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It's Friday, August the 7th, and you're very welcome to the Inside Politics podcast from the Irish Times. I'm Hugh Lennon.
Money and political power are inextricably bound together. Political success is easily achieved with financial backing down without. And the history of politics is littered with examples of venality, cronyism, influence peddling and corruption. The last five years have shown that British politics is particularly vulnerable to manipulation by vested interests and well financed fringe groups. So says Peter Gagan, the UK based Irish journalist who leads the investigations unit at the Open Democracy News website. Kagan's new book, Democracy for Sale, Dark Money and Dirty Politics, looks at covert financing and shady dealings during the Brexit referendum and in the general elections of 2017 and 2019, drawing some worrying conclusions.
We talked earlier, Peter, you're very welcome back to the podcast. Had you on before, of course, for the benefit of our readers. Can you tell us how you came to be an expert on all these activities?
Well, thanks for for having me back on. And actually, I think it's it feels quite apt to be talking to the Irish Times about this, because actually it was while working for your August institution that I really stumbled across this story are these stories that started me on this journey basically four years ago. And I was I've also freelanced for the Irish Times and I was doing some work up in the north east of England ahead of the Brexit referendum. People remember, like almost four years ago.
Exactly. This is the big issue was will Britain leave the European Union? And I was up in Sunderland, which kind of became a bit of a poster child for the vote to leave European Union. I was writing a feature for the paper by two or three days before the vote itself.
And when I was there, I noticed something quite curious. I was getting the train back from Sunderland into Newcastle and on the local train I kind of picked up the Metro, which is the Freesheet newspaper that circulates across Britain. And there was a big advert on the front of the Metro. It said, vote, leave, take back control. And that was like the big slogan of the Brexit campaign. But I turned it over. I know on the back it was a DLP, the Democratic Unionist Party logo, a little imprint that said paid for by the DUP.
That's very curious. Why is the DUP kind of advertising in Sunderland? Quite an expensive looking piece of a piece of advertisement to and I kind of didn't think that much about it and folded the newspaper away. And I kind of got on my right my copy actually for the next day's paper. And I kind of fell into the back of my mind, but I kept a bit of an interest on it because I used to work in Belfast. I knew the political donations in Northern Ireland were kept secret.
So you didn't have to disclose who made the donations under a loophole from the Troubles. And it never really mattered before because it was never people in that in pumping money into Northern Irish seats because it wasn't that many of them. So as time went on, I started doing a bit more research into this and I end up getting in touch with a journalist, local democracy for that and RAMSI. And he'd been in Edinburgh just before the referendum and he noticed lots of Botley placards, which had the same imprint paid for by the Democratic Unionist Party.
And we were just very puzzled by this, too. Why is a deep funding funding placards in Edinburgh? So we started, we got together and we ended up kind of doing a lot of digging into this, trying to find out what was happening. And then around February of twenty seventeen, we published a long story that was able to say that the DUP had spent at least a quarter million pounds on the Brexit campaign. And they put that in context.
That's five times as much as the DPI had spent on the previous Stormont election. This is a huge sum of money for Northern Irish politics, never really been seen before. And it caused a bit of a stir at the time. The Stormont has just collapsed. The Origi inquiry was starting into the renewable heating incentive. And there's a lot of questions about money in Northern Irish politics. And as we went down, we started trying to dig around this a bit more.
And eventually it came out that almost the DPI had received a donation of four and thirty five thousand pounds for Brexit campaign. And just in the run up to the referendum and more than that, it also marks this money had come through a thing called the Constitutional Research Council, which sounds quite grand, but actually turns out really just have been one man called Richard Cook, who lives in the people's house and a fabulous semi-detached house on the outskirts of Glasgow.
And Mr Cook, a very colourful business pass, had actually been in business with the head of Saudi secret intelligence and all sorts of other kind of things leading on from it. And that really was the thing that started me going, well, how does money work in British politics? Is it possible to spend like half a million pounds and nobody knows where it comes from? And it turns out it is? Actually, I've written an entire book and I still don't know what the Democratic Unionist Party money has come from, but I hope I found some other interesting things.
I was. Do you have any suspicions as to where it came from? Well, it's really difficult to to kind of put a handle on it, because the Democratic Unionist Party has never really raised any money from private donations in the past. So what's happened is subsequently to come to my work and my work, my colleagues, they have changed the legislation or announced no donations are made public, which sounds great. But actually, because the. Our nation to this point, there's been almost no donations ever declared to Northern Ireland.
It's been a couple to Ian Paisley Junior, you might be familiar to some of our listeners in our town. And that's where you get. So the Democratic Party doesn't really Andre's in any sizable way from donors, which makes it really difficult to figure out where have come from. Richard Cook, as well as having various business interests around the world, there was quite a prominent Scottish conservative. He'd been the vice chairman of the Conservative Party. I will be well known in union circles.
So the suggestion is possibly it could have been another unionist donor or somebody else who was looking to try and avoid transparency by funneling the money to switch. But we don't know. Actually, in my book, I have one kind of little little snippet about this story, which hasn't been released before, which is that Matthew Elliott, who is the head of the leave campaign, used to be very, very close to Michael Gove and others in British politics.
About two months before the referendum, he did write an email saying, don't forget the Democratic Unionist Party can spend up to seven hundred thousand pounds exclamation mark. So really, it could have come from any of the kind of the world of money that has fluctuated around the Brexit referendum campaign.
Now, obviously, that's a very serious issue. But part of the part of me looking at that story says somebody was kind of cute. They looked at the rules, they figured out how the rules worked, and they made those rules work to their advantage. And I'm not saying that's good, but it's certainly not illegal. And particularly in relation to the the Brexit campaign, it is quite true that it's not as if the odds were entirely stacked in favour of leave.
In fact, the great majority of the British establishment, including the then government and most of the city and most of industry, were on the other side of the argument. So you can understand why there was a bit of sharp practice going.
Oh, yes, it's a point I actually make in my book that the British, the way the British establishment in the Brexit referendum is behind the Remain campaign. And you're totally right. A lot of the stuff that I wrote about in that I've been writing about often occasionally is something that's illegal. But more often than not, it's perfectly within the rules. If you look at the problem actually is that the rules are so are really just designed almost to to to not be to not be followed.
I compared a lot to the tax system. If you look at the city of London and tax, if you really rich, you pay almost no tax.
You know how to bend the rules. You know how to work the system. The little guy is the guy who ends up following orders and the guy who ends up getting caught out if they make a mistake. But actually, if you're big enough, you can get away with anything to push the boundaries. So in Britain, the official leave campaign leave was found to have broken the law during the referendum, but it only got find twenty thousand pounds because that's the maximum fine you can get.
So the campaign did spend seven million twenty be fined twenty thousand pounds. It's very that's exactly those legal opportunities or the lack of legal opportunities that allow campaigners to kind of get away to push the envelope as far as they can. It's really different if you look at like, say, America, where some of your listeners may be familiar with a kind of one of Donald Trump's kind of lieutenants ended up in prison for breaking electoral law. That doesn't happen in Britain and it doesn't happen in Ireland either.
I think we've got used to a system where we kind of think that everyone will play within the rules. And generally that probably was the case for a long time. But now more and more, I think what we're seeing is people pushing the rules further and further because they know they can get away with just breaking it outright.
And we might come to what? To what end? Those those are being put in a moment. I suppose traditionally when people think of money in politics, they think of corruption. They think of politicians enriching themselves by taking money back and then giving favors to people in business or financial interests or whatever it might be.
There is potentially a significant amount of that underlying some of the things that go on in your book. But there's there's more than that, isn't there? There's a kind of there's there's an ideological project at play here which is being supported by the activities.
Yes. I think that's I talk about a bit in my book as well, coming from rural Ireland, growing up and kind of the brown envelope culture that anybody in Ireland growing up I grew up in the 80s was aware of. And I think that's a very in some ways that's quite reductive version of corruption. You give someone money and they do something for you, and then someone catches a part, a kind of form of corruption that once you it can be dealt with.
Actually, once you take out once you take out the money aspect of it, you can see it. It's hard to change it. Can we change? What we see in Britain, I think is something much more subtle. And in that respect, it's actually much more pernicious. Political parties all rely on private money, in particular the Conservative Party on private money. But not just that. What we've seen is this kind of ideological kind of entry into British politics.
And the reason I write so much about the Brexit referendum is for that reason, you know, lots of people in Britain vote for Brexit for lots of different reasons. And we won't we can never say exactly what those words. What we can say is that the Brexit. Itself, followed by 20 years of very successful campaigning by a very small group of right wing conservatives who were very Atlanticists are very tied to the American Republican Party and the fringe of the Republican Party.
And these were people for whom they saw the European Union as a kind of bastion of regulation, that they were very much against their very much in the kind of Thatcherite model of of Britain. They want to see this kind of buccaneering global growth and these kind of phrases we've heard a lot about at times over the last four years. And this is very much their vision. And if I was really surprised when I started researching and writing this book, just how much this could be traced to what or what would be called think tanks.
These are kind of really lobbying organizations that kind of quite fancy names like the Institute of Economic Affairs and Policy Exchange to sound like quite banal, quite neutral neutral organizations. But actually also these are really corporate lobbying bodies. These organizations are mainly funded by corporate donors and they don't have to declare their donors come from, but they're very, very influential to getting ideas onto the political page in Britain. And I think a really interesting example of that really has been actually this whole argument on naughtier Brexit.
I'm sure a lot of listeners remember when even the Brexit referendum happened. No one was talking about leaving without a deal. That really wasn't the kind of conversation that was happening. And it's been very interesting to see how that shifted. What's become WTO terms. That's become an Australian style of Brexit, which is basically leaving without a deal. And what I think has been very influential in doing that is a small number of these kind of right wing think tanks that have put out things like policy papers.
They've appeared on kind of broadcast media in particular, but also in the print media to argue that it's nothing to worry about here. It's totally fine. This is leaving on WTO terms. That's a that's a really good thing. And a lot of these groups, lot of the individuals involved have their roots in that kind of a transatlantic vision of of Britain.
Britain's role in the world is very much tied to America and is actually very far away from the conversation that was happening during the Brexit referendum. And I think that's one of the things I find is that's how kind of money and influence can have a huge effect and also very cheaply. So I write a lot about one organization, the Institute of Economic Affairs, which is quite a fascinating organisation. It's basically the oldest think-tank libertarian think tank in the world. It was settled down an alleyway in the city of London in the nineteen fifties by a man called Anthony Fisher, who'd gone to hijack and said to him, What should I do?
I want to influence politics. And that's Friedrich Hayek, the economist that the father of of modern libertarianism, I suppose.
Very much so. And Friedrich Hayek was teaching in LSC and Friedrich Hayek such and don't become a politician. You want to influence the ideas that people talk about. And that's why you set up a think tank, which is to kind of put these ideas out there. And he then went on to found about one hundred and fifty think tanks in America, all pushing very, very similar ideas. And what what what what the IAEA was able to do is to leverage very small amounts of money, which are anonymous corporate donations into huge amounts of media and influence.
So a couple of years ago, the IAEA's turnovers were two million pounds and they estimated they'd made sixty six million pounds worth of media coverage. And that's how it is. And that's a small amount of money I think can really shape political systems and our political conversations in ways that we don't really see or just looking at how much money goes into a political party or how much money to spend on an advertising campaign.
It's it's all fascinating that one of the things that is interesting is that it's sort of contrast activity in the United Kingdom, in the United States, as well as the close links, as you say, between think tanks in London and think tanks in Washington, DC. One of the big differences in the UK is that, as you say, the money itself is not that big.
You can buy quite a lot of influence for quite a small amount of money. That's one of the things I think when I first started doing this work, I found most surprising I came to it thinking, well, actually, Britain doesn't have that much of a problem of money in politics because it's just not that much money there. If you look at the United States, the twenty eighteen midterm elections, about six billion dollars spent in the twenty eighteen midterm election, say for fifty thousand pounds, you can become a member every year of what's called the leaders group of conservative donors.
And for that, you get a meeting every quarter with the prime minister and senior cabinet ministers in a room. You in just a few hundred donors, it's all off the record. It's totally private. That's formations zero for fifty thousand pounds. That's nothing compared to America.
But actually, the more I look at it, the more I think it means that Britain is even more susceptible to influence from small amounts of money. And actually the system can be pushed further because in America you end up with actually lots of money from all sides. George Soros is a big donor. The Democratic side is lots of big donors on the Republican side. So you end up actually it's not very nice, but you end up with a lot of money and almost like a bottle of money.
Whereas in Britain, very few people give money to political parties. Very few people spend money to try and influence political process. So that means you can have far more influence when you actually do do that. I spoke to a man called Coalbed who is a former conservative minister who actually was a member of the European Research Group, who I'm sure some listeners remember, and a hard line conservative group that really pushed for the hardest possible Brexit. Now, Mr Blair is against Brexit.
These kind of describe the European Research Group. It's kind of it's basically into a cult. But what was interesting to me was he said, like in America, you have to spend millions and millions. But actually in Britain, if you spend a quarter of a million pounds, I think to give a small amount of money to a political party, you can have huge influence, far more than you would do with a similar donation, probably anywhere else.
And I wonder why is that? I can kind of see it. I mean, I've read stuff about the history of the IEA, for example, previously, and it's great triumph, of course, unexpected triumph, I think at the time was the coming of coming to power. Margaret Thatcher at the end of the nineteen seventies and the changes she brought in, which they obviously half heartedly approved of. But the think tanks themselves or set up, I suppose, as a kind of countervailing force to what was seen as a liberal establishment or a centre left establishment in the universities and various other kind of the media, the various other areas of intellectual power or various elites.
But now I think you argue in the book, it's fair to say they're really there mostly to get on the telly and get on the radio and make arguments on that on that sort of surface, as opposed to bringing up academic papers are doing doing, I suppose, deeper and deeper work.
Yeah, I think that's one of the most interesting aspects of it. I spoke to people who were involved and I totally agree. These think tanks actually arguably came out of an important moment. Not what you had was the post-war consensus in Britain, the Conservatives and Labour after World War two and for many decades afterwards, basically both agree that the should of a very big role in the economy. It's basically a planned economy. And these people are pushing back against this.
And they were very influential. They became their ideas firm quickly, far faster. Think they ever thought it would happen, became influential in government. But fast forward to now.
These groups really are producing particularly interesting ideas. It's very, very predictable. It's the kind of stuff about the nanny state. Some of them now become very much involved, the kind of anti mass movement in Britain. It's it's really predictable, kind of very American style culture war stuff they're getting involved with. And so in the think tank, working in Britain, I've really noticed this. I spoke to one person off the record, my book, who said, like, these think tanks have lost their way.
This one's a senior person. Right? And look, they've completely lost away way. They're just chasing social media. They're just chasing controversy. But there's actually no new ideas at the back. And I think there is a crisis and you're seeing it on both sides of the Atlantic in libertarian, in libertarianism and kind of libertarian capitalist thinking. They're on the back foot in America. And Donald Trump was not the libertarian candidate by any stretch of the imagination.
And similarly, in Britain, while there is they've kind of done very well with Brexit in terms of getting Brexit to happen. And they're still are clinging onto this idea of buccaneering goldbrick. And the reality is what people want and what people vote for looks to be very different from that. And just an intellectual crisis. I think at the heart of it is a very messy mangosteen. Westlake, you used to work for Theresa May and is quite well versed in this and what he calls what he calls them, Thatcherite LARP as live action role play, basically performance of conservatism, instead of actually coming up with ideas which the IAEA and their fellow travelers in the seventies did have ideas that policy papers, they try to get things happen, but you end up with is this very kind of culture wars style thing.
And what you also end up with is becoming very much in hock to your donors. So if you are getting money saved for the drinks industry, you're then producing papers that are due to a tax on alcohol or bad. Similarly from the cigarette lobby. And it's not particularly it's not particularly profound. It's not particularly provocative. It's actually it's a bit tawdry. Actually, I think the ability for something that's told is that to influence politics is something that I personally I find quite concerning is one reasons I dedicate quite a bit of my book to trying to understand how that happens.
So there is this paradox or this internal contradiction between these two forms of cancer are very different forms of conservatism are right of center further and right of center right wing thinking between the nationalist protectionism of Donald Trump or the the the old Redwall, which is now a blue wall in northern England. And on the other hand, these absolutely, really committed rollback, the state conservatives that are going to blow up in their face.
And I think that's a really interesting question, not just for Britain, but almost globally. Looking ahead to the twenty twenty American election, there's feels like there's a clash coming between these two forces. So if you take just Britain, we're going we're kind of heading towards Brexit end game. They are antithetical positions. On the one hand, you have some of the people, the kind of people I write about in my book, the kind of bubar free marketeers to think these think tanks, who are we want to get rid of all trade barriers.
We reimagining Britain as a kind of force for global free trade versus the reality of the loss of the voters who wanted this to happen to kind of Redwall voters who gave Boris Johnson his majority. They do not want to see no tariff barriers. So when you see someone like Professor Patrick Minford, who's been around for a very long time, who appears on so many of you think tanks, someone just a kind of a side is sometimes multiplied as one street in London called Tufton Street that probably has hundreds of these think tanks listed on some of these kind of pop up just as websites now.
And the Patrick Minford was a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher before the referendum. He said that basically the car industry in Britain would go, but that's OK because we get rid of tariffs on vehicles and on goods going in and out of Britain. So but that's OK because it be replaced by something much better. It is kind of Singapore on Thames Vision, which does not tally at all with the people who who voted for Brexit. And that's the problem.
What happens with kind of a very broad based electoral coalition, the the kind of intellectual ideas for the Brexit project and what is now Britain's projects for twenty twenty, if given the chance and support for it, are really based in this kind of free market vision of Britain. But the coalition of voters that actually won the referendum isn't. And it does feel like we're going to come to some crunch point and you can already start to see on the edges of this and say on the edge of the Conservative Party in Britain, a fraying around this kind of a split between especially these new Tory MP from Redwall seats who would see themselves as quite what was Steve Bannon.
And but when I spoke to in the book calls economic nationalists and these kind of European research group type people who want to see global free trade in Britain and the middle of some sort of Empire 2.0.
And at the moment, it looks more likely, I think, that the economic nationalists will win out the argument, given the sheer weight of numbers and where given that there was a report on it last week, only in the UK do the Russians fit into all this.
But it's interesting and my I don't talk massively about Russia in my book, and I found the Russia for quite a fascinating document because it had taken nine months to come out. Boris Johnson spent a huge amount of political capital in trying to keep it out. And when it came out, it makes a lot of quite general points around things like disinformation in Britain, the role of potential role of the Kremlin in disinformation campaigns both join the Scottish independence referendum and the Brexit referendum.
It doesn't make any kind of solid claims on any either of those because it says that the British government didn't investigate any of those things. And more interestingly to me, I think was the points about the role of Russian money in Britain and in British politics. Britain has been a laundromat really long. The city of London, it seemed a lot of dirty money from the Soviet post-Soviet states and particularly in Russia. The Conservative Party have taken in significant amounts of money from Russian born donors, many of whom were given passports in the nineteen nineties, basically both passports.
But even more concerning, I thought, was that buried away in the middle of this 50 page document or two paragraphs that say that when it comes to democracy in Britain, does not any agency does. No agency of government is actually really in charge of democracy, of making sure that the democratic process in Britain is safe and secure, does lots of different government bodies, things like the electoral commission, government departments, the defence aspects of defence community, which should have some sort of say in it.
But actually, when it comes down to crunch, does nobody actually looking at the health in the state of British democracy, whether that's disinformation campaigns online or what, what I think can be much more effective is spending money and gaining influence by influencing politicians. I mean, no, the politicians can be influenced because really, at the end of the day, when you spend money, when you give money to somebody like that. It's very hard for them not to be influenced, and especially in a situation we've seen in Britain, where individual Conservative MPs and government ministers received sizeable donations not just from from Russian born donors, but from lots of donors who have vested interest in and certain things happening or not happening.
So we've had this big scandal. So we'll run through all of it running this summer to do it. Robert Reich, who is the housing minister, and he get planning permission for we actually expedite the planning commission for Richard Desmond, who is a conservative donor, donors, a huge property developer. And Mr General admitted what it was called, quote unquote, apparent bias in pushing through this decision. Basically, what he did was he pushed through the planning process and a kind of quite a controversial scheme.
He saved Mr Desmond. Forty five million pounds in the process. And it's kind of at it's it's left a lot of people asking questions about the potential for influence, because Mr Desmond sat next to Robert Reich at a conservative dinner a couple of months before him and showed him videos on his phone of the development and then subsequently made a small donation to Conservative Party. And what's almost worse than the influence is actually how it erodes people's trust in a democratic system.
And the two countries in the world that have the lowest levels of satisfaction with democracy are the United Kingdom and the United States. They are two countries in the world where money has the biggest role in politics. And I think it's very hard not to see a connection between the kind of loss of faith and the erosion of trust in politics and the role of money. Yeah, that's that's that's very interesting, I mean, it's not that the UK and the US are not the only places where this is happening, though.
I mean, obviously some of the some of the the trends you describe are happening across across many democracies. And we wouldn't have had a vote to leave the EU or do to vote for Donald Trump or a number of other manifestations of of these kinds of politics over the last few years, were it not for the fact that there was a very real disenchantment, distrust, loss of faith in traditional democratic institutions and the elites who've been running them. So it was an opportunity which was taken up?
Oh, very much so, yeah. And I think that's you know, it's the you couldn't have had it's not as if you can people are manipulated, can be manipulated just by social media ads and someone spending a couple of pounds to lobby somebody. And I think that's where sometimes we can get over kind of deterministic with this. You can go this is the Brexit referendum happened because there was an advert in the train. That's not that's not how politics works.
You have to have the kind of substrata below that in which people, as you say, people become increasingly disenchanted. What are Labour voters in red will see to then turn to of conservatism, both the Brexit as well? Are there the kind of American heartlands where the Democrats were once strong to vote for Donald Trump? And I think what you're seeing is I think this role of money is part of this wider alienation between and between the electorate and politicians.
The more successful politicians at the moment aren't those who are whiter than the ones who are trying to change the system, but they are the ones who are able to position themselves as against the previous system. And that's what you've seen in Britain. Boris Johnson has done that really successfully. Dominic, coming to someone, I suppose, at length in the book has really successfully constructed himself as the anti-establishment maverick who's going in there and who's going to get stuff done.
I just broke a story a couple of weeks ago with The Guardian about how a company that Dominic Cummings is friends run had been given a public contract for almost a million pounds to run focus groups with no tenders and having never done any government work before, which feels very much like it's that's the kind of thing that is still at the moment. It's if you can present yourself as you can, if you can be perceived as the anti-establishment figure, you will succeed in terms of electricity, because there is lots and lots of, I think, very, very genuine grievances with the political system as it currently exists.
And I think there's a kind of I would sometimes be concerned by people who, like you, look at the kind of work that I and my colleagues do and say, OK, what we need to do is kind of we need to just stop all of these things happening. And then the good people from the nineties will take over again. They kind of look back to the Blair. And if we can just stop all this nasty stuff happening, Blair and Brown, the kind of the twenty the twenty first century, then we'll come back.
And actually, to be honest, what we're reaping is the seeds of that type of politics in Britain. Tony Blair was the kind of archetype of the kind of Dominic Cummings model of managing the media, of rewarding political friends and allies of cash for honours in cash for questions as well. These are both features of of Tony Blair's administration as well as conservative administration. So and I think that's the thing I find I think there needs to be a reckoning in a kind of trying to gauge with the role of money in politics.
And A, it doesn't just say we just need to go back to where we were before.
I very much take that point. But isn't it true to some extent at least, and you've already said that getting mainstream media platforms is as important as possibly more important than social media? Social media is one of the things digital communications are one of the things that have changed our society in many ways, including our politics very profoundly. And we come back again to who's got the money and who's spending it and how are they spending, how accountable and how visible is that?
Well, what's fascinating in the British context, not dissimilar in Ireland, we saw some of this around the referendum, is that you've got a situation in Britain where we actually can tell so little about what's done in politics online. We can tell almost nothing about this.
It's because the laws were written for the analog age. So so, for example, this is a tiny example. If you get a leaflet through your door before an election, it will have a little imprint on the back. It says you paid for a political party. None of that exists online. You don't do any of that online. So what we've seen is online has become the wild west of politics.
You can push messages, you can push much harder messages online and used to publish in print.
It means you can have a kind of a variation, conversations where you can target adverts, but also not just necessarily target just the people of a particular geographical areas or a particular kind of mediums. So in the past, you know, people do have to put their posters up at the end of the at the end of the road. Everyone saw them, everyone saw the message. And so they had a kind of constraining effect on just how extreme I think our politics will get, just how kind of visceral the kind of messaging political campaigns would use that's really gone out the window.
We saw that in a big way in Britain during the twenty nineteen general election where I think we saw a level of kind of hard nosed messaging and of a kind of pushing the envelope that we hadn't seen before. So, for example, there was a live debate with Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leader in the run up to the vote. And during the debates, the Conservative Party changed name its Twitter account to fact check UK and pretended it was fact checking and generally pretended it was fact checking and what what Jeremy Corbyn was saying, rather than being a part political organisation.
So there's a lot with many other examples that were taking place. So what you're seeing is that online politics allows. We saw it in 2016 as well with Donald Trump or a lot of the most extreme conversations were happening online. And that then filters in. I think it can then almost subcutaneously filters into the wider conversation that's happening. You know, people are picking up on messages that are happening online that they might not be seeing, seeing the page of the Irish Times or in newspapers or on the television.
And that can shift and change what's happening politically in ways that I don't think I think we really underestimate. It's not necessarily about a voter seeing and seeing an advert going, I'm not going to vote for that because I've seen an advert. It's about changing the conversation. And I noticed that when I was covering the 2016 Brexit referendum and I covered a 2016 presidential election in America as well, people were having conversations to me about stuff they saw on Facebook in ways that I hadn't seen before.
And adverts we now know subsequently were taking place were happening on Facebook that really weren't part of the national conversation. So, for example, in Britain, the vote leave campaign spent a lot of money on adverts around Turkey and the fear of Turkey joining the European Union was their big thing.
But they really didn't talk about it much in the public. And that wasn't a conversation that they were having that much publicity beyond the odds and hence him to word here or there. So it allows for these different conversations to take place. I think it means that it's much harder for us to have a sense of a kind of public realm and a unified public discourse around politics, and it increases the kind of splintering and that will take that will happen, I think, because we because we can't we can't continue trying to hold back the tide.
But what you can do is rather than let everything happen and then retrospectively try to deal with this, which is what most countries seem to be doing, is to put up actual enforcement around it and using it for social media companies like Facebook to not take money and run adverts that spread lies and misinformation. And rather than I think we've been so reactive, governments, I think have been very reactive rather than proactive and saying, OK, this is how we've done our politics.
These are the rules we put into politics before the Internet. We thought long and hard about it, but it certainly did in some jurisdictions. But now now we need to think about them for the digital age rather than going OK with the Internet happening. Let's forget about that completely. And that's what's been the problem. That's one of the reasons I think that online politics has had such an impact.
I mean, I do wonder and I look at you, you look at the hearings in our own practice and Westminster, the houses of Congress and the states. And you look at these political representatives just trying to get their heads around what the challenges of the kind of bringing in the kind of regulation of discourse which which you mentioned there. They're always fighting a war not just from last year, but from about five years ago. And that's if they grasp the basic issues at all.
I wonder how capable our current political system is of taking on that challenge.
I think it's a very, very fair question. And it's interesting. So I write in the book about attending one of the hearings of the department, the government department in Britain, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. How to Select Committee. An inquiry into fake news and I went along one day into this kind of building in Portcullis House just overlooking the Thames, and Mark Zuckerberg had been invited to attend the CEO of Facebook, and he didn't attend.
Instead, he sent Richard Halam. Richard Halam was a former Lib Dem MP and was also is a member of the House of Lords. So you had to be a member of the House of Lords appearing at the select committee to kind of try and excuse the way the fact his boss wouldn't turn up and try and pass away questions by parliamentarians who frankly often didn't understand how this technology worked. And I think it is a huge problem with this. We tend also to fixate on what happened last time.
So Facebook is a great example of that. There's a question is a deeper question, I think kind of a play there. How do we we live in incredibly complex worlds and it's becoming far more complex than it was 20 years ago and on every conceivable level. And there's a huge mismatch between elected representatives who are there fundamentally supposedly to represent our interests as the electorate. And they're there to try and kind of to to kind of represent us best as best they can.
And they're really not going to be able capable of dealing with this level of complexity, with these kind of really, really difficult and kind of massive questions of tech governance, of the role of the state, but also the nuts and bolts of how does an algorithm work? How do you change an algorithm to promote, not to promote misinformation? How do you change it to promote information that kind of contributes to a proper public discourse? And until we kind of take a different tack, which I think is going to, there needs to be a kind of a far bigger and far more kind of supranational approach to the European Union has showed some inclination towards doing something around this, because the tech companies, at the end of the day, I still think are unlikely to bend to small countries demands or even medium sized countries, really was telling that Mark Zuckerberg appeared in Brussels inquiry into this very similar theme.
So to one in which in London he didn't feel like he needed to do so. So I think that needs to be part of us. It's up to politicians as well, though, to get themselves educated into this. I came into this subject not knowing all that much about it and was able, I think, over a period of time from talking to smarter people than I am to clean some of the core tenants of it. And I think almost politicians need to figure out what is the system we would like to have and how do we how do we find ways of getting technology to serve that rather than the other way around.
But there's no doubt about that. These are really, really nasty and tricky questions. One of the reasons I think that politicians have really struggled to hold social media companies to account and.
I think, to be honest, I have no idea what I would need to be done myself. I mean, the very basis upon which these which these platforms is set up seems inevitable to actually any process by which you could actually prevent what whatever, whatever, whatever state deems to be inappropriate material. Unless you go down to China, which I don't think any of us really wants to say.
Yeah. And I think there's some interesting lessons from history in this. You know, if you go back to kind of the the late 19th century in the States, when you have the kind of the the railroad monopolies, this kind of and what we're really kind of robber baron capitalism.
And what had happened was the United States has flourished and the people who were there first had made a huge amount of money and they had monopolies.
And really what we've seen in the tech industry is something similar happened. We're 20 years into tech revolution. The people who were there really are really big. Now, Amazon is huge. Facebook is huge. These companies would make an argument that they're really good at what they do. I'm sure that's true. But you can't make you can't deny the fact that monopoly power is huge online, though.
And I think there is the time to have an argument about Elizabeth Warren, who was one of the defeated presidential candidates in Democratic contests for twenty twenty, had a lot of really interesting kind of ideas around. So much to do is was was to kind of to deem some of these companies monopolies and talk about their breakup. And I think you do have I think the time has come to have quite radical conversations about these about these major firms, because they can have massive impacts on all of our lives.
And what they do and how they decide to run themselves can have huge impacts. Just one small example is Facebook's move towards having close groups, having encouraging people to close groups, which I think Facebook probably did think it was a good thing to do, which is like let's get people into communities where they can talk to each other. Let's make it a more kind of a kind of community feel. And that's had lots of really great things. You can have your football club on a closed Facebook group.
You can chat to each other. But it's also become a haven for conspiracy theories. You can have your five G five G is all a conspiracy theory on group there. You can have your all of your different Q and on whatever whatever flavour conspiracy is there in your group and a lot of people who are able to just talk to one another and reinforce each other. And so that's a really good example of a small change to Facebook made, which sounded like a minor point, probably, especially in America having huge and I would argue in Europe as well, having a huge impact on in terms of our daily politics.
I want to finally come back to money, because money is really what the book is about, the intersection between money and politics in the United Kingdom.
And that, it seems to me, is a less thorny problem because it should be possible to force the think tanks to reveal the source of their funding, to be have greater clarity and sunshine on where politicians have their business relationships and where they get money around the back of a corner somehow. I mean, you talk about the tax paying for people's flights around the world and stuff like that. Nobody knows where the where the money comes from. All that stuff seems to me to be eminently fixable.
Yes. A one of this is one thing that's most depressing about spending so long writing about this stuff of spending so long researching and writing articles about this, I would completely agree. A lot of this stuff is fixable. There's there's lots of things you could do with the drop of a hat in, for example, say, in Britain, you could make political donations, cut them at ten thousand pounds, No. One, but which is in France of seven thousand five hundred euros.
Other states have done this. You could just you could force charities to declare the donations, which would mean ten times, etc. donors. You could there's all manner of things you could do. You could reform lobbying. The lobbying system in Britain is a complete disaster. It's so easy to work around. If you could put in proper rules. There's lots of international best practices. It could be done pretty much tomorrow. But it requires political will to do it, and it's a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas and the Conservative Party in Britain has shown no inclination towards this.
In reaction to the Russian poet, Boris Johnson said it was all the complacent in North London remain plot. He's shown no desire to engage with political electoral reform. And you can see why he wouldn't want to because it's done very well for him. If you if you know how to work the system, the broken system, then you can profit from what's probably I think even more depressing is that it's not just the party of government in Britain that's taking this approach.
Really, all the political parties, I think on some level think, well, I kind of know how this works. You know, I know in my local area how to kind of game the system so I can have I can kind of take advantage when it comes to election time. I can get kind of more mileage out of the opponent. So I don't really want to see any change. And there's almost like a kind of collective will not to engage with this subject because everyone seems to think that they're winning from the broken system.
They're winning from it because they know how to they know how to abuse and how to use it, which is actually really a textbook definition of a corrupt system really when it comes down to it. But until such time that kind of the Turkey society vote for Christmas, we won't see any change. I think it's one of the most embarrassing things about it.
It wouldn't be that difficult to take the money out of British politics, but it would require politicians to want to do is a last question and maybe an unfair one to apologise if it is, how many of these problems exist exist in Ireland as well?
It's interesting. I had a little bit of a kind of look around Irish donations as well. A lot, I think, to be honest, the simple registration data is really, really hard to work with. I look at it and go, this makes no sense. You know, political parties declaring nothing, which makes you go, what's going on there?
There's a lot of the rules around political donations and if anything, actually look more opaque than they are in Britain. They were a response similar to Britain's A something must be done around this. We should have some clarity. But actually, what you end up doing is I think there's almost less clarity for people who want to go out and see where politicians are getting money from. And it's really, really difficult for me. I'm not an expert in it, but I can see very similar themes in Irish politics that you see in Britain.
So there's definitely a need. I know there's been conversations in Ireland about having a proper electoral commission. I was really struck when I did some research around the the some of the referendums, just how little information comes out of the electorate from Sippel and how it's the job is just so opaque and confusing. And there's lots of different agencies, a similar situation in Britain, lots of different agencies supposedly with some oversight. And what happens then is lots and lots and lots falls through the cracks.
So Arnold is in no way immune from some of the things I'm writing about.
The book is called A Democracy for Sale Dark Money on Dirty Politics. It's published by head of News this week. Peter Gagan, thanks very much indeed for joining us.
Thanks very much. And that's it for today.
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