Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 8 March 2022

Information wars


Contrast public perception in the UK of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with the US and UK invasion of Iraq. There is, rightly, no attempt to balance the reality of what is going on in Ukraine with Putin’s propaganda. National self-determination for Ukraine is being overridden by the use of lethal force based on the fantasies of empire by one man, or a small group of men around him. But the reality of the Iraq war was not so different. The invasion was the project of one man, George Bush, or a small group of men around him, with the UK following because our Prime Minister thought he should.

Yet with Iraq public perceptions were different, because the misinformation was coming from our own governments. We were told there were stocks of chemical weapons that could be used against us, or at least our allies, whereas in reality there were no chemical weapons. The bigger lie in the US was that Iraq was somehow linked to Al-Qaeda, whereas anyone with any knowledge knew that this was nonsense. We were freeing Iraq from a tyrant, whereas in reality we were undertaking a national rebuilding process with little idea of how to go about it, with what turned out to be disastrous consequences.

Information is crucial, and what information people are given, or choose to believe, can determine the outcomes of elections just as they can determine how wars are perceived. The influence of Russian money on the UK Conservative party, and on certain UK elections, has been public knowledge for many years for anyone who cares to look, but it has taken Putin’s war against Ukraine to make this knowledge more widely known.

We can start with our Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He overruled advice from the security forces (e.g. MI6) and made Evgeny Lebedev a Lord of the realm. Lebedev’s father was the senior KGB spy in London in 1988 and is a pro-Kremlin oligarch with interests in Russia, supporting Vladimir Putin and his annexation of Crimea. Evgeny Lebedev is also one of the UK’s press oligarchs, owning the Independent and the Standard. Johnson even got involved in where the government placed advertising contracts, to ensure his newspapers got a significant share. Johnson’s relationship with him goes back a long way. When he was Foreign Secretary, he slipped his Metropolitan Police protection officers to attend parties at Evgeny Lebedev’s palazzo. Was he compromised in some way at these parties?

The Conservative party, and a number of government ministers, have accepted large sums of money from Russian oligarchs. None of this money has been returned by the party as a result of Putin’s war. The party co-chair, Ben Elliot, runs a company providing a “concierge” service for the super-wealthy that has counted many Russians among its clients. He remains in post.

All this matters because we know that part of Putin’s war with the West has involved attempts to influence elections, including the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election as US president. An all-party report on Russian links (the ‘Russia report’) was delayed repeatedly by No.10 Downing Street. It concluded that the government can only say there is no evidence that such attempts have been successful because it hasn’t looked for the evidence, presumably because it doesn’t want to.

If Johnson and the government wanted to show that all this money and influence would not compromise their actions in response to Putin’s war on Ukraine, they have failed miserably.

So far the UK, possibly the only country in Europe to insist on a visa for Ukrainian refugees, has accepted only 50 refugees, just 1% of those who have applied, out of a total of an estimated 1.5 million refugees in Europe as a whole. France accused the UK of a "lack of humanity", saying that 150 refugees were turned back at Calais for lacking a visa.

According to Chris Bryant on 4th March, “following the invasion of Ukraine, the UK has imposed targeted sanctions on 34 individuals or entities. The EU has imposed over 500 targeted sanctions; the US over 200. Of the “Navalny 35” list, UK 8, EU 19, US 15. UK has only imposed sanctions on 11 Putin oligarchs so far.” The EU has urged the UK to act faster before assets are spirited away, yet the UK measures seem designed to do the opposite. According to the Times, the government has cut the budget of the anti-corruption unit tasked with investigating dirty Russian money in “Londongrad”. Finally it must not be forgotten how this government appears to be following Putin’s authoritarian example. Just as Russia jails those protesting about the war, soon our government will have the power to jail protesters for just making a noise.

All this suggests a direct link between the UK’s relatively slow response to the invasion of Ukraine, and the strong dependence of Conservative ministers and the party on Russian money. We should be targeting Putin, not the Russian people, Johnson claims. But is there any evidence that Johnson or others in government have put any effort into distinguishing between the two? When other bodies do flag misgivings on that account, Johnson overrules their advice. Everything the government does, once you look closely, allows them to continue to keep the Russian money flowing to them.

Yet ironically, the talk among Conservative MPs, which will be echoed in large parts of our oligarch’s press, is that the Prime Minister is having a good war. Wars where you are a bystander and do little but sound righteous make good copy, it seems. The reality is that, thanks to Brexit, the UK is at best a bit-player in international attempts to put pressure on Putin and those around him, and at worst an embarrassment because we have so much Russian oligarch money in London and have done so little about it. But those around the Conservative party think the war, and plenty of the usual lies and bluster from the Prime Minister, will put partygate behind them.

Among those MPs that are pushing to invoke Article 16 because they don’t like the border checks in the Irish Sea which they originally signed up to, there are those that see a new opportunity following the additional hike to energy prices created by the war. They want to roll back on our climate change commitments. Not content with damaging the country, they want to help destroy the planet as well. Johnson seems to be sympathetic, in part for reasons discussed here.

If they get any kind of hearing in the broadcast media, you will know that the wrong side is winning the information war. The obvious way to reduce our dependence on the global price of oil and gas is to speed up the development of alternative sources of cheaper energy, precisely what this group wants to slow down. As long as you are using significant quantities of oil and gas, you will be dependent on their global price. The more renewables we use, the more the marginal cost of energy will diverge from its (lower) average cost, and the more scope there will be to recycle energy company profits back to help vulnerable consumers. Yet these same MPs are opposed to doing even that. They are using the same topsy turvy logic that created Brexit’s ‘Global Britain’, a country that now does less global trade with the rest of the world following Brexit, and doesn't like to mix with foreigners.

Most of us are powerless in information wars, just as we are powerless in Putin’s war on Ukraine. These information battles are not won on twitter or in blog posts, but in editorial decisions by broadcasters and, occasionally, by editors of right wing newspapers. We can only hope, that after partygate and with the obvious failures of Brexit, the broadcast media becomes rather less deferential towards the Prime Minister and the party he leads.

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