It is absolutely astounding that one of the biggest political and media stories of our time is getting such little political and media attention. What I’m referring to, of course, is the Brexit-Trump-Cambridge Analytica-Facebook-Russia story.
As you know, two polls in 2016 turned European and global politics upside down: the Brexit result in the EU referendum, and the election of tycoon-TV celebrity Donald Trump to the American presidency. Both results were dramatic and astonishing, they subverted an existing political order and felt quite cataclysmic. But now we are learning more and more about how both campaigns, and both results, were intrinsically linked not just to wealthy right-wing funding and the alt right in the US — but also to Russia.
The idea of the Russians being the sinister force striving to infiltrate and manipulate the US presidency and institutions of western governments may seem like a Hollywood movie plot to us, but in this case, truth seems to far outstrip fiction. Last week new evidence came to light that the Leave EU campaign as well as the ‘political advertising’ firm, Cambridge Analytica, linked to both Brexit and the Trump campaign were also in close contact with the Russians.
New evidence shows that Leave EU sought contact with the Russians following the rebuttal of the Russian embassy in London to Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond’s pre-referendum remark in a March 2016 speech that “the only country who would like us to leave the EU is Russia”. The robust rebuttal to this was perceived by the social media influencers working for the Leave campaign as a potential ‘tile’ i.e. an effective image for social media messaging. It has now been confirmed that following this there were several meetings between Leave EU’s Andy Wigmore, Aaron Banks (a businessman, “who gave the campaign the largest political donation in British history”), and the Russian Embassy. It was also revealed that social media harassment of the reporter leading this investigation came from both the Russians and these individuals.
The British newspaper The Guardian has been key in investigating the links between both campaigns, and right-wing, anti-establishment lobbies and a team headed by Carole Cadwalladr has pursued the story with determination and clarity. Channel 4 News has done the same, yet this political scandal has not reverberated as it should have because so many other news organisations have downplayed and undermined this very important investigation. All along the way, attempts have been made to malign and discredit the reporters and whistleblowers responsible for the revelations. And most disturbingly, Britain’s public broadcaster, the BBC, has treated the story as opinion rather than news.
As columnist Nick Cohen points out, if the broadcaster mentions the story “it treats it as boxing match in which the corporation occupies the lofty position of impartial referee” and he goes on to say “on the Brexit scandal, the BBC offers something worse than fake news: it offers no news. In this, the broadcasters are a true reflection of a compromised political system”.
The scandal has also been eclipsed worldwide because of the media environment of the hysterical TV-based 24 hour news cycle in which trivial stories are shouted out in the same tone as important stories — ‘Man bites dog’ gets the same treatment as ‘US President assassinated’. Although investigations into the Brexit and Trump campaign’s links with Cambridge Analytica and Russia are ongoing in both Britain and the US, the media has failed to bring clarity and gravity to the reporting of these.
This is a political blockbuster of a story: more gripping than any Cold War thriller and more sinister than The Manchurian Candidate. Yet despite this, we are choosing to ignore the true import of it, we are happy to overlook the money trail and the lucrative deals linked to it, and we seem to have chosen to be in denial about how we are being manipulated and used by social media firms with dodgy objectives.
Truth really is stranger than fiction. And nobody seems to want to deal with the truth anyway.
A very low point in media history…
This is an edited version of the column that appeared in print.