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A martyr and a mystery: The strange case of John Christian
Right-wing activists have latched onto the story of a Manchester student dismissed for his unsavoury views. But questions linger, like what he himself believes - and whether he even exists
By Mollie Simpson
“No Nazi chants today,” Nahella Ashraf says sternly. She’s just found out that, incongruously perhaps, one of the members of the far-right protest group coming to the University of Manchester’s main campus is Jewish. So for this afternoon, Ashraf’s group of counter-demonstrators has to alter their repertoire of chants, in particular the one about “Nazi scum”. Instead, she says, “We’re only chanting ‘fascist scum off our streets’.”
It’s unfortunate for the Antifa (short for anti-fascist) activists standing around me that their traditional uniform consists of black hoodies and dark cargo pants, because the weather is roasting. The campaigners have gathered at midday on a small green space near the university to be briefed by Ashraf, a tall woman in her 50s, who unlike some of her companions is not wearing a mask to disguise her identity and has sensibly chosen a long blue dress for today’s protest.
“There have been threats made to Didsbury Mosque,” she continues. “We will go to Didsbury Mosque en masse if we have to. But we think that’s a distraction.”
Ashraf is an anti-racist campaigner who has been organising protests for years. Racism is an emotional topic for her: one day in 2017, as she was having dinner at a fish and chip shop in London, a stranger grabbed her by the arm. “You shouldn’t be here,” he told her. A staff member pushed him out of the way and asked him what his problem was. “People like her, they kill,” the stranger said, and spat in her face. It was the first time she’d experienced Islamophobia, and she hadn’t realised how much it could hurt.
The message at today’s protest is the same one she’s always trying to send: that racism and oppression don’t have a place in Manchester. “It’s about them not feeling like they’re welcome here,” she tells everyone. “It’s really important that we are all a united front.” So who are they?
James Harvey, a skinny and freckled 19-year-old wearing a black t-shirt and blue jeans, is sprightly and full of beans. He goes around shaking hands and introducing himself to people, occasionally scrolling through his phone to get ready for the protest. In the last two years, Harvey has become a vocal student activist in the UK, an accolade he is proud of. “I’m one of the most prominent ones on the right-wing conservative spectrum,” he tells me. “And I think Antifa are afraid of that.”
Growing up in Cardiff, his dad would talk to him about politics and when he was 15, he started to look into it more. Free speech was under threat from universities, the government and the media, he came to believe, and he had to fight for it. He supported the Trump campaign and got heavily involved in anti-lockdown marches when the pandemic broke out. When he turned 18, he founded Students Against Tyranny, a support group for students who opposed Covid vaccines. In the early days of the campaign, he posted a video encouraging young people to “wake up” and realise that the pandemic was a government effort to control and harm the population and implement vaccine passports “on a massive scale”.
It was too noisy at the protest to have a normal interview — I couldn’t hear Harvey well enough to properly understand or scrutinise what he was saying, so I took his number and called him a few days later to talk about his reasons for protesting in Manchester. “I’ve always been very confident, but I never wanted to be in the limelight,” he explains. “But I realised I had to do something.”
Harvey says that Students Against Tyranny appeals to young people who distrust the “official narrative” and feel ideologically marginalised by their peers; at odds with a generation whose politics tends to skew to the social justice left. They are offering “a platform to connect like-minded young people in their [local] areas so they don’t feel so isolated in their opinions and beliefs”. Harvey has set up around 35 regional channels on Telegram, a social media messaging app, to share his message, although many of these only have a handful of members. The main national group, however, has 2,500 followers.
Harvey’s activism has taken a toll. He has faced disciplinary action from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and has been abandoned by some of those closest to him. “A lot of family won’t speak to me, a lot of friends won’t speak to me either,” he says, admitting that at the start of the campaign he “felt isolated and alone at times”.
But then came a breakthrough. Earlier this year, a tipster wrote to Harvey with a story about a man who went by the pseudonym John Christian, a former PhD student in experimental particle physics at the University of Manchester. “He was harassed and the subject of disciplinaries for years just for his political opinions,” the person wrote. Just when he was about to finish his PhD, Christian was allegedly prevented from submitting his final thesis for misgendering a trans woman. This, in effect, was an expulsion from the university. “What the institutions do when you express free speech is that they break you, circle you as you spin out of control, and then take big bloody bites,” the source wrote to Harvey.
When I messaged Manchester Antifa on Twitter, someone replied saying that according to people they’ve spoken to, Christian took more active, hateful stances against refugees and trans people. They say he was also known to be a bully, verbally attacking people on grounds of gender and sexuality, although those are not claims for which I have seen any evidence.
In a statement, the University of Manchester says the student referred to as John Christian left “following a formal process established to consider serious concerns relating to their conduct — this followed four previous formal processes, and a number of warnings”.
Christian made a complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, an independent university ombudsman, but Manchester’s decision was upheld. Christian is said to have made transphobic remarks about someone online and questioned the motives of a non-white academic who advocated for diversity policies. One article by the columnist Juliet Samuel in The Telegraph, who read the investigatory evidence in the case, described Christian as a “social misfit with 'unpopular' opinions who did not shut up and keep their head down”. However, a university official told me that Christian has misrepresented the reasons why he left the university.
The Mill hasn’t had access to the documents relating to Christian’s case, so it’s difficult to pin down exactly what happened. But the story of the social misfit being punished for his unpopular opinions resonated with Harvey, and he wanted to start protesting on Christian’s behalf. “The problem is, if they shut down free speech, you’re not going to have a fair society,” Harvey says. “If you don’t have free speech, you’re going to end up in a society of cloned individuals.” So in March, he got on a train to Manchester.
‘A total invention’
“We are here today for John,” Harvey screamed into his microphone. Last weekend was Students Against Tyranny’s second protest in Manchester, after a disastrous first attempt in March. We are outside Blackwells bookshop on Oxford Road, and he’s flanked by around two dozen supporters of Students Against Tyranny. The police have formed a human barricade around Harvey and his rabble. Some of them are students, but it appears as though most of the people he’s rallied are supporters from other groups like British Lions for Freedom and Reform UK — many of them skew thin, white, and middle aged.
Members of Antifa form a line behind the police and scream over their shoulders, and Ashraf has a megaphone, starting the approved chant “fascist scum off our streets”. Heavy techno is blasting from a speaker to add to some vibes and a girl I recognise from a different protest is dancing, sipping a Monster Energy drink and jeering at Harvey.
“Backward retard!” a woman in a purple flowery dress shouts back at Antifa. Two young Students Against Tyranny protestors named Borna and Wes wander around, doing big laps of the stage area, looking slightly overwhelmed. Wes appears sweaty, with a look in his eye like he’s spaced out while watching TV.
Harvey explains the story that I first heard several months ago and which I’ve been curious about since: that John Christian was a student at Manchester University who was expelled for “wrongthink”, that he was put through multiple disciplinary processes, that he and all other students deserve justice.
The first protest in March, was by all accounts, a disaster for Students Against Tyranny. Antifa, a group that ranges from students to older activists wearing Extinction Rebellion hoodies, got word that a far-right group would be in town and organised a sizable counterprotest in response. In videos of that day, you can see Harvey standing outside University Place on Oxford Road, completely surrounded by Antifa protestors and police. He’s holding a microphone and looking nervous. “Fascist scum,” someone screams at him, and he smiles awkwardly.
Today, there’s more tension in the air and a much bigger turnout. It’s clear both protest groups despise each other. But John Christian is still a bit of a mystery to me. He isn’t here at the demo, and I haven’t met anyone who knows him. Some people I meet don’t believe that John Christian really exists, that he might be some kind of urban legend that exists in the minds of right-wing activists to rally their troops. “We haven’t ever seen him,” Mike, an activist from the Socialist Workers Party, says. “A couple of times we’ve thought, ‘are they going to produce some supposedly victimised person who’s going to make a dramatic speech?’ And they never have. It seems to be a total invention.”
The ambiguity about John Christian leaves the Antifa protesters in a strange position too — are they turning out on a Saturday to protest against the valorisation of someone who has been invented by a bunch of students who spend too much time online? Are they getting played? “I’ve never seen him personally,” says Conie, who is holding a purple banner that says “Gays Against Nazis”. “But the central point is, wherever there’s transphobes, wherever there’s the far right, wherever there’s racism or sexism or anything else, we should be opposing it.”
When I speak to two activists from Students Against Tyranny, Borna and Wes, Borna admits that he is also unsure. “I haven’t seen any evidence that he exists, personally,” he says. But then Wes cuts in and tells me he’s spoken to John Christian before. I ask him what he was like and what they spoke about, and he shrugs, unable or unwilling to reveal any further detail.
I call Ashraf a few days later to go over the day’s events. When I left, the action was dying down and the Antifa activists were encouraging people to get home safely. Ashraf seems concerned about what Students Against Tyranny were saying. She says she picked up anti semitic comments in some of the speeches, though she doesn’t remember the details, and says she was approached by protestors who called her a “paedophile”.
“I think we have to recognise there are a lot of desperate people out there,” she says, citing loneliness and the cost of living crisis as reasons people might start looking to the far-right for answers. “All our information shows that when these organisations come into town, there is violence. They encourage division in our communities.”
When I call Harvey, I ask why he thinks Antifa would suggest that John Christian doesn’t exist. “They’re saying we’re Nazis, hiding under the guise of free speech, and they say we made up this guy to fly a false flag,” he says, sounding irritated. “We’re not trying to do that at all. We’ve seen emails and receipts. I’ve actually met this guy.”
A few minutes after I hang up, Harvey sends me a WhatsApp message with a phone number, and a voice note. “Hiya Mollie, I’ve just spoken to John,” he says in a voice note. “He’s willing to speak.”
The fall of John Christian
At 7am one morning this week, I was making coffee when I got a call from John Christian. He was on his way to work, and said he was willing to tell me about his experience at the university and what went wrong. Christian — who did not tell me his real name — is a Roman Catholic and describes himself as a “bit eccentric”, someone who gets animated when talking about his political and religious beliefs.
He says it all started when someone found out that he’d voted for Brexit, and announced it in the middle of a lecture. “I just remember it being very weird, like a room of 100 people or so were all looking at me,” he says. “That was the source of all my problems.” He says he would be invited to the pub on a Friday night where other students would question his beliefs about abortion, Donald Trump and who he voted for in local elections. “What I didn’t realise was these students were activists,” he says, confused that his friends seemed to be turning on him.
The things he said during those pub trips would result in his first disciplinary meeting with the university. Three more would follow — one after he confronted his professor who made a compalint after he told a student that the reason more women weren’t joining the physics department was because men and women have different interests. “The complaint was I’d said that women are stupid,” he tells me. “Which is laughable.” (I have not seen the complaint, nor spoken to anyone else present on that occasion.) Another occurred after his supervisor complained that he wasn’t taking the disciplinary process seriously, and another when he told a transgender woman over an Instagram message that she wasn’t a real woman.
Does he see how that could be hurtful to someone, regardless of whether he thinks it’s true? “I can see why they might be unhappy to hear that,” he says. “But fundamentally I think to agree with someone who says ‘I’m a woman’ when you know they’re not, I think that is harming them more than agreeing with them. I don’t know what is causing gender dysphoria but there must be a solution to it, not a solution that says we will do life-changing surgeries and make you reliant on drug-taking.”
During the last year of his PhD, he says he was working from home and was no longer invited to research meetings. When he was prevented from submitting his thesis after that final disciplinary, no one contacted him to check in. “They pretended I didn’t exist, which was a bit hurtful,” he says, except for a friend who told him recently that he spent a lot of time keeping an eye on Christian, texting him to make sure he was OK because he was worried he was going to kill himself.
In January, Christian appeared on Unity News Network, a highly conspiratorial online news channel based in Manchester, to tell his story and promote his fundraiser. He was looking to raise £90,000 in order to pay legal fees to take the university to the high court. He says he only managed to raise around 2% of what he needed and a few months ago he shut the website down.
He remembers chatting to Harvey on the phone around that time about the story, but denies ever meeting him. He adds that he’s never spoken to Wes, and that he’s only “vaguely aware of his existence”.
Our conversation turns to the protests sparked by his case. Everyone I spoke to at the demo mentioned John Christian — after all, that’s why Harvey and his band of campaigners came to Manchester in the first place.
“Oh, I wasn’t aware of that,” he says, sounding as surprised by my question as I am by his extremely unexpected response. “Who are Students Against Tyranny?”
‘A hard on for Hitler’
Later that day, I found a video on Twitter and sent it to my editor because it clearly shifted the story into new territory. “Call me when you’ve watched this,” I wrote.
The video is a compilation of appearances James Harvey has made online, posted by the protest group Far Right Watch in Wales. It shows him making monkey noises when referring to the Somali national anthem and saying white Britons are existentially threatened because of mass immigration. On one livestream, he trots out a classic trope of entirely discredited Holocaust denial: “You look into Hitler and what the Nazi Party did — and I'm not defending them at all — but six million Jews weren't killed. If you look at the concentration camps, most of them weren't equipped with gas chambers.”
I’m annoyed with myself for not finding the video before, but it reveals a different side to him that I didn’t experience at the protest or hear on the phone. It’s one thing to be concerned about vaccines and threats to free speech, real or imagined. It’s quite another to spread crank rhetoric that far-right figures often use to suggest that Jews have exaggerated the scale of the Holocaust for political gain or that Hitler has been unfairly maligned. There is a broad consensus among historians of the Holocaust that approximately six million Jews were killed — four million in extermination camps, two million through shooting, or dying of disease.
I’m aware that I’m dealing with a 19-year-old here, not a seasoned activist. But the video puts a very different spin on Harvey’s campaign about John Christian and the motivation for his protests in Manchester, so I call him up again to ask him to explain.
“You're on video saying six million Jews weren’t killed in the Holocaust,” I tell Harvey.
“No, actually what I said in the video, wait, what video are we talking about?” he asks. “Because there’s two of them.”
I direct him to the video I had found, which shows him sitting next to a Swansea activist named Dan Morgan from the conspiracy theory channel Voice of Wales.
“What I meant by that is throughout history we’ve always been lied to, so we don’t know the exact number of Jews that were killed,” he says. “It could have been 15 million, 10 million, six million, whatever, right?”
Then, he backpedals. “Do you believe that six million Jews died in the Holocaust?” I ask.
“No, well yeah, I do,” he says. “I’ll happily say that I believe six million Jews were killed, yeah.”
So why did he say the opposite?
“In the context of the conversation, we were talking about things throughout history that we don’t know the truth about,” he says.
But it’s an accepted historical fact — so why does he feel uncertain about it? At this, he gets nervous and defensive. “No, look, I’m just saying, you know, I mean look how quickly all the mainstream media was to call me a Nazi. I’m not a Nazi,” he says, seemingly referring to an article in left-wing online newspaper Voice.Wales, who often write about the far-right. “I’ve distanced myself from the Nazi groups, I’ve distanced myself from anyone who has a hard on for Hitler.”
He adds that his grandfather and great-grandfather were both Jewish. It gives the impression of someone who wants to have it both ways — appearing reasonable and normal, while also casting uncertainty on an incontrovertible historical fact about the atrocities Nazi regime.
When I ask him about the part of the video where he calls for an end to mass immigration, he speaks more confidently. “I believe in about 20 years, if immigration increases at the rate it is now, then that is a huge risk,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to preserve our culture. And the issue is if we allow this to happen, we will be outnumbered. And I obviously don’t want to sound like a racist here, because that’s usually how the media tries to spin it, but I think that preserving our culture is an OK thing to do.”
Then, when we move on to him talking about the Somali national anthem and him doing a monkey impression, he says there’s additional context I need to know about for the video to make sense.
“What’s the context?” I ask
“Uhh, there’s a video afterwards, I’ll have to find it,” he says. He starts stalling, offering to find the video and explain it to me. He then goes off on a tangent about the next section of the livestream showing a video of a homeless man dancing and says that his discussions during livestreams are “very diverse” and “constantly fluctuating” and “we bring up videos and articles and stuff like that”. It’s unclear what he means, but he seems to be trying to suggest he was impersonating a homeless man dancing — not a monkey.
“But when Dan asks you a question, what is the Somali national anthem, and you respond with monkey sounds, that’s not you being part of the next section of the livestream talking about a homeless man dancing, that’s you responding to his question.”
“No, absolutely not,” he says. “I promise you I never compared Somalians to monkeys. 100%. That is racism, and not what we stand for at Students Against Tyranny.”
“So if I saw this whole video, I’d see-”
“It looks racist, I’ll give you that, it looks racist,” he cuts in. “It 100% looks racist, so you can do with that what you will, it does look racist, I know it looks racist, so yeah.”
‘I am not having anything to do with it’
When Christian tells me he doesn’t know about the protests being organised in his name, we both go quiet. I tell him some of what I’ve learned about the group — though at this stage, I don’t know about the video where Harvey calls the Holocaust into question or likens Somali people to monkeys.
I tell Christian about the protests outside hotels housing refugees, conspiracies about 15-minute cities, the fact that some Antifa activists think they have associations with the far right. “I’m a bit worried about what you’ve said,” he says. “I’m certainly not aware of them being associated with the far right.”
This is a profoundly strange moment — the protest movement’s biggest hero is asking me what the group is really about. He claims not to realise that his narrative has travelled far and wide, and that the story of John Christian has become a cause people are willing to fight for.
Our call becomes awkward, so I joke that maybe he should come along to one of the protests to see for himself. “That’s not really my kind of thing,” he says. “I just like to stay at home and do my physics research. It all sounds a bit noisy.”
He adds that in a way, it’s nice that Harvey has been enthusiastic about trying to raise awareness of his story, but he says he doubts he’ll have any success. “He’s a nice guy, that guy,” Christian says. “He’s probably a bit like myself. He sees this as an injustice, and in a couple of years, he’ll probably come to the same realisation as myself, that you can’t do anything about this. And in two years, you’ll never hear from him again.”
After I’ve seen the videos of Harvey, I ask Christian if we can speak again. But when we get on the call, it transpires he’s already spoken to Harvey over the phone. Christian says he was “concerned by what he said”.
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” he says. “I want nothing to do with this. Goodbye.” Then, he hangs up.
Is Christian an outspoken conservative who had a bad time at university and wasn’t sensitive enough when sharing his opinions, or someone who supports far-right conspiracy theories and extremism? This feels important to understand because I want to know if Harvey has tried to exploit Christian as a pawn — if he’s tried to deceive him as well as me.
On the one hand, Christian claims to be unwitting about the way in which his name is being used. But the reasons he was dismissed by the university are still unclear, and in his online interview, he mentions being assisted by the Traditional Britain Group, a secretive discussion society that has in the past hosted Holocaust deniers and white nationalists. Was he aware of all of that?
I contact him one final time via WhatsApp. This time he’s distancing himself from the group that has been protesting in his name. “I am not associated with anything to do with Holocaust-denying groups,” he writes. “I am not having anything to do with it.”
Later that evening, I see a new video in Students Against Tyranny’s Telegram group. Harvey has posted a vlog saying I’m a “scumbag” journalist from the far left writing a “hit piece” on him to attempt to get Christian to condemn Students Against Tyranny so that it “undermines the work we are doing in Manchester”.
“I know exactly what you’re doing,” he says in the vlog. Meanwhile, Students Against Tyranny is moving ahead with planning their next protest in Manchester — with or without their martyr.