Remain’s Media-Blob complex

How the Electoral Commission and the media nearly de-railed Brexit

Artillery Row

Carole Cadwalladr, the Observer’s Orwell Prize winner, is well-known for her Beautiful-Mind-style diagrams linking together all the people she dislikes in politics. But she often neglects the most important connection for a journalist – a link to the truth.

Over the last few years The Observer has had to publish a slew of corrections in response to stories written by Cadwalladr as she fired off endless missives attempting to prove the 2016 referendum was illegitimate. For example in July 2016 the paper admitted she was wrong to say that Vote Leave’s COO Victoria Woodcock had removed herself and others on a shared Google Drive which Cadwalladr said was an attempt to hide evidence of wrongdoing from the authorities.

It is therefore unsurprising that she has failed to recognise the significance of the news that the Electoral Commission have admitted there was no evidence that Arron Banks and Liz Bilney, the CEO of Leave.EU had committed any criminal offences after the election regulator had referred them to the National Crime Agency.

Cadwalladr is known for phoning people and angrily demanding answers but her error-laden diatribes meant lobby journalists quickly became sceptical of her claims. However, over the last few years much of the press often tamely accepted her conspiracy theories. In cynical and lazy pursuit of low-information #FBPE clickbait, as much as to do with any ideological affinity. Her reporting, along with the Electoral Commission’s behaviour, has  often sparked a familiar pattern:

  1. The Electoral Commission begin an investigation/ Cadwalladr accuses a pro-Brexit group of wrongdoing
  2. Outlets like Channel 4 and the Guardian hype-up the accusations without any critical analysis of the motivations of the accuser
  3. The accused are eventually exonerated
  4. The final conclusions are barely reported if at all 

After the referendum, there were endless investigations as the Electoral Commission attempted to punish both Vote Leave and Leave.EU. When Vote Leave eventually went to court against the Electoral Commission, the regulator recruited the eye-wateringly expensive Sir James Eadie QC along with a host of other taxpayer funded Barristers in a partially successful attempt to force their opposition to fold, rather than risk paying the exorbitant court costs if they lost the case. It was a textbook case of the difference privately and publicly funded pockets can make.

“The cards are stacked against those that they regulate” says Jon Moynihan, who was the Chairman of the Finance Committee of Vote Leave and a man who suffered years of investigation and battles with the Electoral Commission. He says the election regulator: “should clearly be abolished and a rigorous review should be made of internal discussions that led to these clearly inappropriate decisions.”

Given licence by the trumped-up allegations made by the Electoral Commission, the media went to town on the story, linking the idea that the referendum was illegitimate to the clamour from the continuity Remain campaign who at the time were calling for a second referendum.

In March 2018 Channel 4 produced a special programme where it was alleged Vote Leave ‘cheated’ in the referendum – a rehashing of old claims that they had directed another campaign, BeLeave, run by student Darren Grimes on how to spend money that Vote Leave had given them. Despite the Electoral Commission failing to turn up anything previously, the justification for a whole programme was based almost solely on the new testimony of Shahmir Sanni, a BeLeave activist-turned-whistleblower whose story on a number of occasions was proven to be inaccurate.

Hoping to win the air war, the regulator ignored the requirement to give Vote Leave 48 hours notice before the media was informed

The regulator had already launched two investigations into Darren Grimes and found nothing but the Sanni story quickly led to them launching another one, where they referred him to the police and fined him the maximum amount of £20,000. It was a lead item on all the news channels and Grimes was so inundated with media calls he had to stay at a friend’s house for a week. But in 2019, when he was totally cleared in the High Court of wrongdoing and the £20,000 fine was quashed, there was next to nothing in the UK media and no mention whatsoever on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, despite the fact that a BBC reporter had dutifully recorded his victory statement outside the High Court.

The silence of the Today programme is significant because when the Commission concluded investigation number 3, almost the first time senior Vote Leave figures heard about it was when Claire Bassett, the then Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission, was being interviewed on Today. Vote Leave were offered a slot by Radio 4 to rebut the allegations but were completely blindsided by the news as the Electoral Commission had informed Vote Leave just minutes before Bassett began speaking. Hoping to win the air war, the EC ignored their regulatory requirement to give 48 hours notice before the media was informed.

The press hype around Sanni had put the Electoral Commission under pressure to reopen their investigation and find against Grimes – a conclusion which the High Court later found was “wrong in fact and law”. But if there is still any doubt this Quango is easily lent on, consider how they approached the Brexit Party.

Knowing they would be under intense scrutiny, Nigel Farage’s new outfit approached the regulator a week or so before the 2019 European Elections inviting them to take a look at the Brexit Party donations system. The EC said they were too busy but three days before a predicted Farage victory former Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote to the Electoral Commission calling on it to examine whether the party has sufficient safeguards on its website to prevent the contribution of “dirty money”. This led to the Electoral Commission raiding Brexit Party HQ in full view of tipped-off TV crews which had the effect of tying up almost half of the staff on one of the final days of campaigning. (Funnily enough, when Brexit Party staff decided to film the raiding party the Commission were furious.)

In 2018 The Sunday Telegraph found that four of the Electoral Commission’s 10 commissioners, including the chairman, had made pronouncements on Brexit since the referendum – all of them backing Remain. With the Chairman saying that he “regret[ted] the result of the referendum”, and complained about “the panoply of Eurosceptic nonsense about the EU” heard during the campaign.

Did Theresa May’s Government do anything about this curious version of impartiality? Of course not.

In October 2018 the former CEO of the Electoral Commission Claire Bassett, who did so much to hound the victors of the referendum was successful in her application to be made the head of the new Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate, a body created to prevent unfair trade practices from foreign competitors in time for Britain’s expected exit from the EU’s Customs Union. Bassett has no known experience of trade policy, and her career in the civil service consists of leading three Quangos with no links to international commerce.

But rewarding the wrong people with jobs hasn’t just happened on Theresa May’s watch. Simon Walker, Director General of the Institute of Directors and a major advocate of EU membership, was appointed ‘Chair-Designate’ of the same Quango in February 2020. Once the appropriate legislation is passed they will become the Trade Remedies Authority: “an arm’s length body”. 

As the House of Commons’ DCMS Committee piously calls for a regulator in response to its report on disinformation and ‘fake news’ it’s safe to conclude that arm’s length regulators who pursue their own agenda and the agenda of ‘the blob’ are not the solution to Britain’s problems. And Dominic Cummings, a man who suffered at the hands of the Electoral Commission, was targeted by the DCMS Committee, is the subject of perhaps a majority of the Brexit-Cadwalladr stories, and whose narrative of taking on ‘the blob’ in the department for Education has become a Tory myth – now finds himself in No.10. But so far the Blob, as Bassett’s progress exemplifies, have found themselves promoted rather than purged. Taking back control is evidently easier to say than it is to do.

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