements about me. First, they explicitly referred to tweets I had made AFTER the cancellation announcement on 20 June 2023. They stated (in point 6 of their letter):

Since 20 June 2023, the Defendant has been aware that the Claimant also maintains an active profile on Twitter as a controversialist. For example, in recent weeks, he has repeatedly tweeted arguments against the conviction of NHS nurse Lucy Letby for the murder of seven babies. He is a climate crisis denier, tweeting and retweeting about climate change as “climate catastrophe propaganda” and criticising “the tyrannical Net Zero policies being foisted upon us all under the guise of solving the non-existent ‘global boiling crisis’”.

While I certainly stand by the claims about “climate catastrophe propaganda”, the statement that I “repeatedly tweeted arguments against the conviction of NHS nurse Lucy Letby for the murder of seven babies.” is false. It seems to be based on the fact that I had simply posted a video interview I made with a colleague who raised concerns about the conviction and followed that up with links to his articles about it.

In point 7, apart from the fact that they object to tweets which simply state the truth about covid, they bizarrely imply that I am some kind of Hitler fan for using the ‘clown world’ icons in tweets. This is despite the fact that I had very publicly stated in a viral video in March 2023 that I was a Jew whose father was the sole survivor in his large family of the Nazi Holocaust:

The Claimant’s tweets about Covid 19 are less moderate than his “position” as expressed in your letter. He tweets allegations that the “mainstream media” or “MSM” has lied about Covid, that death tolls have been inflated and even that there has not been a pandemic. For example, he tweeted that the “MSM” have “frame[d] Trump as a liar when he was the one telling the truth about it”. He regularly ends his tweets about Covid with the clown emoji followed by the world emoji, meaning “clown world” (“🤡🌏”). This is an alt-right internet meme, which originated in 4chan and is also known as the “Honkler” or “Heil Honkler” sign1 within the American white supremacist movement. Honkler joins “Honk” with “Hitler”. It is a dog whistle conveying that “the left” are creating a “clown world”.

The reference to Trump above concerned the media’s response to his statement in 2020 that he believed the claimed 3.4% covid fatality rate was too high. Trump was of course right, and the mainstream media were wrong.

In point 8 they attempt to paint me as an ignorant anti-vaxxer, and totally misrepresent some tweets I posted:

In particular, the Claimant often tweets inflammatory messages condemning the basic interventions supported by the NHS and health services all over the world. This includes explicitly anti-Vaxx tweets, not only challenging vaccination for younger age groups (as mentioned in your letter) but for all age groups. For example, he recently tweeted about the NHS winter Covid booster campaign, which only targets older age groups and those at risk: “They’ll repeat the mantra ‘they stop hospitalisation & death’. So, here’s a reminder of why that’s garbage too.” In the same tweet thread, he stated “every Covid test is an unnecessary medical intervention”, accompanied by a child’s face, crying and covered in blood.

The explanation for my cancellation is contained in point 11 of their letter, which amusingly refers to The Great Reset as a ‘well-known covid conspiracy theory’.

On 20 June 2023, the HACA Conference organisers were in an internal meeting when a Twitter user tweeted at them asking if they had seen the Claimant’s Twitter feed and suggesting that they should take a look. Some present at the meeting immediately did so and were very concerned by what they saw, which included sensationalist material, dog whistles and conspiracy theories. For example, they saw a tweet praising a project to “disrupt global tyranny”, advertised by the slogan “resist the great reset”, which refers to a well-known covid conspiracy theory. They saw another tweet alleging that “data scams have sustained ‘official’ narratives” in respect of Covid. Those present at the meeting felt the implication of many of the tweets was the NHS and Government is actively lying about harming patients with COVID vaccines as part of a globalist takeover of democratic governments. It was decided that inviting the Claimant to speak at this NHS conference would be inappropriate and would conflict in a damaging way with the NHS position on vaccination. They were also concerned that inviting the Claimant would implicitly endorse his public persona, which might deter NHS staff from attending the conference.

In Points 18 and 20 they provide the following further rationale for the cancellation:

First, and most importantly, the decision furthers the objective of protection of health. All NHS bodies (and UK public authorities more widely) maintain clear and consistent messaging on the importance of vaccination against Covid 19 and other diseases. Since the pandemic, there has been a significant rise in the anti-Vaxx movement, which in turn risks jeopardising the vital public health benefits of high vaccine uptake. There are grave public health risks arising from any declining trust in vaccines and in NHS advice more generally. Put bluntly, a refusal to accept vaccination risks lives. The anti-Vaxx and Covid-sceptic movement has been fuelled by the kind of inflammatory tweets found on the Claimant’s Twitter feed. As is well known, media platforms (particularly social media platforms such as Twitter) have been enormously influential in the spread of vaccine hesitancy. Such platforms have been used to spread widespread disinformation about the effectiveness or safety of vaccination both by individuals and by hostile state actors such as Russia. The influence of commentary upon social media platforms is magnified, where those who post on such platforms speak from a position of apparent authority.

Second, the decision furthers the objective of the protection of the MLSCU’s reputation. MLSCU’s functions include advancing innovation and research within the NHS. In order to carry out this function effectively, it needs to maintain the trust of NHS professionals. It does this by inviting credible individuals to share their research. While the Claimant has conducted well-respected research as an academic, his public profile contains extremist, controversialist positions, including alt-right memes and conspiracy theories. MLSCU was entitled to take the view that its own reputation and ability to carry out its functions could be undermined by hosting the Claimant. Further, any erosion in the credibility of the MLSCU could have an indirect adverse impact on the protection of health, if NHS professionals were to forego the opportunity to access important research shared by the MLSCU.

Further reasons are provided in points 27, 28:

The decision is justified by reference to his inflammatory and controversialist profile on Twitter, covering a wide range of subjects on which the Claimant has no particular academic expertise and expressed in a style that extends to far right dog whistles. Both the content and style of large numbers of tweets by the Claimant mean that they clearly are not “academic expression”.

This decision addresses the risk that placing the Claimant on an NHS platform would be reported or perceived by anti-Vaxxers and the public as an endorsement of his extreme statements on Twitter, as well as leading to potential loss of trust in MLCSU. This risk would subsist regardless of whether he spoke on these issues at the conference. There would be no way of ensuring that the Claimant’s presence at the conference was always reported on social media with a relevant disclaimer.

For the record here is the actual talk I had planned to give:

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Norman Fenton
Norman Fenton
Norman Fenton is a British mathematician and computer scientist. He is Professor of Risk Information Management in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at Queen Mary University of London.

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