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ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: Journalism sheds light on murky referendum

DUP leader Arlene Foster speaks to members of the media following a meeting with a delegation of Irish language speakers at Our Lady's Grammar School in Newry. - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

How journalism sheds light on a murky referendum, Editor-at-large, ALASTAIR CAMPBELL writes

Does the name Jim Fitzpatrick ring any bells?

You may have heard of Jim Fitzpatrick the American actor. If you’re into Westminster politics, you might know there is a Labour MP of the same name. If you’re into your culture, you may have heard of Jim Fitzpatrick the artist, most of whose work is in the Irish Celtic tradition, but who is perhaps best known for the globally recognised, much imitated, two-tone red and black portrait of Che Guevara.

But today I wish to introduce you to a fourth Jim Fitzpatrick who, if we had anything like the media the state of our world needs right now, would have needed no introduction at all, because he would have been all over the news last week.

He presented something we see all too rarely in this era of so much media and so little meaningful journalism, namely a lengthy documentary on a serious, complicated issue, which required persistence, time and resources, and painstaking research on a global scale.

So hats off to him, and to BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme, for the remarkable effort that went into Brexit, Dark Money, and the DUP. But shame on the BBC nationally that, in keeping with their general supine approach to the most important issue facing our country, they chose to limit its broadcast to Northern Ireland. Normally, when the BBC has a decent documentary in the can, it cross-promotes like crazy, above all on its news bulletins on television and radio.

How often do we hear Huw Edwards, Fiona Bruce or John Humphrys tell us ‘and you can see the full programme, on BBC X, at such and such a time…’? No such corporate push for this one, likely an editorial decision taken high up the organisation.

Anyone who has an interest in proper journalism, as opposed to the Brextremist print media bias and the broadcasting babble we are served up most hours of most days, I suggest you Google ‘BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight iPlayer’ and take an hour to watch the episode in question.

It is all the more effective for the rather understated tone. Fitzpatrick is not shouty, nor even judgemental. He just probes away at the story of how the DUP came by the biggest donation in its history, and the question of whether it was working in cahoots with Vote Leave, which had reached the outer limits of its legally permissible spending limits.

He casts a light on some of the strange organisations and dubious individuals involved; something called the Constitutional Research Council which sounds very grand but appears to be unknown to anyone; a former Tory candidate called Richard Cook – the main donor – the investigation of whose wealth takes Fitzpatrick on a trail of unpaid tax, fake companies and false reports, contracts with a convicted German fraudster who spent eight years in jail, and a multi-million pound waste management deal in Ukraine.

He establishes that the contact between the DUP and AggregateIQ, the Canadian firm under investigation as part of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, is a man named Lee Reynolds, a DUP councillor and official, who was seconded to be director of Vote Leave Northern Ireland for the referendum. Reynolds claims he didn’t do DUP work during the campaign.

It was Richard Cook’s money that the DUP, a Northern Irish party remember, used to fund, at a cost of £280,000, a four page ‘Take Back Control’ wraparound on the Metro newspaper in London. Fitzpatrick establishes that the ad was not booked via the DUP. He shows how DUP materials and funds were used in Scotland. He tracks down the ‘lucky’ businessman from Ely in Cambridgeshire who made £800k from providing branding both for Vote Leave and the DUP. He has DUP treasurer Gregory Campbell MP saying it is not his job, but the Electoral Commission’s, to establish where the money came from. ‘How would I know?’ So much for due diligence.

The main point here is that if there was a common plan being pursued, with the DUP money being spent in co-ordination with Vote Leave, that is a breach of the electoral law. Not ‘breaking the rules,’ as senior BBC political journalists have put it when reporting on this issue in the past. But breaking the law.

In Fitzpatrick’s film, it was a Canadian MP, taking evidence from AggregateIQ chief operating officer Jeff Silvester, who suggested ‘something doesn’t smell right’. It is a former FBI agent in New York who indicates the American authorities would take an interest in some of the transactions exposed by Spotlight. But this was a referendum in the UK, not the US or Canada. And if laws are broken in elections and referendums, those breaches should be properly investigated, by the authorities here. It should not be left to a BBC journalist whose programme his own bosses, at the national level, hope is quickly and quietly forgotten.

Nor to Carole Cadwalladr of the Observer, toiling away, deservedly winning awards, yet with most other media, and all too many MPs too, looking to ignore or undermine her work, as if it is a bad smell getting in the way of the onward march to a hard and ruinous Brexit.

At a minimum, there were serious questions raised in the film for the DUP, Vote Leave, Mr Reynolds and Mr Cook, who dealt with Fitzpatrick by means of sweeping ‘we haven’t broken the law’ statements, but without answering his points of detail. The Electoral Commission, backed by court orders, should be demanding those detailed answers and getting access to the same evidence Fitzpatrick uncovered.

There is a lot of talk, not least in the US as Donald Trump rampages through norms, of the need now more than ever to stand up for our institutions. But our institutions also need to stand up for us, and the values that hold us together, not least the institutions that are responsible for the rule of law. The Electoral Commission needs far greater powers and resources to get to the bottom of what could turn out to be the biggest UK electoral scandal of modern times.

And where are the police in all this? The same police who piled into the heart of a Labour government on the word of an SNP MP to investigate so-called ‘cash for honours’ seem to be sitting this one out, when the evidence of possible wrongdoing is greater, and the impact for the country more serious. The intelligence services too? Fitzpatrick did not get into the issue of Russian collusion, but it would seem the links of the Kremlin to the Brexit campaign are being taken more seriously in the US than here.

Tory MP Damian Collins, chair of the DCMS committee, is trying his best to get to the bottom of some of these questions, as part of his ‘fake news’ inquiry. But can the prime minister’s office, the government, or parliament, or the opposition, or the media, honestly say they are taking seriously enough the possibility that there were serious breaches of the law in the referendum? No, they are turning a blind eye, and that makes them complicit. If we do not expose, and deal with, breaches of the law now, what about the next time, and the time after that? If crime gets normalised in our elections, our democracy is done.

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