The deepening scandal over the role of Cambridge Analytica means the 2016 Brexit referendum vote should be void, argues AC GRAYLING
As more revelations emerge about the role of Cambridge Analytica in Donald Trump’s election, and with them claims, suspicions, denials and facts about the data company and the EU referendum, so the question arises whether the surprise outcomes of those two votes can be regarded as legitimate. Were they manipulated? Were they the result of covert machination? As the story unfolds, more and more questions are being raised.
Cambridge Analytica boasts in public – and, according to Channel 4’s undercover operation, even more in private – that its profiling of people online, and its ‘micro-targeting’ at them of messages aimed at manipulating their voting behaviour, has been successful in elections around the world.
But the new allegations hint at much more. In the Channel 4 report, the company’s CEO Alexander Nix was apparently filmed giving examples of how his firm could discredit political rivals by arranging various smear campaigns, including setting up encounters with prostitutes and staging situations in which apparent bribery could be caught on camera. The company, for its part, has suspended Nix and denies the claims, contending that the programme was edited and scripted to ‘grossly represent the nature of those conversations’.
If I were the writer of a thriller television series about the EU referendum I would portray a Boris Johnson-like character as venal, corruptible, a ready target for bribery in relation to his private life, and open to promises of future help with his public life, whose influence might make a difference to the outcome of the vote; and I would have the fictional Cambridge Analytica-type company employ a secretive agency populated by former MI5 agents to suborn the fictional Boris Johnson-like character by these means, so that a surprise announcement by him shortly before the referendum would, along with the barrage of covert micro-messages swarming over unsuspecting swing voters, just tip the balance of the vote on the day.
That would all be fiction. But as we indeed know, fact is stranger than fiction.
While the Information Commissioner’s Office is investigating Cambridge Analytica’s use of data analytics for political purposes, the Electoral Commission is conducting its own inquiry into the firm’s possible role in the referendum.
Democracy relies on transparency, correct information, an opportunity for people to hear all sides of an argument without distortion, manipulation, lies, psychological tricks and hidden influences.
Of course, politicians have always employed propaganda, spin, and economy with the truth: but allegations of the huge scale of covert propaganda, spin and lying, and the techniques of hidden manipulation Cambridge Analytica are accused of employing, if proved to have any truth, would place the matter on a different scale.
Take these considerations together with allegations (again, denied) that some of those involved in the financing or support ‘in kind’ of the Leave campaign in the EU referendum were foreign nationals – we need only mention Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica’s financial backer, and Steve Bannon, a former vice-president of the firm – in what could be a breach of in electoral law, and the questions that scream aloud to be answered are: Is the EU referendum of June 2016 valid? Should it be allowed to stand? Is it not rendered void?
We know that the overt campaigning of the Leave campaign was full of lies, distortions and false promises, and that it offered no plan, roadmap, impact studies or proposals, so that it offered no realistic choice; these facts sicken the heart, and they make unanswerable the demand for a properly-conducted further referendum, with clarity and facts available. But the questions now raised over the referendum campaign seriously impugn the reliability of its outcome.
Indeed we all know, and must never forget, that our politicians have taken the Leave vote of 37% of a restricted electorate as a mandate for massive constitutional change. This is a different kind of political crime: the moral and constitutional criminality of a broken order in which the political class in effect engages in a coup against their own country on which, as we know see more clearly than ever, it feeds for its own interests.
But any proven breach of electoral law, the theft of private data of millions of people, covert micro-messaging, manipulation, or perhaps even the blackmail and suborning of which Cambridge Analytica appear to boast in the Channel 4 sting – would make it totally unacceptable that the EU referendum result be allowed to stand.
For to let it stand in such circumstances would be to allow the history of our country to be redirected in a damaging, retrograde, impoverishing and diminishing direction by a process publicly known to be at best unreliable and at worst corrupt.
The conclusion is clear. If there is shown to be any foundation to the allegations, the referendum is void, and should be declared so. Cleaning up the mess caused by the unintelligent and wildly over-precipitate haste of the May government to initiate a Brexit process, supported and aided at every step by Jeremy Corbyn, should not be left either to Theresa May or Corbyn. We need to reboot, and in ways that make the use of the ballot box in our country legal, clean and reliable. The EU referendum was infected by the opposite of those things: it cannot be allowed to stand.