CommonSpace among Scottish media and political actors listed in leaks from British state-backed ‘infowar’ outfit
THE shadowy charity accused of running a British state-backed campaign against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has confirmed it held a meeting with a leading Scottish journalist during which they were briefed on how “vulnerable” Scots were to Russian influence.
The Integrity Initiative (II), a charity funded by the Foreign Office, British Army and MoD which has been described by the Sunday Mail as an ‘infowars’ unit, confirmed to CommonSpace it held a meeting with The Herald chief reporter David Leask.
The admission comes after a fresh leak of II documents from the group Anonymous Europe, which purports to show Integrity Initiative were briefed by Leask on Scottish politics, allotting various figures and organisations as relatively friendly or hostile to Russian or Western interests.
One document, titled “Notes from David Leask meeting 27 March 2018” has been described to CommonSpace by II as appearing “to be our notes from the meeting”.
The notes begin by stating: ”Scotland – looser federal nature of UK forming. English don’t realise it, Scots aren’t used to it and are vulnerable. Russians saying no sanctions on Scottish products or visa problems for Scottish people.”
Further down, the notes add: ”Anti-nuclear, anti-NATO, anti-Americanism was a big part of Scottish nationalism.”
The document also warns there may be protests against future activities by the youth organisation of the NATO western military alliance in Scotland, called YATA.
It reads: “YATA – there would probably be a lot of studenty anti-NATO responses. But that might be more of a reason to do it.”
Section of leaked II notes from the meeting
The Common Weal think-tank and its editorially independent media wing, CommonSpace, are mentioned, described as: “Left-leaning, non-SNP independence supporters – against, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ worldview.‟
The notes link to an article on CommonSpace critical of western foreign policy and encouraging the SNP to maintain a critical stance towards it.
The pro-independence blog Wings over Scotland is described as “extreme and soft on Putin, constantly equating Russia and its broadcasting with the UK.”
Another section of the leaked notes from the meeting
The meeting with Leask and the apparent authenticity of the notes from the meeting were confirmed to CommonSpace after questions put to II.
A spokesperson for II said: “Like any group with a specific focus, we try to connect with people we think have similar interests, including journalists.
“Mr Leask has been to one lunch with us to talk about Kremlin propaganda efforts aimed at Scotland and the use of SLPs by people in countries like Russia to hide dirty money. The document you describe appears to be our notes from the meeting. However, we can’t confirm its authenticity at this point.
“Beyond that, we interact on Twitter to support our shared interest in tackling disinformation and malign influence. We have not paid Mr Leask anything apart from buying him a sandwich at the lunch.”
The statement makes clear the nature of the meeting with Leask, who when challenged on Twitter by the editor of the Sunday Mail, Brendan McGinty, over his involvement with the group, had said he had not “gone to any meetings or seminars” with II, but said he “did, indeed, once have a sandwich with some people with Integrity”.
Yesterday’s SM splash prompted a smear from the Herald journalist @LeaskyHT who preposterously accused us of using Russian terminologies as we exposed the work of the FCO-funded Integrity Initiative. Today we’ll show why Leask may be so extraordinarily defensive of II. More later
— Brendan McGinty (@brendanjmcginty) December 10, 2018
The Sunday Mail’s Political Editor also stated on Twitter that he had been informed by an II employee that he had met Leask at “seminars at the institute“.
@LeaskyHT has insisted his only involvement with @InitIntegrity has been to approach them for comment on a story and to retweet them. So why did the organisation’s Stephen Dalziel tell me directly: “David Leask I have met, he has been to seminars at the institute”
— John Ferguson (@johncferguson) December 10, 2018
Another leaked II document discusses the organisation’s associations with Leask as part of its wider social media strategy.
The document, entitled “Integrity Inititative Social Media Engagement Performance”, reads: “David Leask is a Scottish investigative journalist with a Russianist background who writes about financial corruption schemes and Kremlin propaganda attempts to co-opt the Scottish independence movement. Chris Hernon has told him about the project and brought him to meet the group.”
It then goes on to claim’s the group’s “real-life connection” with Leask helped promote their social media operation.
Section from leak of “Integrity Inititative Social Media Engagement Performance”
The leaked documents show that II operates through ‘clusters’ in countries across Europe, connecting influential opinion formers in each area in the dissemination of information and ideas.
Leask is also mentioned in plans for forthcoming II seminars.
CommonSpace asked the Herald the following questions:
“1) In what capacity did Leask meet with Integrity? Was it in his work for the Herald?
“2) How many meetings has Leask had with Integrity? Has he attended any seminars?
“3) Has Leask ever received any money from this association with the organisation, from Integrity or an associated organisation?
“4) Are the notes from the document ‘Notes from David Leask meeting 27 March 2018’ a reflection of comments made by him in a meeting or any kind of conversation with Integrity or associated organisation?
“5) Was Leask aware of Integrity Initiative’s connections with the Foreign Office when he met them?”
Leask then responded to CommonSpace.
He said: “I have reported on Russian and former Soviet Union issues for some years, especially on corruption and money-laundering but also on propaganda. I have retweeted Integrity Initiative, I have quoted them and I once had a cheese sandwich with them. As a reporter, I talk to people all the time. This is part of my job at The Herald. I haven’t been paid by Integrity or any associate of Integrity.”
Responding to Leask’s remarks, David Miller, a Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Bristol and director of the Organisation for Propaganda Studies, said: “The II is a project of the Institute for Statecraft a Scottish charity with a registered address in a derelict Mill in Fife. It is claimed to be a project to counter Russian disinformation and it has received over £2 million in funding from the Foreign Office. However recent revelations have shown that amongst its activities it has attacked the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition – a cardinal sin in British democracy.”
Miller added: “I am reminded of an essay by the former controller of BBC Northern Ireland Richard Francis – who was by no means a radical. Written in 1981 in the BBC house magazine the Listener it was titled ’The journalist cannot survive as an informer, except when…’ It started with the words ‘Credibility is all’.
“It seems to me that not only David Leask, but his employers have a great deal of explaining to do.”
The Herald journalist had accused the Sunday Mail of publishing “propaganda talking points from authoritarian regimes“ after the paper published a front page splash on II on 9 December, titled ‘Black Ops Target Corbyn’.
A Scottish newspaper has channeled direct Kremlin messaging right on to its front, page, including key buzzwords. This is an absolutely fascinating case study in how – every now and again – propaganda talking points from authoritarian regimes break in to the mainstream. Thread. pic.twitter.com/aqTiVL3YxT
— David Leask (@LeaskyHT) December 9, 2018
The story revealed that II’s parent organisation, the Institute for Statecraft, was funded to the tune of £2.25m by the UK Foreign Office, and highlighted tweets from II’s account attacking Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, including quotes such as: “Unlike Galloway, Corbyn does not scream conspiracy, he implies it“. It has also been revealed that the Institute for Statecraft is funded by the British Army, Ministry of Defence, Nato, the US State Department, Lithuanian Ministry of Defence and Facebook.
Some of II’s staff have military intelligence backgrounds. This includes Chris Donnelly, according to an online biography a former member of the British Army Intelligence Corp and former head of the British Army’s Soviet Studies Research Centre at Sandhurst. The Sunday Mail has reported that they have seen documents which identify him as an “Honorary Colonel in Military Intelligence” in 2015, the year II was created. II’s staff also include Dan Lafayeedney, a former SAS soldier attached to a regiment involved in espionage in Russia, according to the Sunday Mail.
Minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Sir Alan Duncan, initially said he would “totally condemn” any state backed organisation attacking Corbyn in the way II had.
However, two days later, in the House of Commons during a debate about the organisation’s actions, he downplayed the role of II, saying that it “does some automatic retweeting… of anything that happens to mention Russia”. He also claimed the outfit performs “a proper part of government activity, within the rules, according to a contract.”
Speaking to the Sunday Mail after Duncan’s statements, Shadow Foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said: “What Alan Duncan said just didn’t make sense and I am really surprised that he was saying it with such confidence. I found it genuinely confusing. I have never heard a minister say with such confidence that he is telling the truth.
“I’m not saying that he didn’t think he was telling the truth but he isn’t inexperienced. I think the officials must have given him answers and they just don’t stack up.
Read more: In a climate of surveillance, does self-censorship threaten Scottish journalism?
“It doesn’t make sense what they’re saying and they need to answer further questions. The Foreign Office should have been monitoring this.
“Either they were monitoring this and they knew what was going on or they weren’t monitoring it and they didn’t. It isn’t good either way.”
Writing in the Sunday Mail (16 December), investigative journalist Ian Fraser said the government was “firmly in dissemble and deny mode” during the parliamentary row.
During the parliamentary exchange, Labour MP Chris Williamson, who has called for an inquiry into II, also raised the case of Spanish reserve colonel Pedro Banos, who appears to have been blocked from taking the role of National Security Adviser after an online campaign by II’s Spanish cluster.
Leaked II document on their Spanish cluster’s role in undermining Pedro Banos
Williamson said: “There seems to be no question that this organisation has been engaged in domestic political attacks and indeed meddling in the affairs of our European partner Spain as well.
“I think Alan Duncan needs to realise that this isn’t going to go away and he must come up with some real answers rather than burying his head in the sand.”
Leask has in the past warned about Russian influence in Scotland. In June he claimed Labour MSP Neil Findlay had adopted “Kremlin messaging” when he criticised a visit by the speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, Andriy Parubiy, to Holyrood. In the 1990s, Parubiy established a neo-Nazi political party.
In a Herald article [19 June] Leask wrote: “Neil Findlay is far from a soldier in Vladimir Putin’s information wars. But the Labour MSP last week – unwittingly – thrust Scotland right on to their front line.
“That is because the socialist said something in the Scottish Parliament which tallied perfectly with Kremlin messaging: Mr Findlay on Thursday called the visiting speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Andriy Parubiy, a “racist, fascist Nazi.”
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