The main institution which drove Britain out of the EU was the right-wing press. For decades, papers owned by oligarchs like Rupert Murdoch, Richard Desmond, and the Barclay brothers protected politicians that their journalists ought to have been holding to account, shifting the blame for their failures onto a convenient, fictionalised version of the European Union.
Any discussion of propaganda and the European referendum has to start within that context, rooted in a history of lies told not as fake news or Facebook memes, but in so-called respectable national papers, by liars who were not hidden behind anonymous Twitter accounts, but who proudly paraded on the bylines of their articles.
The original Brexit liar was the Telegraph Brussels correspondent from 1989 to 1994. Already controversial when he was appointed – he’d been sacked by The Times – this propagandist for the British establishment used his role to distract people from the struggles of the Tory government of the time by inventing a string of stories about the European Union, creating, as one of his fellow Brussels correspondents would later say, “an entire newspaper genre: the Euromyth, a story that had a tiny element of truth at the outset but which was magnified so far beyond reality that by the time it reached the reader it was false.”
Over the next twenty-five years, his genre of Euromyth-making became a central feature of the oligarch-owned press in the UK – from The Sun and the Express to The Times and The Telegraph – warping the national understanding of the EU.
Sins of the state
Alongside Euromythology grew another kind of mythology, driven by the shared interests of the tabloids and the state: migrant-bashing. Though the seed had been sown long before 2008, the financial crisis brought with it a desperate need to find someone to blame who didn’t have the social power to answer back. And so, in 2010, the newly-elected Conservative government, in concert with the same right-wing press, brought the full weight of the state down onto people of colour and communities of migrants, describing their own policy agenda as having the goal of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for people who had come from other countries.
The policy had practical and devastating impacts on people living in the UK: black people were rounded up and sent back to the former colonies from which their parents had migrated a generation earlier, in what became known as the Windrush scandal; people whose British partners didn’t earn enough were deported; vans were sent around areas with high numbers of migrants and people of colour, telling those without the correct paperwork to “go home or face arrest”.
But this brutality had a second purpose: propaganda. It ramped up racism in the country, and then shifted blame for stagnant wages and public service cuts, a decomposing political system and the explosion of the banking system onto people of colour and migrants.
The architect of this hostile environment was the UK Home Secretary. In the manner of an old-school colonialist, she spoke softly but carried a big stick, slamming the power of the British state down like a sledgehammer onto communities of colour. Each thud she delivered added the legitimacy of the state to the idea that migration was responsible for the degeneration of the UK. That was the rhetorical context for Brexit, the environment into which the Leave campaigns stepped. That is a background too often ignored.
The dark money network
The week before the referendum, I stumbled into two Brexit campaigners for Leave carrying placards in Edinburgh. In their smallprint, the placards said that they’d been paid for by the Northern Irish DUP. So why was a Northern Irish party paying for propaganda in Edinburgh?
This question took my colleagues and me down the rabbit hole, which turned out to be a complex warren-system which we’ve been exploring for two years. Together with journalists at other publications, we’ve shown how millions of pounds appear to have flowed into the various Leave campaigns from questionable sources. And we’ve mapped how right-wing think tanks have come in behind a hard Brexit.
We’ve monitored thousands of pounds worth of Facebook adverts pushing a hard Brexit – paid for by who-knows-whom? Carole Cadwalladr at The Observer started from a different angle: looking at online debate, and what is and isn’t promoted by web monopolies like Google and Facebook. Together, what we’re looking at is the adaptation of elite propaganda to the age of social media and offshore finance.
Of course, legacy media and the state are still at the heart of those propaganda efforts, attempting to shape the agenda and drive politics in their preferred direction. They are determined to ensure that the debate about politics is a debate about which marginalised group is to blame, who’s in and who’s out, while questions of resource distribution – of housing, wages, and work – are matters for the market and, like the weather, may be cursed, but are not within anyone's control to change.
But alongside these traditional players, we see new agents emerging. At the centre of the warren we’ve been exploring is a cluster of firms linked to a company called SCL – formerly Strategic Communications Laboratories. You’ve probably heard of one of its offshoots, Cambridge Analytica, and another company from the same cluster that ran much of the Brexit campaign: AggregateIQ.
To understand these firms, we need to understand that Strategic Communications Laboratories describes itself as a ‘security’ company, and is essentially the psychological operations wing of our increasingly privatised military. “SCL Group provides data, analytics and strategy to governments and military organisations worldwide”, reads the first line of its website. “For over twenty-five years, we have conducted behavioural change programmes in over sixty countries and have been formally recognised for our work in defence and social change.” While it’s hard to know exactly what contracts they secured, we do know that they’ve done work in Afghanistan, Kenya, and elsewhere.
Cambridge Analytica (the company which ran Trump’s campaign) was a subsidiary of the SCL Group, and the Canadian company AggregateIQ, which received £3.4 million for their work on the Brexit campaign, and has long faced allegations of close connections to the SCL Group. AIQ created Cambridge Analytica’s software platform, and the firm was suspended from Facebook in 2018 over concerns about its alleged links with Cambridge Analytica.
This network is therefore best understood as a wing of the increasingly privatised security world, taking lessons from the wars in the Middle East and Global South and applying them to democratic events at home. They shouldn’t be seen as having limitless influence, and their own claims about psychometric profiling are based on little evidence. However, they also shouldn’t be underplayed. Social media, with its customised messaging, is the communications channel of the era, and it’s not surprising that elite networks are using it to shape politics.
Similarly, it shouldn’t be surprising that Cambridge Analytica emerged in the UK. Britain, after all, is the world centre for privatised military contractors, with more mercenary firms than any other country. This is a powerful network in the country, holding its own beliefs and interests, and it needs to be analysed and understood as such.
Sitting alongside this network are the people who, in the Brexit campaign, funded them. In a paper for the Transnational Institute (TNI) in early 2019 (1.), Reijer Hendrikse and Rodrigo Fernandez argued that offshore finance, “together with the wealth of the world’s billionaire class effectively constitutes the backbone of global capitalism.” And Britain, with its overseas territories and crown dependencies, is a key segment of this backbone, with the British state acting as one of the most important guardians of offshore wealth.
Follow the money which funded much of the controversial online campaigning in the Brexit referendum, as we have, and you find that it soon disappears offshore, into the UK’s network of tax havens and secrecy areas. There has been much speculation about whether the money was Russian or American or Saudi or British. But in a sense, this is missing the point. We know the cash came through the loopholes in Britain’s broken constitution. We know it came from abroad. That’s enough to tell us something important.
If offshore finance is becoming the backbone of the global economy, then we can expect it to continue to find ways to shape politics in its interests. As the elite networks which historically operated through states – like the military and intelligence communities – increasingly shift into private, transnational, and offshore firms, we can expect those networks to act in concert with the new backbone of capital. And as the media is changed radically by the emergence of the internet, we can expect them to use new technology – along with the newspapers they own and governments they can influence – to steer public debate and comprehension.
This is the triple threat we face today: news media, directed by faceless finance, finding common cause with the state, and leaving the task of transparency to a handful of investigative journalists piecing together clues to how the world is changing, and in whose interests.
1. Reijer Hendrikse and Rodrigo Fernandez, “Offshore Finance: How Capital Rules the World,” State of Power 2019, TNI Longreads, 2019.
The original version of this piece appears in the section on Transparency in ‘A Vision for Europe’ (published by Eris in collaboration with DiEM25, May, 2019). For more information on the book’s content and launch events, see here.