I’ve tagged this piece to link it to my series on Anti-Russian propaganda in the UK press. But really it belongs in a special category of its own devoted to the ravings of Guardian journalist Luke Harding. Harding – who was once posted to Moscow (and whose tenure ended when the Russians declined to renew his Visa – a matter which he depicts as being ‘thrown out’ of Russia) – is notorious for his “join the dots” journalism on Russia. (His words). For Harding “joining the dots” means inventing all sorts of stories which – for Harding at least – must be true because they are the only possible explanation which connects some dots. He shows you the dots – simple facts in the public domain – and then claims that the dots prove the lines – his stories which “connect the dots”. He is informing us about the lines which must be there because of the dots. The alternative explanation is that the lines are purely in Harding’s own head.
In this piece, in which the word caviar is mentioned no less than 4 times, Harding reports on a recent visit by UK Prime Minister Johnson to a party in London hosted by a Russian entrepreneur who owns the Tory supporting London Evening Standard – Evgeny Lebedev. The party was attended by top Conservative and Labour party figures. To build up the picture a previous and suspicious visit by Johnson to a Lebedev party in Italy is also mentioned; apparently he went in the role of private citizen. Politicians sometimes attend events in their capacity of a private citizen; but to acknowledge this would detract from the story which Harding sees here. Evgeny Lebedev is a British citizen. He is the son of Alexander Lebedev. Alexander Lebedev started his career in the KGB and in the 1990s left the KGB and established himself as a businessman. Alexander Lebedev part owns the New Gazette – an independently owned (non-state) newspaper in Russia.
Harding reports that “Johnson chose to celebrate with a foreign intelligence officer with the rank of a lieutenant colonel, who graduated from the KGB’s Red Banner Institute.” In fact Alexander Lebedev has left the KGB and the USSR has dissolved, so in reality Alexander Lebedev is not “a foreign intelligence officer” . If Harding is claiming that Alexander Lebedev is currently working for the FSB that would be interesting but he doesn’t openly claim this and zero evidence is presented.
Harding also claims:
In reality, however, he [Alexander Lebedev] is on warm terms with the Kremlin. In 2014 he publicly supported Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, where Lebedev owns a hotel complex in the seaside resort of Alushta. In 2017 he staged a media symposium there. It was arranged – he told Russian state TV – to correct a false impression of Crimea put out by a “biased” western media.
In reality virtually all Russians, from all political positions, support the Russian annexation of Crimea. Simply supporting this move does not make a Russian a supporter of Putin. Again – zero evidence is offered for the claim that Alexander Lebedev is specifically “linked to Putin”. Just as likely – Alexander Lebedev was promoting his hotel.
The overall claim put forward by Harding in this piece is that the Lebedevs’ parties are cover for secret meetings between Johnson and his FSB handlers. This would be a great story-line in a novel in a genre of political fiction. But it remains, from a journalistic point of view, one of Harding’s lines. The connections he sees but which are not apparent simply based on the facts.
The article, which is co-authored by the Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh, ends with a reference to “Moscow’s darker global agenda”. In the Cold War such language may have made sense – the USSR did (like the USA) seek to spread its ideology around the world. Now, however, Moscow acts like any other capital. In pursuit of its national interest it is interested in establishing relations internationally and and having allied states around the world. This activity – which is open and akin to how all other nations behave (except perhaps those which pursue their political ends by military might such as the US) is only “dark” for those who have got it into their heads that Russians are some kind of evil gremlins opposed to everything of value and decency in the world. In psychology this is known as a ‘projection’.