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The Mail on Sunday’s groundless attack on the Legatum Institute

Most of us have learnt not to take Mail on Sunday headlines seriously. Just last weekend, for example, the newspaper splashed with a ‘David Davis is on the brink of resigning’ headline. I chaired a conference on Tuesday at which the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union was due to speak and had an extended opportunity, therefore, to talk to Mr Davis. Everything he said to me privately, and publicly at the conference, pointed to a minister who had no intention of quitting… and seven days after the MoS splash, Mr Davis is still the SoS for DExEU.

And, also, seven days later we have another Mail on Sunday look-at-me, look-at-me front page and given my personal knowledge of the subject matter, I know it to be at least as ridiculous as last week’s. The key insinuation is that a Mayfair-based think tank, the Legatum Institute, is somehow taking pro-Brexit positions because of some dubious and deep-rooted link to Vladimir Putin. Complete ‘дерьмо’ (crap/bullshit) as they say in Moscow.

The headline connects two undeniable facts:

  1. It is true that the chief funder of the Institute, Christopher Chandler made a lot of money during the transition from the old Soviet Union’s planned economy to the new Russia’s sometimes wild free market. The story of how he and his brother made that money via “bold bets” is recorded by Institutional Investor1.
  2. Nearly two decades later the Legatum Institute is home to some key pro-Brexit thinkers – who, because of their expertise, have been useful to ministers.

In drawing a straight line between (1) and (2) the MoS misses out information that – if it had been reported – would have completely undermined today’s headline and its poisonous insinuation. The idea that the positions taken by Legatum are somehow dictated by the Kremlin is ludicrous. I state this because of my personal knowledge of Legatum and the people behind it.  I accepted a paid commission from the Legatum Institute in 2015 and spent much of that year getting to know a great deal about LI and its workings. To those who think I (and this defence of LI) might have been ‘bought’, I state that I have not received any payment from the Institute during the two years since that commission was completed. I am an honorary fellow of LI but that position is unpaid and I accepted the title because of my belief in the integrity and wisdom of the LI’s leadership and founders, not because of any current payment or promise of future payment. I would have resigned if I believed any of the mud being thrown at the Institute was other than smears.

The Legatum Institute and Putin

During my time at LI a key programme was a study of the transition nations of central and eastern Europe:

  • Mark Wallace has Tweeted about some of the key events hosted by Legatum during that time. One event focused on President Putin’s “unprecedented disinformation campaign… being waged across online forums, airwaves and media sites across Europe”, another on “how the Russian government has broken a host of international treaties”; and another on how a “democratic facade has masked the construction of a new authoritarian model in Russia”.
  • Events like those above (and there were many, many more) helped inspire attacks on Legatum by the Kremlin stooges at Russia TV.
  • The attacks on Russia and Putin from within Legatum were not without consequence. During my nine or so months at LI I was part of the senior staff team and part, therefore, of conversations about how to protect the LI website from Russian cyber-attacks. Many of the LI events were broadcast live on the internet and there were indeed attacks (from unidentified sources) on the website when anti-Kremlin talks or book launches were underway. I think we can all make a guess about the true originators of those attacks.

Does this events and publications programme – and their consequences – sound like one run by a man/Institute in Putin’s pay?

Surprise, surprise, none of the above is mentioned by the Mail on Sunday – because any reference to it would have shown their headline and every word that followed to have been ridiculous.

The Legatum Institute and capitalism

My role at LI was to produce a report on the reform of capitalism. ‘Prosperity for All‘ was published in November 2015 and it contained recommendations for greater government involvement in some areas of economic life – including infrastructure investment, house-building, more intensive measurement of social life, bank restructuring, a shift to fairer rather than freer trade, and patent reform – that did not fit with the views of Christopher Chandler or some of his more libertarian colleagues. Their response to that divergence? ‘Please keep writing for us – we want a free exchange of ideas under the LI’s roof’. I declined the offer because I was heading to the USA with The Times to cover the US election on a full-time, full-on basis. While the LI has been far from perfect as a think tank (personnel management has often been highly unsatisfactory, for example), I never saw anything to make me doubt the integrity of the people who founded and funded it – before or after the establishment of the LI’s charitable identity. The support of LI’s founders for me to explore a more interventionist economic policy also suggests that some of the criticisms levelled at them – about “disaster capitalism” – do an injustice to them.

While Anne Applebaum, who ran the Institute’s transitions programme has since moved to the London School of Economics, you can still watch many of those Putin-critical events on LI’s video page – plus a few of my events.  And two days ago, Edward Lucas – probably one of the Kremlin’s most hardline critics – penned this for his Friday column in The Times:

“I have worked with Legatum on a report into Russian disinformation and my wife, Cristina Odone, is a consultant there. She happens to be against Brexit, as are many of her colleagues. They, like her, work on programmes which have nothing to do with Britain’s foreign policy. These nuances are lost in a climate which leaves no room for disagreement. Brexiteers, in the eyes of the most ardent Remainers, are not just wrong, but wrong-headed. If they are sincere, they must be mad. Nobody could believe this stuff. So they are probably in the pay of Moscow, or else they are disaster capitalists, acting out of naked self-interest. They and their horrible views should be ignored. Anyone who works with them should be shunned.”

Bullseye. The bad losers at the Mail on Sunday – which has been as anti-Brexit as its daily stablemate has been pro-Brexit – want to paint the June 2016 referendum outcome as somehow illegitimate – bought by Russia. While there may be questions about Russian interference in western democracies (and questions about the robustness of some LI positions on trade), the idea that Legatum, with its track record and commitment to free expression – is part of a conspiracy is complete nonsense. I am genuinely appalled at the Mail on Sunday’s “journalism” and the unnecessary and unjustified attacks on the good people at LI.  I hope this blogpost has gone some way to explain why.