A Note on Isabel Oakeshott, White Flag? and the Arron Banks Emails

A blurb on the website of Biteback Publishing:

White Flag? An Examination of Britain’s Modern-Day Defence Capability

By Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott

…[D]efence spending is no longer a public priority. Politicians know that there are more votes in schools and hospitals, even while they are deploy our troops onto the streets after suicide bombings or, more recently,  a nerve agent attack. In what feels like peacetime, no wonder top brass have to justify big budgets.

Yet this country faces an array of new and escalating threats, while Brexit and Donald Trump raise difficult questions over the future of our most important alliances. Have we become dangerously complacent?

The blurb was posted on Ashcroft’s website in July last year, when it was announced as a “new project”; according to Biteback, it is due to be published in mid-September. (1)

The topic is interesting, but it is not immediately obvious that such a book would contain sensational revelations about Arron Banks’s dealings with Russia, based on emails provided by Banks to Oakeshott when she was employed to ghostwrite his book The Bad Boys of Brexit.

Yet this is what are are to infer from a statement made by Oakeshott yesterday, after the emails formed the formed the basis for two front-page splashes: an article by Carole Cadwalladr and Peter Jukes in the Observer, after a source provided them to Peter on Thursday, (2) and a group effort in the Sunday Times, after Oakeshott took her material to them as a spoiler a couple of days later. Both papers thus claimed an “exclusive” that covered similar ground.

By her own account, Oakeshott first realised the significance of the emails while researching White Flag?:

For more than a year the files I had been given gathered dust in my attic. It was not until I embarked on this investigation into the state of the British armed forces in 2017 – and public interest in Russian links with Brexit began mounting – that I decided to revisit the material.

Oakeshott says that she had missed this previously because although she had access “to about 11,000 emails” while writing Bad Boys of Brexit she “was not particularly looking for material about Russia at this point”:

I was very surprised by what I found, which conflicted with the public accounts of the relationship with the Russian embassy that Banks and [Andy] Wigmore had given.

The difficulty here is that these “public accounts” were written by by Oakeshott herself. Surely the very point of giving her the emails was so that she could flesh out their account with details such as those that later “very surprised” her? On a post on her website, she refers to having read “correspondence with politicians, journalists, the BBC, and everyone else from Posh Spice to NASA”, and that this “hilarious reading” made it possible for her and Banks “to piece together what is effectively a contemporaneous account of the referendum” (H/T Jim AK) .

Having stumbled on this scoop sitting in her own attic, the next question is why she did not immediately write it up for a newspaper. She could perhaps have argued that it would have been unethical for her to use material provided to her by a ghostwriting client for some other purpose, but that would have been in conflict with her role as a journalist and she has anyway confirmed her intention to publish:

It was always my intention to publish this information. I believe it is in the national interest… I believe it was a grave mistake on [the part of Banks and Wigmore] to forge these links [with Russia].

There is no doubt that Oakeshott is a strong critic of Putin’s Russia, but if it is in “the national interest” to publish, what was the counter-balancing interest that necessitated such a long delay before doing so?

Producing the material for the first time in a book would certainly have provided a bonanza of free publicity for the volume, but the postponement seems disproportionate. Its relevance to a book about “Britain’s Modern-Day Defence Capability” is apparently as part of a discussion of “the Kremlin’s ‘hybrid warfare’ capabilities”, but in this context it’s difficult to see how it would be anything more than a brief illustrative anecdote (and it is not a theme mentioned in the book blurb).

This, together with the story’s “hot news” value (both as regards Banks and Brexit, and Banks and Trump), and the current electoral commission investigation into Banks’s donations, suggest to me that the decision to hold back was a strange one.

Footnotes

(1) Ashcroft is the majority owner of Biteback. He and Oakeshott previously wrote Call Me Dave, a biography of David Cameron that is remembered primarily for containing scurrilous gossip about a pig’s head.

(2) Oakeshott says that her “computer was hacked” at the end of March, and that this was how the material reached Peter. As evidence, she has posted an email from Dropbox confirming that her Dropbox account had been accessed from “a public IP address”, which of course does not have implications for her actual computer.

However, Peter says that “a third party” received the emails in November, and Banks’s associate Andy Wigmore has stated that “we… know who stole them”. This implies a leak from someone inside Banks’s camp, but although that means the hacking explanation is superfluous, Wigmore refers to “hacking and theft”.

There is some confusion has about how this relates to files in Oakeshott’s attic anyway. She says in the Sunday Times that “the majority of the messages were stored electronically, but some were delivered to me in paper files”.