There are times when you think that the media in the English-speaking world can’t possible get any worse; that’s it’s finally plumbed the depths; that the ignorance and hysteria have become so great that it’s got to turn around soon. And then you read something which just makes you shake your head in despair, and ask. ‘Don’t these guys check anything? Don’t they know anything? Or do they just not care?’ We’re told to be endlessly on our guard about ‘fake news’ and disinformation flooding the internet from troll factories in St Petersburg and the editorial offices of RT, but are they really worse than the Daily Mail? Here’s today’s Mail on Sunday front page:
In the newspaper’s lead story, Simon Walters and Glen Owen recount an alleged link between my old Oxford Union contemporaries and now government British ministers, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove on the one hand, and Russian president Vladimir Putin on the other, telling us breathlessly that,
A Russian link to Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s successful plot to persuade Theresa May to take a tougher stance on Brexit has been uncovered by the Mail on Sunday.
This sounds exciting: Boris and Michael as unwitting agents of the Kremlin! The article continues:
This newspaper has established that a secret letter sent by the Cabinet Ministers to the Prime Minister was co-ordinated by a senior figure in a free-market think-tank founded by a tycoon who made a fortune in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Sounds damning, huh? So what is the think-tank in question? It’s the Legatum Institute, which as the Daily Mail points out, was ‘set up using some of the fortune that secretive New Zealand-born tycoon Christopher Chandler made with brother Richard from a string of investments, some of which were made during the “wild capitalism” of the post-Soviet economy.’ Christopher Chandler, says the newspaper, ‘also helped President Vladimir Putin’s associates to take control of Russia’s state energy giant Gazprom.’
In their article, Walters and Owen reveal that the Legatum Institute’s economics director, Shanker Singham, helped Johnson and Gove write an ultimatum which they sent to Prime Minister May demanding that she ‘force Chancellor Philip Hammond to do more to plan for a “hard Brexit”.’ So there you have it. The Legatum Institute’s founder got his money from business deals in Russia, including a deal with Gazprom; the Legatum Institute’s finance director helped Johnson and Gove write their letter; ergo, there’s a ‘Putin link to Boris and Gove Brexit Coup’. Consequently, the Mail On Sunday reports, ‘Today one leading MP called for an investigation by Parliament’s intelligence and security committee into the Legatum Institute and its influence on the Government.’
Oh, the joy! This is ironic! And not a little bit funny. The Legatum Institute as a subversive Kremlin agent. I’m having a very quiet giggle at this one.
Let’s be honest. I’m not at all inclined to come to the Legatum Institute’s defence. And I never imagined the day would come when I would say that Michael Gove had been unjustly accused. I’d be happy to defend Boris, but Michael? Until today, I’d have thought it impossible. But here goes: this article is a load of nonsense. It’s not that it’s factually incorrect – it isn’t; it’s just that story it implies – that Vladimir Putin is manipulating Brexit via Legatum, Johnson, and Gove is completely wrongheaded.
If the Mail on Sunday had taken just one second to investigate the Legatum Institute it would have worked this out for itself. Legatum’s denizens include such well known Putin-lovers as Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev. The Institute published Pomerantsev’s report (co-authored by Michael Weiss of the obviously Kremlin-controlled website, The Interpreter) The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture, and Money, which I reviewed here. In this, Pomerantsev and Weiss accused Moscow of ‘a campaign of “aggression” against the West, in order to ‘confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze”.’ Legatum has also linked up with another well-known Putin stooge, Ed Lucas of the Centre for European Policy Analysis, to produce a report on fighting Russia’s ‘information war.’ And the institute hosted a conference entitled ‘Russia: A Post-Modern Dictatorship?’ to coincide with the publication of a paper by Pomerantsev with the same title. Among those speaking at the conference were a couple of other famously pro-Kremlin Russians: Pavel Khodorkovksy (son of jailed oligarch Mikhail) and Vladimir Kara-Murza, allegedly twice poisoned for his anti-Putin politics.
Yet despite its eminently hand-shakeable views of Russia, the Legatum Institute now finds itself accused of being a puppet of the Kremlin. The Daily Express has picked up on the Mail’s story and published its own headline, ‘Russian-funded think tank “stages soft coup”,’ and the Legatum Institute has been forced to issue a statement to the effect that ‘it has no connection to influence from the Kremlin.’
In an ironic twist of fate, those shouting loudest about Russian ‘fake news’ and demanding that the West take action against RT and other Russian media outlets, are now finding themselves accused of being Russian agents. It is, of course, completely absurd. But I can’t help thinking that what goes around comes around, and that Legatum and co. have only themselves to blame for their predicament. In creating the hysteria about Russian interference in Western politics, they established the conditions which made the assault on their own position possible. If you start a witch-hunt, you shouldn’t be surprised if one day the Witchfinder General comes looking for you.