SPOOKING THE SPOOKS
Media Complicity and Security Concerns over Lebedev and Johnson
Otto English looks at the relationship between the son of a KGB spy and the Prime Minister and how it raises troubling questions about the closeness between media owners and politicians.
Russian-born media mogul, philanthropist, conservationist and self-styled investigative journalist Evgeny Lebedev likes nothing more than to get behind a good charitable campaign in his stable of newspapers.
Barely a month goes by in which Lebedev isn’t being photographed saving elephants or washed-up celebrities. But, since acquiring the influential Evening Standard a decade ago, Lebedev has proven particularly concerned with the plight of the homeless. As patron of the ‘dispossessed fund’ that highlights poverty in London, he and his newspapers have raised an impressive £25 million since 2010. In 2015, he bedded down on the streets of London with both Boris Johnson, who later pledged £1.7 million of City Hall money to the Standard’s campaign to help homeless veterans.
It may strike some as paradoxical that, for a man so concerned with the plight of the dispossessed, Lebedev owns an awful lot of very big luxury homes. In addition to his central London pad near Regent’s Park, he also owns the Grade II-listed mansion Stud Farm in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace and two enormous properties, within just 11 miles of each other, in the Umbrian countryside upon which he has lavished tens of millions of pounds.
It was to one of these, the Palazzo Terranova, a 17th Century palace nestling on ‘Russia Mountain’ near Perugia, that he invited the television personality Katie Price and a collection of other guests to for a weekend stay in October 2016. Lebedev likes big parties as much as he loves private jets and has a penchant for mixing things up. On this occasion, visitors included the actress Joan Collins, the singer Pixie Lott and Evgeny’s old mate Boris Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, along with Boris’s wife Marina Wheeler and his brother Leo.
Johnson’s friendship with Lebedev had spanned almost a decade at this point. During his heyday as the Mayor of London, the Evening Standard had vast influence on the capital’s political landscape, which went well beyond the million or so commuters who picked it up from the stands that pockmark London’s underground stations. Johnson knew this and nurtured the friendship. The two men regularly lunched and dined together. And Lebedev was more than happy to oblige his high-profile friend.
No newspaper so loyally and uncritically fought Johnson’s corner. As more than one commentator has said to me, it was very much his Pravda. The Standard backed Johnson during his mayoral re-election bid and waged a particularly forthright campaign on behalf of the garden bridge, which cost taxpayers £43 million – despite never getting built.
Under former Chancellor George Osborne, the Standard has remained largely loyal to Johnson since and broke those unconvincing ‘paparazzi shots’ of him and his girlfriend Carrie Symonds after the incident to which police were called to her flat during the Conservative Party leadership campaign this year.
As Mayor of London, Johnson had been a guest of Lebedev’s on at least four occasions and on those trips had flown by private jet to Italy. But, in October 2016, perhaps aware that a private plane doesn’t look great on his declaration of interests, he and his wife chose to make the journey by EasyJet. Katie Price on the other hand, opted quite sensibly for the full Lebedev and took full advantage of both the private jet and the on-flight bar.
As guests sat down to dinner, it became abundantly clear that Price had imbibed a huge quantity of vodka and champagne in the previous hours. Lebedev likes to begin dinner by inviting his guests to give speeches, but Price had dispiritingly been invited for amusement value only. She was there as dressing and as a source told the Sun: “Price was not expected to speak.”
To her immense credit, she was having none of that and stood up anyway. Accounts vary as to what happened next but, according to Joan Collins, Price declared that “champagne and Pricey don’t mix”, started calling Lebedev “You Guv”, and then asked the gentlemen on either side of her if they would “like to see my new boobs”. With encouragement from some of the guests present, she then whipped off her top, before turning to the Foreign Secretary and proclaiming: “They’re like granite!”
There was a stunned silence, followed by muffled laughter but the host, possibly prompted by the look on Marina Wheeler’s face, was rendered unamused and Price was quickly bundled out of the event by Lebedev’s four-strong security detail, headed by a former member of the SAS. She was not seen again that weekend and, according to the Sun, was packed off back to the UK on a commercial flight.
Johnson may have attended these notoriously hedonistic parties before, but never as Britain’s most senior diplomat. Some present – and Marina Wheeler in particular – were keenly aware that this embarrassing incident might leak out, perhaps via Price, and damage Johnson. But it did not.
Where the Sun Doesn’t Shine
It was to be two full years before openDemocracy finally got hold of the story and broke it during the Tory leadership contest. On the day it did, the Sun, Mirror and Daily Star immediately ran copycat articles – focusing on the antics of Price and playing up her raucousness, while portraying Johnson as little more than a hapless bystander. In the Sun, Collins was quoted as saying that, when Price lifted her top, Johnson merely “glanced (and) frowned uninterestedly and returned to his discussion”.
The Sun published the online story very late at night – in the graveyard shift – and doesn’t appear to have included it in its print edition. In other circumstances, it might seem odd that such a fantastic tabloid story should get buried like that. But, the Sun was backing Johnson’s leadership bid and that consideration no doubt played a role.
The media holdings of media moguls have a habit of ignoring stories that embarrass other media moguls and Johnson is the journalists’ Prime Minister – one of their own. The discreet veil drawn over this embarrassing incident undoubtedly had much to do with his friends in the press choosing to bury it or spin it into a ‘Jordan gets her boobs out’ story.
But this was not, as openDemocracy made clear, about Katie Price. It was a story of judgement. What the hell was the Foreign Secretary doing at such a sybaritic event, as a guest of a Russian billionaire, the son of a former KGB agent no less, and why had he left his protection officers at home?
Johnson’s friendship with Lebedev has long been causing disquiet in security circles.
I have spoken to a former security services official who can “absolutely confirm that members of the intelligence services are aware and concerned” about Johnson’s behaviour. “We are really worried,” they said.
This tallies with the account given by former BBC journalist John Sweeney, who claims to have two secret intelligence service sources who have told him that “MI6 was worried that Boris Johnson, when he was Foreign Secretary, was a security risk”.
Johnson’s elevation to the premiership has only heightened those concerns.
As one Russia analyst puts it: “The Lebedevs have grown much closer to Putin in recent years and who’s to say that old friend’s from Evgeny’s dad’s spying days are not present at these parties? Of course it was a security risk. He was opening himself up to blackmail by setting foot inside.”
Marina Wheeler and Leo Johnson’s attendance at the 2016 event might have been an acknowledgement of that risk and a condition of his going. Johnson’s penchant for reckless behaviour – particularly where attractive women are concerned – is a matter of record. In the words of one openDemocracy source “nothing is off the menu from the moment you are greeted to the moment you leave”.
And yet – despite the scenes with Price – just over a year later, in April 2018, Johnson, now separated from Wheeler, was back partying in Umbria again. On that occasion, he was seen in the aftermath of the weekend – again without his security detail – wandering around an Italian airport, quite alone, seemingly wearing the clothes he had slept in and looking very much worse for wear.
There are no accounts of the second party and nobody knows who was in attendance. But, when he flew out to Italy, Johnson was fresh from a meeting with NATO chiefs where discussions had focused on the Skripal affair – a major diplomatic incident between Russia and the UK. Partying with the scion of a former KGB agent sympathetic to Putin does not demonstrate the highest levels of responsibility.
However, this time, there was an additional consideration which any responsible senior politician should have taken into account.
Dependence and Independence
In June 2017, in controversial circumstances, Lebedev had sold a 30% stake of the Independent to a Saudi investor Sultan Muhammed Abuljadayel. The move was condemned by many – including the Independent’s former editor Amol Rajan who asked the question that many have been asking since: “Is the Independent still independent?”
Earlier this year, it was revealed that there had been a further purchase of a large stake in the Evening Standard and Independent. This sale was conducted in a manner described by the Government’s own lawyers as “unconventional, complex and clandestine” via a series of transactions through the Cayman Islands between December 2018 and February 2019. It was eventually revealed that the same Saudi investor had bought the shares.
That sale prompted then Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, to launch an official investigation over concerns of freedom of expression and accurate news reporting. However, in July, Lebedev’s lawyers successfully argued in court that the Government had missed a four-month deadline and the case was dropped.
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The Government had until September to appeal but, by then, there was a new Prime Minister and a new Culture Secretary, Nicky Morgan. Morgan was once a junior minister at George Osborne’s Treasury and Osborne is now the editor of the Evening Standard – and the Prime Minister calls Evgeny Lebedev his friend. The appeal was dropped.
Throughout it all, Lebedev’s papers have insisted that they maintain editorial freedom. Given his omnipresence on the pages of his own sheets, that independence has long been in doubt.
But this story isn’t so much about the Russian businessman, it is more about the choices and decisions made by a new Prime Minister and whether he is fit for office.
It is time for all of those who care about press freedom to also ponder this: why – despite his reckless behaviour and his inappropriate friendships – is Johnson still afforded such a free ride by the majority of the British media?
Here, after all, is a politician who has spooked the spooks.