Russia Report And BBC Panorama Apology Expose Our Fantasy Politics

First published 23 July 2020 on Lit

With the Intelligence Security Committee’s long-buried report comes the revelation that the UK government’s approach to Russian espionage is similar to Donald Trump’s attitude to COVID-19 cases — the less you look for it, the smaller the problem.

Anyone concerned that the Kremlin might have had a hand, however small, in the EU referendum, can rest assured. The committee found no evidence that this occurred. Indeed, so relaxed were the government and the security services about threats posed they didn’t even look for any. So that’s a relief.

As for the committee’s concerns that responsibility for Russia is split between too many departments, the government’s statement (which rejects all the report’s recommendations) notes that “ultimate ministerial oversight is provided by the Prime Minister”. If that doesn’t reassure you, I just don’t know what will.

And then there is the Prime Minister’s response to questions on the report, which referred to “the rage and fury of the Remainer elite finding that there is in fact nothing in this report, and no smoking gun whatever…”. He didn’t say “NO COLLUSION!” – but he might as well have.

Incidentally, it’s one of the many talents of our Latin-quoting Etonian PM that he can call anyone else a member of the “elite” without being met with howls of mirth. This particular skill may be related to his ability to turn the lack of information on his government’s counter-Kremlin efforts into a cause for gloating. Johnson’s populist sneer was refined earlier in PMQs into the term “Islingtonian Remainers”, which was at least a bit more specific. It’s good to know that he can sniff out hostile conspiracies when he wants to.

The second big story of the week was the Labour Party’s apology to Panorama journalist John Ware and the whistleblowers who spoke to him. This relates to events from a year ago, thus pre-COVID, so here’s a quick refresher: Labour’s official response to the BBC programme — which exposed the party’s protection of antisemites under Jeremy Corbyn — was to call the whistleblowers “disaffected former officials” with “political axes to grind”, and to accuse Ware of “deliberate and malicious misrepresentations designed to mislead the public”. Ware and the whistleblowers sued. This week Keir Starmer ordered the party’s lawyers to settle and apologise, saying in open court that the lines quoted were false.

This leaves us in an interesting position. The Labour Party, under its new leader, has now said, in effect, that the whistleblowers were speaking to the BBC in good faith, and that the programme was not deliberately misleading. This implies that Labour’s response to the programme, when it was led by Corbyn, was a pack of lies.

Naturally, some Labour members were outraged to discover this. One in particular sprang into action. A Mr J Corbyn of Islington called the decision to settle “disappointing” and “a political decision, not a legal one”, adding: “Our legal advice was that the party had a strong defence…”

Let’s presume, for the sake of argument, that Corbyn and Seumas Milne know more about the law than Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions. The charge of this being a “political decision” is only likely to sting if you don’t think it’s good politics to end a libel case about how soft you are on racism. But then, politics was never Corbyn’s forte. His statement also repeated the libel, proving that the law isn’t Corbyn’s forte either. Perhaps his forte is getting sued?

The coincidence of these two stories – the Russia report and the Panorama apology – are like two comets, each with long tails, and act to illuminate the shady myths of Left and Right. Both reveal a preference for changing the evidence over changing the narrative — and a willingness to silence dissenters rather than hear their troubling message.

After all, if it’s true that our enemy in the Kremlin tried to help “Get Brexit Done” while the UK government looked the other way, how can Johnson’s Tories claim to represent national sovereignty, or be so sure that Brexit is in the national interest? If it’s true that Labour defamed truth-telling witnesses who exposed its paranoid racism and toxic politics, how can Corbynites go on believing they were part of a noble project for social justice? Such are the kind of nagging doubts both wings need to suppress, especially if they are uttered where people might hear them.

But hey, why disturb such pleasant dreams? What’s the worst that can happen?

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