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Telegraph and Spectator Mislead on Parliament Committee’s Russia Report

From the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament’s Russia Report:

There have been widespread public allegations that Russia sought to influence the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. The impact of any such attempts would be difficult – if not impossible – to assess, and we have not sought to do so. However, it is important to establish whether a hostile state took deliberate action with the aim of influencing a UK democratic process, irrespective of whether it was successful or not.

This amounts to a common-sense general observation, rather than some specialist “intelligence” assessment based on privileged information. Despite this obvious context, though, it has suited the purposes of some media outlets to extract the first two sentences and present the report to the public as some sort of intelligence service finding that demonstrates that there was no Russian attempt to influence the Brexit vote, or, if there was such an attempt, of necessity it can never be detected.

Thus the front page of the Daily Telegraph announced that “Long-awaited report… says there was no influence on Brexit”, while Brendan O’Neill at the Spectator‘s interpretation was that

There is still no hard evidence that Russia interfered in the EU referendum. What’s more, it would be ‘difficult — if not impossible — to prove’ the existence of Russian meddling… The quote… comes from the Intelligence and Security Committee’s long-awaited Russia report, published this morning.

It is difficult to accept that this misreading is in good faith: the Report makes it clear that evidence pertaining to the “existence of Russian meddling” has not been sought, but that an attempt should be made to “establish” whether or not it occurred. What cannot be determined, though, is the effect of such action. This is true of a great deal of advertising and political messaging, and in the case of Brexit the way people chose to vote (or not) was determined by a wide range of factors. The theory that “Russia” explains what happened is clearly excessive, but there is no need to rule out the possibility of any influence whatsoever.

O’Neill’s position is ideological – the possibility of Russian influence is a “conspiracy theory”, and the success of the Brexit vote can be explained simply in terms of a virtuous majority who dislike the European Union in principle, in contrast to a “Remainer elite”.

For the Telegraph, in contrast, there is also a political imperative – thus the article’s headline and lede are that

Russia ‘tried to meddle in Scottish Vote’

Russia tried to ‘influence’ the result of the Scottish independence referendum but not the Brexit vote…

The basis for this is a section in the Committee’s report which notes “There has been credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014”. However, this is mentioned as a reason for why the EU referendum should be looked at as well, not as a contrast to it, as misrepresented by the Telegraph.

The Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser is now calling for “a full inquiry into ongoing Russian interference in Scottish politics”, although he has not (as far as I know) expressed any related criticism of Boris Johnson for suppressing the Committee Report for so long, nor has he delved into the “open source commentary” that the Report cites, and which shows that this isn’t even a new story: it refers readers to “the study by Ben Nimmo – #ElectionWatch: Scottish Vote, Pro-Kremlin Trolls, 12 December 2017.”

Another “look over there!” allegation of Russian interference was made by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab as a spoiler ahead of the report’s publication. This concerned trade negotiation documents that were leaked online last summer – the Telegraph ran an article based on them in August, and they did the rounds online for a few months before the Labour Party decided to make them a discussion point ahead of the December election. At this point the Telegraph hypocritically accused Labour of benefiting from a Russian leak, and Raab’s intervention was simply a resurrection of the same story. I discussed this a couple of days ago.

Footnote

It appears that O’Neill’s quote is actually from a press release that was published alongside the Report itself, which is why he has “proved” rather than “assessed”. Either way, though, there is no excuse for his misreading of the wider argument:

The actual impact of such attempts on the result itself would be difficult – if not impossible – to prove. However what is clear is that the Government was slow to recognise the existence of the threat – only understanding it after the ‘hack and leak’ operation against the Democratic National Committee, when it should have been seen as early as 2014. As a result the Government did not take action to protect the UK’s process in 2016. The Committee has not been provided with any post-referendum assessment – in stark contrast to the US response to reports of interference in the 2016 presidential election. In our view there must be an analogous assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum.

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