It should go without saying that it is untrue to say that I worked for the Kremlin, or advised the Russian embassy or, bizarrely, organised events at the Russian embassy. It appears however it has to be said. This claim has been circulating on Twitter and the loonier fringes of the internet for years, was alluded to in Private Eye and is often repeated by the likes of Carole Cadwalladr. Which explains in part my animus towards her and sympathy for Arron Banks on this point. She yesterday tweeted about me having “links to the Kremlin”. It’s nuts and for years I have said so plainly.
Back in 2018 I wrote an article for The Spectator about the unsuccessful wooing operation of the Russian embassy. The kernel of the story conspiracy theorists, and consequently now I, want to focus on is an event at the Russian Embassy in 2013 which some claim I organised. It was called a digital BBQ by the embassy and was in fact organised by Jimmy Leach, the former head of digital at the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office who was working for Portland, the PR firm which had the Russian government account at the time. There were I think a series of these events and the one I attended had Tom Whitwell, the head of digital operations at The Times and Sunday Times, the then Conservative MP Douglas Carwell and myself on the panel. The ambassador Alexander Yakovenko was the master of ceremonies.
As I recall, Tom Whitwell spoke optimistically about the potential of the internet for democracy, Douglas Carswell spoke about his theory of i-Democracy and it was all very platitudinous. When it came to my turn it did not go so smoothly. Yakovenko asked me “What can we do to encourage the bloggers in Russia?” To which I replied, “Stop locking them up”. I tried to make a positive argument that if Russia really wanted to thaw relations with the West, this was a bad look – this was a period when the West was trying to engage with Russia, before 2014 and the sanctions that followed the Crimea annexation. We immediately got into a row about Alex Navalny, who was then, as now, in jail. The ambassador lied that Navalny was guilty of financial fraud and I did not understand the situation, which I disputed and the acrimonious session came to a very British embarrassing halt. A few in the audience came up to me afterwards and told me they were glad someone addressed the elephant in the room. If you don’t want to take my word for it, and the likes of Carole Cadwalladr very much don’t, there were journalists there:
— Paul Waugh (@paulwaugh) November 25, 2013
— Matthew Holehouse (@mattholehouse) November 25, 2013
— max seddon (@maxseddon) November 25, 2013
Incidentally, a few years before in 2011 the Foreign Office invited me to give a presentation to a delegation from the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Ministry of Information, on a similar theme. I made the same argument as to why it might be in their regime’s interests to allow more freedom on the internet, because they would get feedback which could improve things. I recount this only to illustrate my attitude to engaging with undemocratic regimes I oppose, at the request of Foreign Office officials, be they current or former. It ended as I recall in some uproar as my final Powerpoint slide called for the release of the then imprisoned Ai Weiwei…
As someone on the receiving end of writ threats as an occupational hazard, it is not my inclination to sue for defamation, this internet meme that I advised the Kremlin or was in the pay of Putin is clearly defamatory, particularly so in the contemporary context. The only advice I gave them was unpaid, in public and it was to free Alexi Navalny and stop locking up political opponents. I’m proud of that advice and would tell them the same today.