Some Notes on the Sunday Mail Integrity Initiative Story

(expanded post)

This one is being widely discussed: from the Sunday Mail, the sister paper of the Scottish Daily Record:

A secret UK Government-funded infowars unit based in Scotland sent out social media posts attacking Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.

On the surface, the cryptically named Institute for Statecraft is a small charity operating from an old Victorian mill in Fife.

But explosive leaked documents passed to the Sunday Mail reveal the organisation’s Integrity Initiative is funded with £2million of Foreign Office cash and run by military intelligence specialists.

The “think tank” is supposed to counter Russian online propaganda by forming “clusters” of friendly journalists and “key influencers” throughout Europe who use social media to hit back against disinformation.

The article is the sequel to one that appeared the week before, headlined “Derelict Scottish mill is shadowy hub in UK’s fight against Putin’s propaganda machine”, which told us that:

For the tiny number of people aware of its existence, Gateside Mills is a derelict building in rural Fife without any obvious signs of life.

Anyone curious enough to carry out further investigation might find a seemingly small Scottish charity is registered there.

But the Sunday Mail can reveal the crumbling Victorian mill is actually the official headquarters of the controversial Institute for Statecraft (IFS) – a shadowy “think tank” whose Integrity Initiative programme has been set up to combat Russian propaganda.

The Integrity Initiative came to attention last month, after internal documents were leaked online – ostensibly by Anonymous – and then publicised by the Russian propaganda website Sputnik. These seem to be the same documents that are now described as having been “passed to the Sunday Mail“. Articles also appeared on the conspiracy website UK Column; one of these, posted on the same day as the first Sunday Mail piece, also included references to the supposed “derelict” state of Gateside Mills, and has now been commended by the left-wing activist Aaron Bastani, despite UK Column‘s Satanic Ritual Abuse conspiracy mongering and other extravagances.

I’m not convinced that this is in fact much of a story at all, for several reasons.

First, the “social media posts attacking Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party” consist of a handful of Tweets that refer to critical newspaper and magazine commentaries: these include an article by Edward Lucas published in The Times in February, from which Integrity Initiative extracted a quote referring to Corbyn as a “useful idiot”, and two pieces by Oz Katerji from September: first, “The Kremlin has weaponised doubt in Syria – and Labour is helping”, which appeared in the New Statesman, and second, “Skripal poisoning: It’s time for the Corbyn left to confront its Putin problem”, which appeared on Politics.co.uk (Katerji has now responded on Twitter).

These are not “smears” – they are reasonable criticisms, and comparable to Tweets about other parties (tweeting a Times story in October: “Tory peers told to come clean about Russia links Peers across parties are on Russian payroll”). Apparently, the Integrity Initiative’s spokesman has conceded that Tweets attacking politicians ought to have been posted, but he seems to be making to a general statement without much familiarity with the organisation’s Twitter feed – the Tweets cannot be described as unreasonable, and if they breach the conditions of FCO funding then those conditions seem to me to be too restrictive.

Second, the Tweets publicise material of which Integrity Initiative obviously approves, but it is disproportionate to extrapolate a campaign (or a “psy-op”, to use a term preferred by the shrillest voices) against Labour based on such minimal and selective evidence. The Integrity Initiative’s Twitter feed is overwhelmingly about other subjects than the Labour Party. (1)

Third, the allegation is back to front: the material Tweeted by Integrity Initiative is obviously criticising Labour figures for their stance on Russia, and by extension Syria, rather than using Russia as an excuse to attack Labour – in this context, the “smear” motive makes no sense.

Fourth, “‘clusters’ of friendly journalists and ‘key influencers'” indicates affinity rather than conspiracy. That an organisation opposed to Russian disinformation might like to build links with journalists who are also opposed to Russian disinformation is hardly a surprise. We are not provided with any examples where we should reassess the significance and credibility of a story or commentary in the media because of the supposed influence of Integrity Initiative. The organisation has issued a statement on the subject, confirming that in fact that many of the names listed in its documents were simply potential contacts for events.

And fifth, while Gateside Mills is out of the way, it does not appear to be derelict. There is a least one business also based at the site, and both the Sunday Mail and UK Column articles show that the front of building bears a sign in good repair that says “Gateside Mills Centre of Creativity & Design” (2). It appears that some demolition work is going on around the back of the building (involving some garages and a former covered walkway), but a photo posted to the site’s Facebook page in August shows the same area in a reasonable condition. The owner is apparently still advertising for new businesses to join the site, and he or she has also posted a jocular and dismissive comment apparently aimed at the first Sunday Mail report (“Followed your instructions comradski. Cyanide pill as fake as news report”). The air of mystery around the location thus seems to me to be contrived.

I’m not adverse to keeping a critical eye on relations between the media and other actors – in many cases, we read about things not simply because inherent “news value” drives them to the front page, but because of links between journalists and particular politicians, think-tanks, or self-promoting “experts”. However, in this instance my curiously and scepticism are directed more towards the Sunday Mail itself than the subject of its supposed exposé.

Footnotes

1. The Labour Press Team Tweet from yesterday reported “@EmilyThornberry responds to media reports that a government-funded Infowars operation has been engaged in political attacks against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party”. I assume that the capitalisation of “Infowars” (which also appears in the related press release) was an accident, but it gives the false impression that the government had been funding Alex Jones.

2. The Sunday Mail photo of the back of the building is credited to the Sunday Mail, and the UK Column image of the same area (taken from a different angle) to David Scott. In both images the weather is damp, but there seems to be more cloud cover in the UK Column image. Perhaps, then, the publication of both images on the same day was a coincidence.

Operation Midland’s “Nick” Named as Carl Beech

The Times reports:

The man whose allegations sparked Scotland Yard’s disastrous paedophile inquiry can today be revealed as a former NHS manager, school governor and father of one.

Carl Stephen Beech, 50, is the man who has been known publicly only as Nick since 2014 when Scotland Yard launched Operation Midland based on his claims of murder and abuse by a paedophile ring.

Mr Beech… faces 12 charges of perverting the course of justice and one of fraud after the collapse of one of the Met’s most prominent inquiries. He is accused of profiting from alleged lies about murder, abuse and torture by fraudulently claiming £22,000 from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. [1]

…Scotland Yard’s £2.5 million inquiry relied solely on Mr Beech’s abuse claims that he made against VIPs including Lord Bramall, 94, the Normandy veteran and former chief of defence staff, and Harvey Proctor, a former Conservative MP. Both were interviewed under caution during the 18-month inquiry before they were exonerated in 2016. 

The development has been reported in various newspapers – the Daily Telegraph has even put him on the front page. 

Carl Beech’s identity was not much of a secret – “jigsaw” identification has been possible for a long time, and in 2016 Associated Newspapers was fined after it published his photo with such minimal pixelation that he could be readily identified by anyone who knew him (see below). He has also previously been named by various individuals on social media.

The removal of Beech’s right to anonymity is an important step in achieving justice for those who were targeted by Operation Midland, in that while their alleged accuser remained in the shadows a thoroughgoing dismantling of the false allegations attributed to him by police and media has been impossible – thus despite the police exoneration, users of an #IBelieveNick hashtag have continued to assert the guilt of those who were falsely accused. It also remains to be told how the allegations were promoted by various groups and politicians, and the simple fact that we can now say that Nick’s real name is Carl opens new avenues here.

However, we are not quite at the destination: Beech will not face trial until May, and in the meantime we must take care to avoid writing anything that might be prejudicial or subject to reporting restrictions. Beech’s lawyer has indicated that his client intends to contest the allegations, and we do not know what defence may be offered – that is why I am careful to refer to claims attributed to Beech. I make no comment or speculation here about what Beech may have said to police or why. That does not mean, though, that we must pretend to be agnostic about false allegations. It will be Beech on trial next year, not the Operation Midland suspects [2].

The poorly pixelated photo of Carl Beech (“Nick”) that led to Associated Newspapers being fined in 2016. Note that the pixelation virtually disappears when the image is made smaller.

Footnotes

1. According to the Daily Mail:

The fraud charge alleges that he falsely claimed £22,000 in criminal injuries compensation by saying ‘he was subjected to abuse by a paedophile ring, knowing this to be untrue and intending thereby to make a gain for himself’.

Both reports could have been clearer that this relates to one particular allegation attributed to Beech, concerning one specific public figure. There seems to be no good reason why this person is not named, but without further guidance I won’t mention him either.

2 . Limits around what can be said at the moment may also be used opportunistically. Thus the journalist Mark Watts writes on Twitter that:

Part of the complication for media re naming is that there are allegations of child sexual abuse made by ‘Nick’ where he has not been charged with attempting to pervert course of justice or fraud.

This may imply that some allegations are stronger than others, and that the prosecution is being selective. However, allegations attributed to Nick include claims against people who are dead. In such cases, it is impossible to pervert the course of justice because there can be no trial; and the lack of any fraud allegation may merely indicate that no compensation was ever sought.