Today
Tue 7 July 2020
Subscribe

Peter Jukes on the kompromat in the first Whittingdale Scandal and the strange confluence of interests between the tabloids and Vladimir Putin. 

Share this article

When Byline broke the story of John Whittingdale’s relationship with a dominatrix in April 2016, many people in the media had known about the story for over a year. Strangely, according to the Guardian, the first time the then Prime Minister David Cameron heard about his newly appointed Culture Minister’s embarrassment was when he read the article on our website.

It had been a difficult story to get out, primarily because everyone – whether film star or cabinet minister – deserves their privacy. But, by the spring of 2016, this was not about Whittingdale’s private life. As James Cusick, the former political correspondent of The Independent, explained in stunning detail on Byline, the real scandal was with the press.

Four news organisations had known about Whittingdale’s relationship, gone to him for comment, and then – as his attitude to press regulation and BBC funding seemed to change – withheld the story. This was like a finance minister having four undeclared loans from the banks he was supposed to regulate. Cusick gave up his severance package with his former employers to order to explain what happened when he tried to tell the story at the Independent.

Stay up to date with news from the Byline Times Team

For several days after publication, it had hung out there, creating turmoil on social media but unremarked upon by the mainstream media. Byline was a fledging crowdfunding journalism site, for which I had been an advisor for the previous year, and I could understand some of the reluctance to trust such a big story to a small, unknown organisation. But, when Private Eye backed up our account and John Sweeney on BBC Newsnight covered it, the storm hit us. 

We’d certainly touched a raw nerve. At the time, I thought it was either a) fury we’d tarnished a key ally of Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch, or b) professional rivalry – that we’d finally got the story out first. I wasn’t surprised by the venom from the press but the extent of it was revealing. The Sunday Times was investigating Byline, but when I mentioned this could be seen as revenge for the then iTunes No 1 hit podcast the Untold: Daniel Morgan Murder (which outlines Murdoch’s involvement in the notorious Southern Investigations detective agency) it seemed to back off.

The Daily Mail eventually corrected one of its insinuating polemics that Byline was funded by the Hacked Off group (it wasn’t). But Andrew Gilligan in the Sunday Telegraph went the whole dodgy dossier, with ludicrous claims that the South Korean founder of Byline, Seung-yoon Lee, was being bankrolled by his billionaire dad (it wasn’t his dad, Lee being a very common surname in South Korea). None of these august publications ever came to me or anyone else on Byline for comment. The Sunday Telegraph never issued a correction, but stealthily removed the more obvious idiotic errors. But Gilligan’s piece remains online as a study in tendentious conspiracy theories and politically-motivated bile. 

But it’s what happened next that looks different in retrospect.


Information Operations

Minutes after the publication of Gilligan’s piece, one of Byline’s writers noticed that it was boosted on Twitter in the middle of the night by dozens of strange accounts, mainly with the same photo and a sequence of numbers in their usernames (we’d now call them bots).

Even more bizarrely, an obscure blog citing the Sunday Telegraph, but mainly about me, was somehow delivered to all of my LinkedIn followers as ‘Connections in the News’ that very morning. Many of the tech gurus, the same ones who went on to dismiss Carole Cadwalladr’s revelations about Cambridge Analytica, assured me that this was perfectly normal. This had never happened before, and has never happened since, despite being ‘In the News’ in much more high-profile publications.

Meanwhile, the Society of Editors, the conference of which I’d attended in 2014 and had given Whittingdale a key platform the previous year, sent me an important pdf document called ‘Research’. I didn’t click on it – fortunately so, because it was a sophisticated phishing scam to hack my passwords. I emailed the Society of Editors’ then executive director, Bob Satchwell, asking what had happened. He explained that he had “received an email purporting to come from a trusted source” and claimed it was nothing to do with Whittingdale and to “beware conspiracy”. He never replied to my follow-up questions as to who this trusted source was and what security they had now put in place. 

Conspiracy, whether from Guido Fawkes or other journalists, was a constant chorus in those days. Bots, boosting algorithms, hacking emails – all these are much more familiar now we know the extent and sophistication of ‘information operations’ since Cadwalladr’s revelations about the online campaigning skills of Cambridge Analytica during the EU Referendum, and the hybrid warfare and active measures of the Russian security services as shown during the US Presidential Election.

Whoever was targeting Byline for revealing the Whittingdale kompromat was investing heavily in these techniques, which begs the question: was there anyone else apart from the obvious interested parties in the press who could have been so incensed?


The Russia Connection

To its credit, the Mail on Sunday, then edited by Geordie Greig, made up for its previous reluctance to write about Whittingdale pretty quickly once the dam was broached, and it was followed by the Daily Mirror, John Sweeney and others who revealed another aspect of Whittingdale’s background which adds to the suspicion of some kind of wider state involvement. 

Not only had Whittingdale had liaisons with women from Belarus and Lithuania, but he had also been the chair of the British Ukrainian Society which in turn was funded by Dmytro Firtash – the Ukrainian oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin – who was indicted in the US and is awaiting extradition in Vienna on corruption and bribery charges. Firtash is widely reported to be the ‘bagman’ for the Russian mafiya boss Semion Mogilevitch, but before this became public knowledge he was a big donor to British institutions and politicians. Dominic Cummings’ brother-in-law was a director of his foundation.

One connection like this is understandable, given the penetration of Russian and former Soviet oligarchs at the time. However, Whittingdale was also honorary vice president of the scandal-prone Conservative Friends of Russia group, and a key speaker at its party in 2012 in the grounds of the Kensington Gardens Embassy with the then ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko. He was introduced by Sergey Nalobin, the son of a FSB officer who left the UK on suspicion of spying when the Conservative Friends of Russia was shut down. Whittingdale’s special advisor at the time, Carrie Symonds (Boris Johnson’s current partner), also attended the opening party.

It could well be that there was no Russian involvement in the ‘information operations’ to protect Whittingdale and that it was purely domestic. It’s certainly likely that Whittingdale himself would have had no part in or knowledge of them at the time. Whittingdale was also a senior Brexiter and member of Vote Leave, and that could have well been more important than opposition to press regulation or affection for the citizens of Russia and eastern Europe. 

But, the fact that the British press and foreign agents of influence had a joint interest in protecting the Culture Minister back then is cause for great concern. Given more recent developments — the suppressed Intelligence and Security Committee report into Russian influence in British political life and questions about the Prime Minister’s own vulnerabilities over funding, parties and Russian friends — the return of Whittingdale to Johnson’s Government as a Minister in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport does nothing to reassure anyone.

In fact, it feels like quite the reverse: that kompromat and stark conflicts of interest are key qualifications for high office.

Byline is the crowdfunded journalism sister site of Byline Times


Stay up to date with news from the Byline Times Team

More stories filed under Reportage