John Whittingdale was listening to Radio 4 on the last day of 2017 when he heard something that made him furious.
It was a Sunday morning and the Conservative MP had his radio tuned to Broadcasting House, a weekly current affairs show. Near the end of the programme, one of the guests criticised the Labour peer and Brexit critic Andrew Adonis for not being elected to office. The BBC presenter interrupted to point out, incorrectly, that Lord Adonis had once been an MP.
Whittingdale was so offended by the inaccuracy that he fired off a complaint to a senior BBC executive he knew. Then he typed out a WhatsApp message to dozens of Tory colleagues.
“Disgraceful inaccuracy on Broadcasting House,” Whittingdale wrote in a WhatsApp forum maintained by the European Research Group (ERG), an influential alliance of hardline Conservative Eurosceptics who are campaigning for a clean break from the European Union.
“If you listen to it then complain but I have already put in [a] complaint,” Whittingdale told the MPs in the group, according to conversations shared with BuzzFeed News.
Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader and work and pensions secretary, who is also a senior member of the ERG, had also heard the show and was incensed by the error.
“Everyone on this App should lodge a complaint with the BBC,” Duncan Smith wrote. “The editors of the programme will have known what was said was incorrect and they should have corrected it. If we all point this out it makes them more careful in the future.”
The conversation is one of hundreds of WhatsApp messages seen by BuzzFeed News that reveal the inner workings of the most influential lobbying force in British politics. Led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the ERG has around 70 supporters on the Tory back benches and at least a dozen more sympathetic MPs in government. It dominates the Conservative party and has profoundly influenced Theresa May’s Brexit policy.
The huge leak — a major embarrassment for a group that prefers to operate out of the public view — reveals that, in addition to its extensive parliamentary and political manoeuvring, the ERG has waged a vigorous, nimble media campaign to shape the national conversation about Brexit.
The conversations reveal how an informal network of passionate, determined backbench MPs, with the support of only one paid researcher – his salary is funded by public money – and a free messaging app have worked the British media to make their case for a hard Brexit and push back against the Remainers they believe are trying to undermine the vote to leave the EU.
The ERG’s leaders, the chats indicate, regard winning the “air war” as essential to achieving their post-Brexit vision. After many years in Westminster, they’re acutely aware of the power of the media to shape the public’s thinking about policy issues and savvy about working it to their advantage — while also being deeply sceptical about the media’s motivations and convinced that some of the country’s top journalists are biased against them.
They work hard at managing the media. The ERG uses well-worn techniques adopted by professionally staffed campaigns to influence the coverage of their causes — centralised messaging, coordinated rebuttal, systematic complaining — but has elevated it to a level above that of most organisations in British politics, according to academics who reviewed the conversations at the request of BuzzFeed News.
Its members appear regularly on TV and radio programmes, are often quoted in newspapers, and produce a steady stream of articles for pro-Brexit publications like BrexitCentral and the Daily Telegraph. Behind the scenes, the MPs use WhatsApp to make sure they’re all on message, sharing consistent “lines to take” in response to journalists’ questions, providing briefings for its MPs before they do interviews, and circulating links to their members’ articles, appearances, and tweets.
“For political parties during election campaigns, this is standard practice using interns and volunteers,” said Steven Barnett, a communications professor at the University of Westminster, who reviewed some of the messages. “I can’t think of any previous example where it has been coordinated with such apparent dedication outside of an election campaign.”
Whittingdale, 58, is a considerable asset in this enterprise. A former culture secretary who chaired parliament’s culture committee for a decade, the Essex-based MP has extensive contacts in the media industry. He doesn’t have to ring a hotline or fill in an online form, like most Radio 4 listeners, when he hears something objectionable. He can contact senior executives at the country’s leading media outlets personally and know that his complaint will be taken seriously.
And so when Broadcasting House blundered on 31 December, Whittingdale went straight to one of the BBC’s senior executives to push for a correction. He contacted the corporation’s head of corporate affairs, Andrew Scadding, who said he would raise the matter, according to the leaked chats. Two days later, on 2 January, Whittingdale told his colleagues that Scadding had been back in touch: Broadcasting House had apologised to the guest for wrongly correcting him.
“I have said that I expect an on air retraction and apology,” Whittingdale said.
“Agreed,” replied Duncan Smith. The following Sunday, when Broadcasting House next aired, the programme’s presenter corrected his mistake.
A consistent theme in the Brexiteers’ conversations is their hypersensitivity to how Brexit is portrayed in the mainstream media.
Although powerful right-wing newspapers like the Sun, Daily Mail, and Daily Telegraph agree with the die-hard Eurosceptics on Brexit, some of the group’s members nevertheless seem to believe that the British media is unfairly slanted against them.
The messages suggest that many of the MPs mistrust or misunderstand the motivations of the journalists covering Brexit and the Conservative party, believing that they’re inherently biased against leaving the EU or simply trying to cause trouble. Legitimate inquiries or articles were dismissed as attempts by journalists to “manufacture divisions” or “provoke Eurosceptics”.
No outlet’s journalism seems to bother them more than that of the BBC.
Mindful of the broadcaster’s outsize role in British public life — it is the UK’s most popular and trusted source of news, reaching tens of millions of people with its TV and radio programmes and website — they follow its news output especially closely, and often complain that it is biased.
This sensitivity was evident on a Tuesday morning last July, five weeks after the general election, when the ERG’s former chair Steve Baker appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme.
Baker, a 46-year-old former software engineer, was an important player in the 2016 referendum campaign and, when Britain voted to leave, mobilised his Eurosceptic colleagues in parliament to make sure Theresa May’s government followed through on the result.
After last summer’s election, Baker was promoted to a ministerial role in the Department for Exiting the European Union, making the chief agitator on the Tory back benches a government insider. Now he was being sent out on the UK’s most influential current affairs programme to defend the government’s handling of Brexit.
Minutes after the interview finished, the ERG’s WhatsApp group lit up with compliments for Baker — and criticism of the presenter Nick Robinson.
Iain Duncan Smith seemed particularly upset. “Dreadful smeary interview with Robinson,” Duncan Smith wrote. “His appallingly superior tone was patronizing and arrogant. He hasn’t recovered from the complaint we put in to the BBC.”
Duncan Smith didn’t say which part of Robinson’s questioning he found so objectionable, and he didn’t respond to a request for comment. But his reaction to Robinson’s interview reflected a belief held by many of the Brexiteers that the BBC’s senior ranks are filled with Remainers incapable of believing that Britain can succeed on its own after leaving the European Union.
It isn’t just Tory Eurosceptics who believe the BBC is biased against them, of course. The public broadcaster is regularly accused by politicians from different sides of portraying their causes unfairly and failing to live up to its obligation to be impartial. The Corbyn-supporting left has also been aggressively critical of its journalism. But the Brexiteers have arguably been its most assertive and persistent critics for many years.
Complaints about the BBC’s coverage were frequent during the referendum campaign, and have continued since the UK voted to leave.
In March last year, the ERG wrote to Lord Tony Hall, the BBC’s director-general, complaining that its Brexit coverage was too gloomy and urging him to “take steps to correct these flaws”. Seventy-two Eurosceptic MPs, many of them active in the ERG, signed the letter. It was sent by Julian Knight, the MP for Solihull, who once worked as a journalist at the BBC and sits on the Commons’ digital, culture, media, and sport committee.
It was this complaint that Duncan Smith appears to have believed rattled Robinson so much that he “never recovered”. A senior BBC source was surprised by Duncan Smith’s claims. Robinson hadn’t been troubled by the Brexiteers’ complaint, the source said. They dismissed the suggestion it would’ve affected Robinson’s journalistic judgment.
A spokesperson for the BBC said: “The BBC is regularly contacted by a range of political organisations and campaigning groups but this does not affect the impartiality of our news reporting. However, if we broadcast something which isn’t factually accurate, we will correct it, whoever brings it to our attention.”
Sometimes the trick to lobbying effectively is knowing when to hold back.
Last June, the Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow was accused of joining in a chant of “Fuck the Tories” at Glastonbury Festival. If true, it would’ve been an astonishing breach of rules requiring broadcast journalists to be politically neutral. Snow claimed he had no recollection of doing it, and his bosses believed him. But some Tory MPs, who had long viewed Channel 4 News and its lead presenter as insufferably left-wing, were not persuaded.
Among them was Andrew Bridgen. Four days after the allegation against Snow emerged, the MP drafted a letter to the editor of Channel 4 News, Ben de Pear. “We no longer have confidence that Channel 4 News treats Conservatives with due impartiality,” Bridgen wrote. Then came the payoff: Tory MPs would no longer appear on the prime-time news programme. “Given the failure of your programme to hold its leading presenter to these standards we have instructed our offices to reject interview requests from your producers,” Bridgen said.
He pasted the text of the draft letter in the ERG’s WhatsApp group and asked if colleagues wanted to put their names to it. Whittingdale suggested Bridgen should also send the letter to Charles Gurassa, Channel 4’s chair; John Hardie, the chief executive of ITN, which produces Channel 4 News; and Sharon White, head of the communications regulator Ofcom. But Bernard Jenkin, a senior Conservative backbencher and chair of parliament’s public administration committee, urged Bridgen not to send it.
“I think this letter is a mistake,” Jenkin said. “If you do write, I would ensure it is scrupulously polite and respectful in both tone and content … We need to be careful.”
Snow was on the back foot now because people thought he was biased, Jenkin reasoned. But if the Brexiteers targeted him publicly and threatened to boycott Channel 4 News, it would only make Snow a “martyr in the eyes of the Left”. “Far easier to deal with him on his programme now that he has made his own views so plain,” Jenkin said.
“I think there is a clear breach of the impartiality requirements,” Whittingdale replied, but he conceded Jenkin’s tactical point. “Bernard is right that there might be better ways of pursuing. I am happy to have private conversation with John Hardie who I know well.”
BuzzFeed News understands Bridgen never sent the letter to Channel 4 News. It’s unclear whether Whittingdale spoke directly to Hardie, or whether the intervention had any impact if he did. None of the MPs involved in the conversation would comment.
A spokesperson for ITN said: “Channel 4 News prides itself on its high-quality, high-impact, impartial news coverage and, as a respected news anchor for more than 30 years, Jon Snow takes his professional obligations to provide fair, balanced, and impartial journalism extremely seriously. He robustly interviews politicians from every party as part of our mission to hold power to account in an impartial but interrogative manner.”
Professor Charlie Beckett, director of the Polis media think tank at the London School of Economics, said Jenkin’s intervention was telling. “People like Whittingdale and Jenkin are very good at targeting the anger of the group to the right pressure points, rather than just raging against the machine.”
The ERG’s relationship with the media has become increasingly uneasy in recent weeks.
Until recently, the group was barely known outside Westminster, even while it was shaping government policy. It had virtually no online presence and didn’t publish its research or policy positions, a register of its meetings with ministers and officials, or a list of its members. It attracted little scrutiny — and that seemed to suit its members just fine.
Recently, however, interest in the ERG has increased after it was taken over by a high-profile new leader in Rees-Mogg and asserted its demands in the Brexit debate. And judging by their WhatsApp conversations, its members don’t seem to relish the scrutiny.
A series of leaks to journalists has punctured the ERG’s aura of discipline, unity, and secrecy and resulted in tension between members.
On 27 January, BuzzFeed News published a leaked WhatsApp chat revealing a glaring discrepancy between strident public comments by Nadine Dorries, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire, about the EU’s customs union and doubts she had expressed in conversation with her colleagues. Within hours of the story being published, Dorries withdrew from the ERG’s WhatsApp group, saying: “This group has a leaker. I am removing myself from it.”
Others were furious at the breach. “It’s appalling that someone would leak this,” wrote Kemi Badenoch, the MP for Saffron Walden. Pauline Latham, the MP for Mid Derbyshire, added: “Does the person who leaked this want us to hand number 10 to Corbyn and cronies? If he/she is found they must be removed from this and other groups.”
The leaks made some senior figures in the ERG wary of their own WhatsApp group.
In early February, they began coordinating signatures from dozens of their MPs for a letter to 10 Downing Street setting out demands for the next phase of Brexit. This time, however, the group’s leaders did not use the messaging app to gather names.
Despite their caution, the letter leaked anyway, to Sam Coates at the Times. According to Coates’s tweets, he approached the ERG for comment before publishing an article about the letter and they released it widely, spoiling his scoop — a violation of a long-standing convention between journalists and the politicians they cover.
But others continued using the WhatsApp group to converse indiscreetly.
When BuzzFeed News contacted more than 50 Tories by e-mail about their involvement in the ERG last month, some of the MPs, instead of replying, messaged their colleagues on WhatsApp urging them to ignore it. Several mocked the request.
“BuzzFeed are best ignored,” said one member.
“Who are BuzzFeed?” said another.
Another joked about whether to reveal the ERG’s secret handshake.
Then Ben Bradley joined the chat.
A few weeks earlier, BuzzFeed News had unearthed six-year-old blog posts in which Bradley, the Tories’ 28-year-old spokesperson for youth issues, expressed crude opinions on several controversial policy matters. In one post, Bradley suggested unemployed men should get vasectomies rather than having large families they can’t afford to raise.
Although Bradley deleted some of his social media accounts when he became an MP last year, he had not removed the blogs and Conservative headquarters had also evidently missed them. When BuzzFeed reported the vasectomy comments, Bradley became national news.
Now he was angry about being contacted by the same reporter again about his involvement in the ERG.
“Can’t believe the bloody cheek of buzzfeed,” Bradley wrote, “after breaking a great ‘news’ item about me chopping off the testicle of the unemployed in my spare time just a fortnight ago, the same guy emails and says ‘Hi Ben, hope you’re well. Wonder if you can help me…”
This wasn’t true. The email from BuzzFeed News to Bradley had not used those words or taken that tone. But Bradley got a laugh from one of his colleagues, and then an awkward response from Iain Duncan Smith.
“He has asked for help so, you should offer to help him resolve his testicle problem……,” said the 63-year-old former Tory leader.
Bradley responded with two crying-with-laughter emojis. “I’ll book him in.”
After these messages leaked, BuzzFeed News contacted Bradley and Duncan Smith asking them to explain the conversation. Why were they joking about removing a reporter’s testicles in front of nearly 100 members of parliament?
Neither MP has responded. But since then their WhatsApp group has been unusually quiet.