Those who know nothing on Russian interference can’t be blamed for anything

The Russia report’s chief conclusion is a Socrates/Rumsfeld mishmash. The main worry, though, is that no one has a clue what to do about it

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Tuesday 21 July 2020 17:48 BST
Government 'actively avoided' evidence of Russian interference in Brexit as long-awaited report released

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Ten years ago, I had the pleasure of watching England’s 4-1 World Cup humiliation by Germany at a party at the German embassy in London.

You might recall that the score at half time was a mere 2-1, and that five minutes earlier Frank Lampard had had an equalising goal disallowed, despite the ball crossing the line by more than a yard (the goal, as it happens, that finally caused Fifa to embrace technology and, within a decade, ruin football entirely).

It is fair to say the Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen half-time coverage took a different angle to that of the BBC. Within a minute old black and white pictures had been dug out of a controversial goal, awarded by a Soviet linesman, in a fairly well-known match at Wembley in 1966.

Over the last 50 years, the German media has invested unimaginable resources looking into that goal. The pictures have been enhanced, Hawk-Eye technology retroactively applied to it. As far as they are concerned, it has been definitively proved that the ball did not cross the line.

All of which is a very long way of saying that people tend to care more about Russian interference when the result doesn’t go their way.

It has come as a shock almost to no one that there is precious little by way of shocking evidence to be found in the Intelligence and Security Committee’s so-called “Russia report”, which has been finally published after a still-not-very-well-explained nine-month delay.

The scandal, as ever, is not what’s in it but what’s not. The Intelligence and Security Committee, whose sole remit, don’t forget, is to scrutinise the work of the secret intelligence services, found precious little work available to be scrutinised.

The Russia report’s chief conclusion is a sort of part Socrates, part Donald Rumsfeld mishmash. Russian interference in UK politics a knowingly unknown known. Wise is the man who chooses to know nothing, so he cannot be blamed for anything.

The report does not contain conclusive proof of Russian interference in UK politics, because the UK’s intelligence services have not, as far as they can tell, ever properly investigated the matter.

Its most damning finding is the distinction it draws between US intelligence services, who two months after the election of Donald Trump had produced and published a comprehensive report into attempts by Kremlin news sites, bots and hackers to influence the outcome.

'We do not see a any point of interference': Russia's ambassador to UK says

Meanwhile, after the 2016 EU referendum, which was dogged by allegations of Russian interference just as the US election was, no comparable investigation ever took place. There were Arron Banks’s highly unusual meetings with the Russian ambassador, there was Nigel Farage being declared a “person of interest” in the FBI’s investigation into the links between Trump and Russia. But none of this, the report’s authors have concluded, was deemed worthy of detailed investigation by the UK’s intelligence services.

A spokesperson for the prime minister would later state that they “haven’t seen any evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum”.

The whole point is that nobody has looked.

Perhaps it is better not to know, after all. In a televised press conference on Tuesday morning, the SNP’s Stewart Hosie said the following words: “The report reveals that no one in government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the [Brexit] referendum because they did not want to know.”

And you don’t need a report that knows what it doesn’t know in order to know what is very clear to see. No one is denying Russian state propaganda news like RT and Sputnik, or that Russian bot and troll farms exist. And once you accept they exist, no one can credibly deny what they are for.

It’s hardly a shock that foreign states seek to influence the outcome of elections in other countries. There has been no report into whether Barack Obama turned up in the UK in early 2016, stood next to David Cameron and publicly endorsed Remain.

The subtle difference is that Obama backed Remain because he wanted a strong United Kingdom as a crucial ally. Putin wanted Brexit because he wanted to accelerate British decline. He got his wish.

The interventions of foreign governments are somewhat less controversial when they have the host nations’ best interests at heart. It is more of a worry when they are malignant, and successful.

The main worry, though, is that no one has a clue what to do about it. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, was in London on Tuesday afternoon to talk tough on China but not say very much about Russia.

It’s not a coincidence that the rise of authoritarian governments around the world is being facilitated by the decline of open, democratic ones who can’t really work out what to do, in a digital age, about the ease with which hostile states can access and subvert the free speech rights they don’t give to their own people.

Trouble is, problems in democracies only tend to get solved when their outcomes are bad for those in power, which for obvious structural reasons, is very rarely the way of things.

For as long as Britain and Russia are facing in the same direction on Brexit, no one will be inclined to look anywhere difficult.

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