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In Plain Sight: A Challenge and a Reply

Editor’s Note: Richard Royal wrote to us objecting to the representations made by Michael Weiss in “In Plain Sight: The Kremlin’s London Lobby.” We invited Mr. Royal to submit his objections to World Affairs. Likewise, we offered Mr. Weiss an opportunity to reply. Their comments follow.

 

‘In Plain Sight’—A Clarification

By Richard Royal 

World Affairs recently featured an article by Michael Weiss, titled “In Plain Sight: The Kremlin’s London Lobby” (Volume 175, Number 6, March/April 2013, also online here), that paints a very negative picture of the Conservative Friends of Russia, and of myself as its former chairman.

Throughout his article Weiss concocts an elaborate conspiracy theory that the Conservative Friends of Russia (CFoR) was created and run by the Russian Embassy in London, at the behest of Vladimir Putin. He makes bold statements such as labeling my colleagues and I “cynical agents of influence for the Kremlin,” supporting the claim that our group “was indeed being orchestrated by the Russian Embassy in Kensington Gardens,” and asserting that it “followed slavishly the talking points of the Russian Foreign Ministry.”

A mountain of evidence contradicts such statements, and indeed undermines the entire premise of the article. Contrary to his assertion, the creation of the group took several years and correspondence dating as far back as November 5, 2010 between myself and Conservative Campaign Headquarters proves this beyond doubt, as does other activity such as the creation of groups on social networking sites in 2010. This was long before an e-mail he refers to between a Russian diplomat and someone named Sergei Cristo. Yet apparently this e-mail was “the seed that led to CFoR’s eventual fruition.” This would be incredible, given that I had no awareness of it, had not met either person, and am yet to find anybody “familiar” with Mr. Cristo (who later approached asking the join the CFoR executive committee) despite my fifteen years in the Conservative Party. In fact, my first ever visit to the Russian Embassy in London was nearly two years later at a public event on June 20, 2012. This was also the first time that I met the diplomat in question, by which time our website was up and running and we were already advertising events.

From its inception, CFoR was run by volunteers (including myself) in our own time and we received neither wages nor expenses, nor any other form of remuneration. To baselessly attack individuals who give their time freely for a good cause is a dangerous form of journalism that can have very serious implications for those targeted. 

Despite this, Weiss insinuates fiscal impropriety, suggesting that CFoR received financial support either monetarily or in kind from the Russian Embassy or Russian government–related bodies in return for the alleged championing of its cause. In fact, in November 2012 the group submitted its financial report to Conservative Campaign Headquarters that confirmed that its relatively meager finances came from nothing other than membership fees and event ticket sales. 

This was made very clear to Weiss in an e-mail exchange I had with him on August 30, 2012 in which I informed him that “CFoR is entirely membership based, with all of its funding coming from membership and events. We have no sponsors or donors, and we do not receive money from any governments. We all work voluntarily in our own time, on the side of full-time jobs and receive no salary etc.”

CFoR always had a very clear neutral stance which was published on its website and in all other marketing materials, stating that “CFoR is politically neutral regarding Russian politics and its parties and candidates” as well as pointing out that “people from all political parties, as well as those who are non-political are welcome. We welcome anybody with a genuine interest in its history, politics and culture, as well as those who want to learn more.”

This was also made clear to Mr. Weiss in the same e-mail chain, where I added, “It is important to understand … and to remind your readers … that we are a neutral organization which believes in providing a forum for the open discussion and debate of relevant topics. We do not provide views or condemn actions but encourage members to come to their own opinions through consideration of the full facts.” Later in the e-mail chain I also stated that with regard to Russian politics “there is no organizational view. Naturally our members will have many different views and we’re delighted to have a range of opinions within our organization.”

Yet Weiss shows utter disregard for the mountain of evidence and information freely provided to him, whilst persisting in propagating entirely fabricated fairy tales that mislead your readership.

Even a cursory glance at CFoR’s events drives a horse and carriage through his arguments. On September 4, 2012 an event discussing the Pussy Riot case was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts where the chief executive of the Index on Censorship was critical of the arrest and detention of this group. CFoR promoted this event on its website and block-purchased tickets to allow its members to attend at a discounted rate. Mr. Weiss was fully aware of this. An event on February 21, 2013 was titled “The Contradictions of Putinism,” while another featured respected academics discussing the American presidential elections and contained numerous critical comments regarding Russian foreign policy. At our event in August 2012, the group’s then Vice President John Whittingdale, MP, publicly announced his opposition to the Russian government’s actions regarding Pussy Riot, a statement that was videoed and published on CFoR’s website and social media. Events taking place since then have featured human rights activists and members of the European Parliament who are openly critical of Russia. How anybody can assert that the group displayed a “string of revealing pro-Kremlin activities” is entirely inexplicable.

He also asserts that the creation and existence of CFoR was part of a wider scheme to link United Russia to the Conservative Party both in the UK and in the Council of Europe. Even putting aside our own lack of any link to this body, it is an argument that the British parliamentarian and head of the UK delegation to the Parliament of Europe, Robert Walter, MP, harpooned in an open letter published in the Guardian newspaper in December 2012. Weiss ignores this clear statement from a respected and trustworthy source, and ploughs ahead with his predetermined assertions regardless.  

Weiss also strays into absurd fallacies such as claiming that “glowing biographies of Vladimir Putin were distributed” at a CFoR event. This laughable statement actually relates to just two raffle prizes among more than thirty others such as bottles of vodka, restaurant vouchers, and pots of caviar. Both of these widely available books were signed copies donated by their authors and won by separate individuals. No other such books were present and nor was anything distributed.

The article also cites another journalist, Luke Harding, as having a conversation with me in which Mr. Harding “charged that it [CFoR] was a Russian front” and that this led to me taking our website offline. This “conversation” simply did not occur. The last time that Harding e-mailed me in November 2012 I replied that I did not believe he would report my comments fairly if I gave them, and I therefore declined. I haven’t heard from him since.

Some other comments made by Weiss, not only in this piece but in other articles and on social media, are not only untrue and misleading but are exceptionally damaging to an individual’s reputation and, it could be argued, seek to incite malice. For example he used CFoR’s criticism of a British MP, regarding the failure to hold committee meetings on time, to accuse the group of homophobia, despite the sexuality of this MP being entirely irrelevant and never mentioned. Such allegations are deeply irresponsible and undermine the battle against true homophobia.  

He also likes to repeat the claim that I gave an interview to a neo-Nazi editor of a website. Actually, I received an e-mail from an entirely different person with a list of questions for a Russian-language site. Only afterwards was it edited and published as a question-and-answer format with the editor, about whose political opinions I had no knowledge and categorically do not endorse.

Michael Weiss’s article, as well as the wider campaign against CFoR and me by him and others, seeks only to mislead, manipulating or ignoring clear and indisputable facts in favor of gratuitous preconceived conspiracies supported by fabrications and distortions. While I appreciate that any journalist would love to uncover a secret plot of the kind he insinuates, the reality is that this simply doesn’t exist. Such stories represent a disregard for journalistic ethics, including the publication of known untruths without consideration of the wider personal ramifications that such propagation can cause to the victims.

The piece may be titled “In Plain Sight” but it is simply blind to the truth.

Richard Royal is the chairman of the Westminster Russia Forum and former chairman of the Conservative Friends of Russia.

 


A Rebuttal by Michael Weiss

Richard Royal states it took several years to create CFoR beginning in November 2010. Yet the organization did not formally launch until August 2012 at a reception held in the Russian ambassador to Britain’s backyard. CFoR, as it came to exist, was therefore clearly the product of a cozy relationship between its staff and the Russian Embassy. The Economist quoted a senior Tory as saying that CFoR was “too close to the Russian embassy.” And every MP attached to the group resigned following the Guardian’s front-page exposé.

Sergei Cristo’s e-mails with Russian diplomat Sergei Nalobin demonstrate that Nalobin had been instructed by Moscow to find a pro-Kremlin Tory lobby for the purpose of solidifying United Russia’s alliance with the Conservative Party at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Other groups were initially suggested, but this is the reason why Nalobin first approached Royal and his cohort. (I risk being unkind to Royal in pointing out how cultivating pro-Kremlin opinion in Britain in general, and amongst Tories in particular, can have a consequential effect at PACE.)

Royal cites correspondence that he and I had for a previous article I wrote about CFoR for Foreign Policy magazine, which came out on the very same day that CFoR published its attack on Labor MP Chris Bryant and advocated his removal from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Russia. That attack I do consider nasty and homophobic in nature (as did Bryant).

Readers might inquire as to how running smear campaign against a member of Parliament to try and influence the makeup of a non-partisan parliamentary commission is consonant with having no “organizational view.” Indeed, Royal now asks that I take his old comments to me about the group’s supposed “neutrality” at face-value following its disgraceful collapse and public shaming. Yet there is, as he might say, a mountain of evidence, to substantiate what that view was.

In a Guardian op-ed, Royal wrote that Russia’s “democracy … is only just approaching its 21st birthday.” There is no democracy in Russia, as successive reports about Russian elections by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have concluded, and as the Putinist crackdown on NGOs and oppositional activities amply demonstrates. Freedom House lists Russia as “not free.” The Economist also noted that the Tory-linked website Conservative Home “rejected several pro-Kremlin articles offered by CFOR.” Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who acted as the lobby’s “honorary president,” resigned saying that the attack on Bryant represented the “final straw” in a series of troubling indicators of how CFoR was being run.

Royal says: “From its inception, CFoR was run by volunteers (including myself) in our own time and we received neither wages nor expenses, nor any other form of remuneration.” This is an odd definition of “expenses.” In taking himself and other CFoR members on a trip to Russia that was paid for by the Russian state-owned cultural agency, Rossotrudnichestvo, CFoR clearly did receive money—thousands of pounds, in fact—from the Russian government. I allege no “fiscal impropriety”; it’s perfectly legal for a lobby to go on a trip for which an authoritarian regime foots the bill. But it is disingenuous to claim that you are completely self-funded in your activities if you do so.

My article was a discussion of CFoR’s agitprop, which ceased in November 2012. Royal claims that attending, and encouraging others to attend, third-party events at which criticism of the Russian regime were presented is further proof of CFoR’s unbiased disposition. In that case, the Russian Foreign Ministry is a wholly objective body because it, too, attends events in London and elsewhere at which Russian opposition figures or regime critics speak, usually for the purpose of recording what gets said, but often for the purpose of asking hectoring “questions.” (The first gaffe that got CFoR into trouble was its website news feed, which had consisted solely of state-controlled media outlets and featured an article on the “miserable meowing of Pussy Riot.”)  If the Westminster Russia Forum has learned from its predecessor’s PR snafus and has decided to host serious discussions about Russia, then I congratulate them.

Luke Harding e-mailed Royal in November 2012 asking him to comment on the fact that CFoR was being orchestrated by the Russian Embassy. Royal responded, stating his refusal to comment. This constitutes a “conversation.” CFoR’s website went offline before the Guardian exclusive appeared, indicating an awareness that a publication of its ties to Nalobin might serve as CFoR’s obituary, as it did. This is what I wrote and what Royal himself corroborates yet classifies as an inaccuracy in my piece. (I’ve since checked this again with Harding, who also confirms it.)

Royal says that he gave an interview not to Ilya Goryachev, a Russian neo-Nazi, but to a third party, and was horribly tricked when the interview appeared suggesting he spoke directly to Goryachev. Odd, then, that CFoR hosted this interview on its own website, which is where I first discovered it and which linked to the original transcript at “Right World.” That grim portal lists as laudatory European political parties France’s National Front, Hungary’s anti-Semitic Jobbik, and Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.

If a failure to do his homework or to behave skeptically when approached by Russian officials bearing gifts, free trips, and happily proffered event venues is all that Royal is guilty of, then he cannot blame me for harming a reputation that he himself so easily and repeatedly put in harm’s way.

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