View all newsletters
Sign up for our free email newsletters

Fighting for quality news media in the digital age.

  1. Publishers
  2. National Newspapers
June 11, 2018updated 12 Jun 2018 11:40am

How The Sunday Times spoiled Observer’s Arron Banks Russia connection scoop

By Charlotte Tobitt

The Observer’s Carol Cadwalladr has denied claims that documents linking Brexit campaign donor Arron Banks to Russia reached her after being hacked from former Sunday Times political editor Isabel Oakeshott.

Documents seen by the Observer suggested Leave.EU donor Banks had three meetings with Russian embassy officials in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. He had previously disclosed only one.

However, the story was published first in the Sunday Times online on Saturday after Observer journalist Cadwalladr (pictured, left) contacted Banks for comment for Friday.

Banks asked for more time to respond, and the Observer decided to give him “the benefit of the doubt” because of the seriousness of the allegations.

Cadwalladr told Press Gazette the team decided it was “the most ethical, proper, fair, journalistic way to proceed”, even though they believed they would have a robust public interest defence in publishing.

She added: “We felt in a legal case the judge would say why didn’t you wait until Monday?”

However, Cadwalladr said she received a call from Oakeshott (pictured, right) the next day asking her to delay publication until Monday, saying she would hand over the material if she did so.

Content from our partners
Publishing on the open web is broken, how generative AI could help fix it
Impress: Regulation, arbitration and complaints resolution
Papermule: Workflow automation for publishers

Later on Saturday, the story appeared on the Sunday Times website citing emails shown to the newspaper by Oakeshott as the main source. The Sunday Times splashed on the story the next day.

Oakeshott wrote in a separate comment article that she had been given the emails by Banks when she was helping him write his book The Bad Boys of Brexit after the EU referendum.

She said the material would have been published as part of her upcoming book White Flag this autumn, which will contain details about the Kremlin’s “hybrid warfare” capabilities.

Explaining why she had sat on the material for so long, while the Electoral Commission continues to investigate Banks’s Leave.EU donations, Oakeshott wrote: “The timing of my decision to release some of Banks’s and Wigmore’s personal communications with their Russian contacts was forced by the criminal hacking of my computer files.

“In the early hours of March 30 this year, in the midst of my investigations, a concerted attempt was made to break into my email and other computer ­storage systems. The hackers succeeded in accessing some of my accounts. All were fully password protected.

“It was always my intention to publish this information. I believe it is in the national interest. The release of these communications is not com­for­t­able. I am a passionate Brexiteer and remain convinced that Britain has a brighter future outside the European Union.”

Oakeshott also wrote that she had decided to speak to the Sunday Times after “limited material was hacked and passed to third parties”.

However, Cadwalladr defended the Observer’s source, telling Press Gazette: “We had received some material that we knew came from a perfectly legitimate source and it was somebody who thought that it desperately had to be out in the public domain.”

A Guardian News and Media spokesperson also defended the way the material had been obtained.

“Our reporters were given access to documents which support these serious allegations in line with normal journalistic practices,” the newspaper told Press Gazette.

“We have done thorough due diligence and have documentary and verbal evidence to support our reporting.

“Those at the heart of this story have significant questions to answer about who they met, when, and why they did not see fit to declare any of this until contacted by the Observer on Friday.”

In March, both women appeared on The Andrew Marr Show in the midst of the Cambridge Analytica fallout and Oakeshott told Cadwalladr there “just isn’t a conspiracy here”.

“I just feel that you’re kind of chasing unicorns,” she added.

Cadwalladr said today: “Now knowing what’s in these documents I just can’t believe that Isobel has known about this for months if not years.

“I mean, to not bring this forward into the public domain. She sat there on that sofa and told me I was chasing unicorns. It’s really shocking.”

Cadwalladr said the accusations of hacking were a “distraction technique” away from the main story of Banks’s meetings, adding that she hoped “journalists don’t fall for it”.

Since speaking to Press Gazette earlier today, she tweeted that she and the Observer were both considering legal action for defamation.

It came after Banks tweeted that Cadwalladr and journalist Peter Jukes had “used stolen property to write the story” and that he would be reporting the theft tomorrow.

Cadwalladr also raised concerns over whether the Sunday Times story was “framed” by Banks himself, saying this would be “really highly problematic”.

She said: “I think more questions need to be asked.”

Press Gazette understands the Sunday Times’s position is that the story came from multiple sources, went strongly on the allegations against Banks, and quoted him transparently.

Cadwalladr was, however, pleased the story had reached the public domain – whoever got the scoop.

She said: “Journalists jealously guard their scoops. However in this instance I thought if this is what it took to get this information out in the public domain, it also had to go in the Sunday Times, I was delighted, really pleased.

“The objective was to get it into the public domain. Whether that’s in the Observer or the Sunday Times I don’t care that much.”

MP Damian Collins, who chairs the Commons committee which is investigating fake news and whether there was any Russian interference into the Brexit campaign, told BBC Sunday Politics yesterday it was “big news” and that there were “important questions” for Banks to answer.

Banks and Andy Wigmore, who was also present at many of the meetings, will appear before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee tomorrow morning.

According to the Sunday Times Banks “downplayed the significance of the meetings”, denied that Russian officials had sought to influence the Leave.EU campaign, and said he revealed the details of his contracts to US spies.

Picture: BBC/The Andrew Marr Show

Topics in this article : ,

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
Thank you

Thanks for subscribing.

Websites in our network