On the afternoon of November 13, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent not-for-profit organisation based in London, launched legal action to try to force the U.K. government to release a 50-page report concerning potential Russian interference in U.K. politics.
The report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee concerns a possible Russian threat to the UK’s democratic processes, with the government’s decision to block its publication proving controversial in an already highly-strung political climate. Tensions are mounting at a time when U.K. politics is facing stalemate due to ongoing disputes regarding the implementation of the 2016 Brexit referendum, and with a recently called General Election, scheduled for December 12.
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Crucially, the report is said to include evidence from U.K. intelligence services regarding Russian activity and potential interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum and 2017 General Election, meaning many see the need for its publication before the upcoming General Election as vital.
Finalized in March 2019, the report was referred to 10 Downing Street on October 17, needing only governmental approval before being published. But before the month’s end, the surprise General Election was declared for December 12. Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party Boris Johnson then refused calls to release the report before the parliament was dissolved.
It is now likely that the report will not be released for many months – and crucially after the election – as the committee behind it will take time to reform following the election result.
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With allegations that Downing Street are personally stymying the publication of the report, the Bureau have now written to Johnson to request its publication as a matter of urgency. Though Downing Street have denied that they are stalling the publication of the report, the Bureau have said that if it is not released, lawyers have been instructed to launch an application for judicial review to challenge the decision. To support their legal effort, they have also launched a crowd-funder, which – at the time of publishing – has raised £21,440.
On their website, The Bureau’s editor, Rachel Oldroyd, said:
“The absolute minimum voters in any democratic election should expect is the knowledge that the previous election was fair and free of outside interference.”
The publication has been much anticipated, with The Guardian dubbing it an “explosive parliamentary report”, suggesting that it may confirm or refute Russia’s sponsorship of British politics – and specifically involvement with the Conservative party – as well as investigating claims of Russian influence in the 2016 Brexit referendum. In an emergency Commons debate last Tuesday concerning the government’s refusal to publish the report, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry argued suspicions have since increased due to the delay. She suggested the government may fear that publication could invite further questions as to Russian interference with the Conservative party, and its publication therefore “risks derailing their election campaign.”
Dominic Grieve, the Chair of the Committee behind the report, was quoted in The Independent as saying he was “baffled” by the fact the report had not been published yet, especially as intelligence agencies had already given the go ahead. Arguing that Downing Street was personally behind its delay, Grieve added that the timeframe of the report’s publication was running as normal until “the prime minister – against the advice of the agencies themselves – stopped us from publishing”. Though Chancellor Sajid Javid has assured the British public that the timeframe for its publication is “perfectly normal,” Grieve noted past precedence for publication of Intelligence and Security Committee reports, arguing that they normally took a maximum of 10 working days to be released.
Intelligence service officials have also spoken out to The Independent, saying they had “no objections to the report being published now.”
In the last few days, Hillary Clinton, former U.S. presidential candidate, has this week also condemned Johnson’s decision, telling the BBC it is “inexplicable and shameful” that the government has not yet approved the report for publication. And even Maria Litvinenko, the widow of Alexander Litvinenko who was murdered in London in 2006, has said that the report helps Putin, saying she was disappointed it had not yet been released.
Before parliament was dissolved, Grieve suggested that it is vital that the report is released before the election, as the information it contains may well be relevant to voters:
“It seems to us that this report is germane because we do know and I think it is widely accepted that the Russians have sought to interfere in other countries' democratic processes in the past.”
The BBC Security Correspondent, Gordon Corera, also stressed the importance of its publication in an article, suggesting it would illuminate the wider picture of potential Russian espionage against the west, and influence in UK politics:
“Extensive evidence has been unearthed of Russian interference in US politics thanks to investigations like the Mueller inquiry, but less has emerged when it comes to UK elections, including the Brexit referendum,” he wrote.
“And that is one reason why this report, simply entitled Russia has been so anticipated,” he added.
/By Juliette Bretan