We have a problem with the Russian state. Senior spooks say the Kremlin’s agents are more active in this country now than at any point since the height of the Cold War.
Out of the shadows, Putin’s interference is brazen – including the Kremlin-funded ‘news’ outlets RT and Sputnik – home of conspiracy theorists, pro-Russia pundits and general anti-Western propaganda. In America, Russian interference in the US election is the subject of major investigations and adds to the stink coming from the Trump White House. In the UK, a handful of anti-Brexit MPs are now determined to pursue the theory that Russian activity across social media contributed to the Brexit vote.
The Electoral Commission has confirmed that it is “asking questions” of Facebook and Twitter in a bid to identify any efforts of a foreign government to interfere in our democratic process – and it is right that they do so. However, it does not necessarily follow that just because Russia tried to ramp up pro-Brexit sentiment online that the British public swallowed the message and were therefore inspired to vote Leave.
The Labour MP Ben Bradshaw is demanding a judge-led inquiry into the issue, and is in a lather over “hybrid social media warfare” and “impermissible donations.” Though Bradshaw’s concerns are dressed up in the language of national defence, his rhetoric amounts to little more than the latest attempt to undermine the referendum result.
There are many reasons why a slim majority of the electorate voted to leave the EU (Geoffrey Evans and Anand Menon’s excellent new book unpicks many of them) but the emergence of some overactive overseas Twitter accounts is not one of them. Bradshaw is right to be concerned about Russian activity, but wrong to suggest his fellow Brits were manipulated by social media to vote the way they did.
Radical planning reform on the cards?
Theresa May’s appointment of former chief whip Gavin Williamson as the new defence secretary has whipped up a barrage of criticism from her own MPs, many of whom claim the PM was too weak to refuse Williamson’s bid for the role. Another test of the PM’s strength is whether she can suppress growing enthusiasm in the Treasury for radical planning reform. I’m told Treasury ministers are united on the idea, but May is the mother of all Nimbys – so watch this space.
The whisky that was too good to be true
You know what it’s like: you’re a whisky fan, you find yourself in a Swiss hotel bar and you’re offered a dram of 1878 Macallan single malt – for a cool $10,000. Zhang Wei, one of China’s young mega-rich, couldn’t resist – and watched the rare bottle being opened. He posed for pictures, later writing that “it had a good taste”. Alas, the publicity drew the attention of experts who questioned the look of the bottle. Subsequent analysis confirmed the whisky was, in fact, a blend from around 1972. Ouch.
Legatum experts on the theory of change
The Legatum Institute used to hover above the world of Westminster think-tanks, seemingly more interested in the art on its walls than its reach in policy circles. But with a new leadership team this Mayfair wonk-shop is developing some serious swagger. Last night two of the institute’s new leading lights, Philippa Stroud (formally occupied with welfare reform in government) and Matthew Elliott (the architect of the Leave campaign) delivered a lecture on their “Theory of Change”. I urge you to look it up and listen to their ideas.
City A.M.'s 3,000th edition is coming soon
Next week, on Thursday to be exact, City A.M. will publish its 3,000th edition. My contribution to this milestone is small, having been in the editor’s chair for just over two of the paper’s 12-year history. When it launched, one Fleet Street veteran said “I’ll give it 3 months.” It still puts a smile on the faces of the paper’s founders to reflect on that, but they’re more interested in the future than the past – as am I. Ahead of Thursday’s special edition I’d like to say thank you to our readers, old and new.