SWEENEY INVESTIGATESFrom Russia With LeaveThe Curious Case of John Whittingdale
With the Labour Opposition calling for Russian propaganda to be regulated, John Sweeney investigates whether the Media Minister responsible has a conflict of interest
Labour Leader Keir Starmer has asked whether Britain should ban television channel RT (formerly Russia Today). Let’s examine the record of John Whittingdale, the Minister for Media and Data within the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), responsible for defending us against Russia’s propaganda machine.
The DCMS is the lead department for policing our digital frontier and Whittingdale is in charge of its international strategy.
The Russia Report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) stated: “The UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations and must therefore equip itself to counter such efforts.”
Britain’s intelligence agencies told the committee: “They informed us that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) holds primary responsibility for disinformation campaigns.”
The Russia Report is scathing about the power of Moscow gold to win the hearts and minds of corrupt British figures, but the evidence remains in the shadows. As the report states: “The extent to which Russian expatriates are using their access to UK businesses and politicians to exert influence in the UK is ***.” The committee’s asterisks cover a multitude of sins.
The Firtash Connection
Some of what follows is an investigation into Whittingdale I carried out for the BBC in 2016 and 2017, which was never broadcast.
Whittingdale’s responsibilities at the DCMS include oversight of foreign television networks, including the Kremlin’s poodle network RT.
What is disturbing is just how often he has been the recipient of the generosity of a Soviet-born oligarch, Dmytro Firtash, currently being sought by the FBI for corruption charges.
The right-wing MP for Maldon, Margaret Thatcher acolyte and long-term Brexiter might play a get-out-of-jail card in that the registered money he received came via a cut-out for not a Russian but a Ukrainian oligarch – however one so close to the Kremlin that the distinction doesn’t bite.
Whittingdale’s love-in with Firtash is a sorry tale. Firtash’s silent business partner for some part of his career is alleged to have been Russia’s Al Capone-at-large, Semion “The Brainy Don” Mogilevich, himself linked to the Solntsevskaya Organized Crime Group. The source for the Firtash-Mogilevich connection was reportedly Firtash himself to then US Ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, in 2008. The world found out about their conversation in December 2010 thanks to a Wikileaks cable, although Firtash has denied what the ambassador said he said.
The big source of Firtash’s money has been his control of entities supplying Russian gas to Ukraine. Reportedly, Firtash used the gas gold to buy Ukrainian politicians to stay loyal to the Kremlin, up to and including disgraced Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. In 2014, Reuters reported on documents that pointed to Putin extending credit lines to Firtash of up to $11 billion which helped the oligarch influence the 2010 Presidential Election in Ukraine. Firtash and his entities deny any wrongdoing
In March 2014, Austrian authorities arrested Firtash on a multi-million bribery rap sought by the FBI. Firtash posted £105 million bail money, the largest get-out-jail note in Austrian history. For the moment, Firtash continues to insist on his innocence and remains in Austria while he battles the Americans who want to lock him up.
Firtash’s closeness to the Kremlin, his association with Trump consigliere-turned-convict Paul Manafort and his arrest warrant issued by the FBI are facts that can be reported and cannot be denied.
Whittingdale enjoyed £14,435 of free trips to Ukraine and Vienna paid for by the British Ukraine Society (BUS) which shared the same Knightsbridge address as the Firtash Foundation and the main Firtash entity, Group DF.
Whittingdale was for a time a director of the BUS, as was DF’s former CEO, Robert Shetler-Jones. The BUS is headed by ex-MP Richard Spring, now Lord Risby; on the advisory board is Lord Oxford who as Raymond Asquith, MI6 officer, got Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky out of Russia in a car boot. There is no suggestion that Shetler-Jones, Lords Oxford and Risby are now batting for the other side.
After Austrian police arrested Firtash on behalf of the FBI in March 2014 for his part in the alleged $18.5 million bribe scandal “using Group DF… to conceal bribe payments… using threats and intimidation… to further the goals of the criminal enterprise” – a multi-million-dollar titanium deal – Whittingdale carried on as before, making one final trip to Kyiv and two visits to Vienna where Firtash is now based courtesy of the BUS.
Conservative Friends of Russia – and Ukraine
In 2014, Whittingale was photographed in Ukrainian fancy dress in London with Maria Tymofienko, who styled herself in emails as “Assistant to John Whittingdale MP Chair All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ukraine”.
Tymofienko set up an interview with a Ukrainian television station for her boss. That October, Maria popped up in the House of Commons as the founder of the Global Friends of Ukraine (GFU), with patron John Whittingdale, who stuck the event on his website.
That same month, Tymofienko was photographed with another ex-Soviet oligarch, Alexander Temerko, and Conservative minister Philip Hammond at the Tory Party conference in Birmingham.
Whittingdale did not register Maria as a Commons researcher. Tymofienko is now working on an £800,000 scheme promoting intellectual property in Ukraine at QMC London funded by the British Government.
She told Byline Times: “my involvement with the Ukraine APPG [All-Party Parliamentary Group] was entirely voluntary on an informal and part-time basis. I was not remunerated. As a Ukrainian living in the UK, I am a patriot and wished to assist my home country in a time of crisis.
“John Whittingdale has for many years been a champion of Ukraine and one of the most outspoken MPs in defending Ukraine against Russian aggression.”
Other Ukrainians are critical of Whittingdale for evidently being closely connected to Firtash, given the latter’s chumminess with the Kremlin.
The Whittingdale-Firtash connection made his reappointment last summer to the DCMS (albeit at the lower peg as Minister of State as opposed to Secretary of State) by new Prime Minister Boris Johnson all the more surprising.
But his return to the frontbench might be explained by the fact that his one-time special advisor was Carrie Symonds, the Prime Minister’s partner and mother of his fifth or sixth child. Symonds and Whittingdale were fixtures at beanos thrown by the Conservative Friends of Russia, a group set up with the help of Sergey Nalobin, widely suspected of being an FSB spy.
Whittingdale was honorary vice-president of Conservative Friends of Russia until it was disbanded. To complete the set, Firtash’s charity front, the Firtash Foundation, had Jack Wakefield as a director for a time. Jack’s sister Mary is married to the Prime Minister’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings. It looks like Happy Families, Russia-style.
And then there is the sex.
Back in April 2016, Whittingdale’s adventurous private life was the subject of a joke by then Chancellor George Osborne in a speech to the parliamentary lobby.
Osborne listed the various economic models that could form the basis for Brexit – “the Canadian model”, “the Norwegian model”, “the Albanian model” – before adding that was enough about “Mr Whittingdale’s relationships”.
Whittingdale, then Culture Secretary, was in the room and appeared to take the gag well as he roared with laughter. But the joke was at the public’s expense. Whittingdale had been protected from scrutiny for a long time.
By the spring of 2016, four newspapers – the Mirror, the Sun, the Mail on Sunday and The Independent – had the story of Whittingdale’s extraordinary relationship with professional dominatrix Olivia King, also known as “Mistress Kate”, but had not run it. A gangster with a conviction for firearms was also reportedly going out with King at the same time as Whittingdale and was trying to sell tapes of King talking about what she did with the then Culture Secretary.
The dam broke first with a piece by Nick Mutch on Byline.com, setting out Whittingdale’s non-registration of a trip with King to the MTV Awards in Amsterdam. Jim Cusick then reported on Byline how his former editor at The Independent, Amol Rajan, had killed the story.
Cusick wrote that “Amol Rajan had a problem. The Independent was a tenant of Associated Newspapers” – and the Mail group, Cusick suggested, liked Whittingdale’s policy of not implementing the full Leveson reforms on Fleet Street.
Cusick continued: “To complete a required legal element of the story before publication, it was important Olivia King be given the opportunity to respond. On October 19 2015 ‘Mistress Kate’ was scheduled to work at the London Retreat [her dungeon]. Permission was sought from the editor to go the club and speak to her. The same day Amol Rajan was speaking at a Society of Editors conference. John Whittingdale was speaking at the same event just before him.”
Rajan, who has denied doing so, killed the story before it was put to King. He is now the media editor at the BBC.
Until this point, Whittingdale had not commented on the Byline pieces or an article in Private Eye.
Then, working at BBC Newsnight, I was not interested in his dalliance with Miss Whiplash but his anomaly in the registration of benefits in kind and the fact that four newspapers had sat on the story – perhaps because Whittingdale was seen as pro-paper and anti-Leveson.
Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s spin doctor, takes up the story in his surprisingly good book, Unleashing Demons:
“I am almost home that evening when I get a call from John Whittingdale’s Special Adviser, Carrie Symonds… Carrie has already drafted a statement which includes the following: ‘Between August 2013 and February 2014, I had a relationship with someone who I first met through Match.com. She was a similar age and lived close to me. At no time did she give me any indication of her real occupation and I only discovered this when I was made aware that someone was trying to sell a story about me to tabloid newspapers. As soon as I discovered, I ended the relationship.’”
Oliver writes that he approved the press release and tracked down Whittingdale, who was about to attend a Vote Leave dinner: “He is clear that he didn’t realise he was going out with a prostitute who specialises in sado-masochism.”
The Number 10 media supremo said he put to Whittingdale the unreported press interest in his string of Russian girlfriends. He wrote: “He snaps, ‘my current girlfriend isn’t Russian, she’s Lithuanian.’”
In fact, the press had been sniffing around another woman entirely, Natalia Lokhanova, a 30-year-old from Belarus when she had gone out with Whittingdale four years before and the daughter of a Soviet military officer.
We scrambled so hard to get our BBC Newsnight story on that night, running the extraordinary statement drafted by Carrie Symonds, that I mispronounced “dominatrix” much to the amusement of then-editor Ian Katz. Whittingdale’s name was mud.
A few days later Number 10 had to deal again with the Culture Secretary’s exotic home life. Oliver wrote:
“The following weekend The Mail on Sunday has new allegations about him and a woman called Stephanie Hudson, a former soft porn actress. They say he let her see confidential documents in his ministerial Red Box, texted her photos from Chequers, and was asked to leave the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel after ‘mutual drunken heavy petting’. When I go through it with him, he begins to bluster, saying she was a Page 3 model not a soft porn actress. He says he wasn’t thrown out of The Savoy but accepts a waiter did approach when she was kissing him after a customer complained.”
Whittingdale was the butt of Whitehall jokes. Oliver continued: “When Caroline Preston, No 10’s head of broadcast, hears us talking about the ‘Albanian model’ she jokes: ‘Oh no! Not another story about Whittingdale!’ I laugh about it all day.”
A few months later, Britain voted for Brexit, Cameron fell on his sword, Theresa May came in and axed Whittingdale in her first shuffle.
Good reporters don’t pry into other people’s bedrooms and Whittingdale has as much right to privacy as anyone. The problem is that Russia’s security services have no such scruples and that the Russian President Vladimir Putin has form when he was head of the KGB for identifying then Russia’s Prosecutor-General as the man in bed with two prostitutes on a grainy video.
The Russian secret state collects sex kompromat. Is Whittingdale vulnerable? Ask George Osborne, Craig Oliver or Carrie Symonds.
In January 2020, Whittingdale received £8,000 from Aquind Ltd, the mysterious Russia-linked company planning a billion-pound undersea electricity grid connector between Britain and France which won’t reveal the identity of the party that controls it.
The company is seeking to build a controversial £1.2 billion electricity cable connecting Normandy with Lovedean in Hampshire as anxieties about the resilience of the British national grid continue.
Three named directors are Richard Glasspool, a former partner at KPMG Russia and former head of the risk committee of the Credit Bank of Moscow, run by Putin-friendly oligarch Roman Avdeev; Kirill Glukhovskoy, “formerly a senior lawyer with major Russian energy companies” according to the Aquind website; and oligarch Alexander Temerko. Now a British citizen and major donor to the Conservative Party to the tune of £1.3 million, Temerko was born in Soviet Ukraine and became head of a Russian state arms company before coming to the UK in 2011. He has strongly denied that he is a Kremlin agent.
The Times has reported that a fourth, controlling figure in Aquind has been granted rare anonymity by Companies House, despite anti-corruption rules promoting greater transparency in 2016. The exemption has been granted because they would be at risk of “serious violence or intimidation” if their identity was published.
The Lib Dem leader of Portsmouth City Council, Gerald Vernon-Jackson, has denounced the exemption as “appalling”, saying that the company’s links with Russia meant special care had to be taken.
Since 2018 Aquind has donated £242,000 to the Conservatives, including the £8,000 to John Whittingdale’s election fund.
Aquind denies any wrongdoing.
Byline Times put a series of questions to John Whittingdale, including questions on his apparent links with Firtash, whether he should repay the £14,435, who paid for Ms Tymofienko’s services and/or expenses, and whether his private life has made him vulnerable to kompromat.
We also asked whether he accepted that, in the light of the ISC’s Russia Report, he was foolish to accept so much money from an entity controlled by a pro-Kremlin oligarch. And we asked whether, given the £8,000 election money from Aquind came from an entity whose controlling party is unknown, he should repay that too.
Whittingdale did not reply.
There is powerful evidence that the Russian propaganda machine, openly by such vehicles as RT and Sputnik, and covertly through anonymous “bots”, have interfered with Britain’s democracy.
That interference includes both the Scottish and Brexit referendums and making worse our racial, economic and nationalist tensions by fuelling the far right, the far left and ultra-nationalism on social media. Alarmingly, the Russia Report found that our security services have not found evidence of the same because they have not looked.
To return to Keir Starmer’s question, should Britain ban RT? The minister responsible for answering appears to have a penchant for women from ex-Soviet states and is a recipient of money from a source with the same address as a pro-Kremlin oligarch.
Is it possible that the minister has acted so recklessly that he could be embarrassed by the Russian secret state? Could he be their unwitting asset? Has he put himself in a position where he is vulnerable to the public perception that he is the Kremlin’s man?
Given the weight of evidence, these are reasonable inquiries. A man in John Whittingdale’s position could be expected to answer them. But, for the moment, all we are hearing from the Culture Minister is a stone-dead silence.