• Jonathan Coulter

Peter Geoghegan investigates dark money and FOI requests

Dark money corrupts

We at CAMPAIN draw attention to misinformation and misrepresentation in public affairs and the media. But what lies behind this rampant phenomenon?

In some of our blogs we highlight the most visible activities of lobby groups that work on behalf of national governments or other interest groups. But the picture is much bigger and more opaque than this, involving a vast network of scarcely visible financial flows, often moving through tax havens and shell companies, from a multiplicity of donors to a range of mainly right-wing populist movements and causes in the UK, Europe and elsewhere.


Funds are often channelled through “think tanks” that are in reality sophisticated purveyors of propaganda. The money buys access and influence and helps frame media narratives.


Funding climate change denial


This is very much evident in a documentary by the Danish filmmaker Mads Ellesoe called “The Campaign Against The Climate”. It exposes how major oil companies belonging to the American Petroleum Institute (API) conducted a specious 30-year denial campaign to undermine science and cast doubt on the dangers of climate change. Indeed they did this in contradiction of evidence and warnings provided by some of their own scientific staff. They channelled funds through a range of think tanks to University research programmes and other beneficiaries.


This campaign seems to have greatly delayed action to deal with the climate crisis, and nowhere more than in the USA. In 2016, presidential candidate Donald Trump appointed one of the key culprits, Myron Ebell, to lead his transition team for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). On becoming President, he went on to halt American initiatives to combat global warning.


Geoghegan's book


The author: Peter Geoghegan

Dark money is not just at work in the USA, but is seriously impacting the UK and other countries. We can only combat it if we first understand how it operates. For this reason, I strongly suggest reading “Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics”, by Peter Geoghegan, Head of Investigations at Open Democracy. He does a good job of shedding light on the nature of these forces.

Below we reproduce John Naughton’s review of Geoghegan's book in the Guardian of 16th August 2020. He describes it as “a compulsively readable, carefully researched account of how a malignant combination of right-wing ideology, secretive money (much of it from the US) and weaponisation of social media have shaped contemporary British (and to a limited extent, European) politics. And it has been able to do this in what has turned out to be a regulatory vacuum – with laws, penalties and overseeing authorities that are no longer fit for purpose”.


After reading this book and two other erudite publications with complementary themes (focusing on dirty money from Russia and Kazakhstan), I particularly concur with the last sentence. As Geoghegan says, “Time and time again, regulators have been found wanting and almost nothing has been done to prevent future abuses”. To take just one of the many examples he gives, the Electoral Commission can impose a maximum fine of £20,000 for contravention of electoral laws, quite insufficient to deter illegal behaviour.


This does not seem compatible with the British Government’s much-touted slogan of “taking back control”. However, I hasten to add that this is not polemic about Brexit, but a study of how opportunistic players of whatever persuasion can and will exploit flaws in the political system for their own benefit.


Freedom of Information event


Peter Geoghegan has now organised an interesting online event on another topic. It takes place on Tuesday April 20th and is called “How can we save Freedom of Information”. It is about the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act that came into force in the UK a decade and a half ago and has proved a crucial tool for citizens to hold government, at all levels, to account. According to Geoghegan, FOI is under threat. Responses to FOI requests are at an all-time low, and requests are being screened and blocked. Here is Open Democracy’s video outlining the problem. The event begins at 5 pm, and a panel of politicians and FOI experts will explore the challenges facing official transparency in the UK and ask what can be done to protect the public's right to know. Here is the link for signing up.


And here is John Naughton’s review – you can read the original in the Guardian using this link.


Democracy for Sale by Peter Geoghegan review – the end of politics as we know it?

The openDemocracy journalist delves into the web of power, money and data manipulation that is bringing our electoral system to its knees


‘These threats to democracy have, for decades, been visible to anyone disposed to look for them’: Boris Johnson in 2019. Photograph: Frank Augstein/Pool/Reuters


John Naughton, The Guardian, Sun 16 Aug 2020 07.00 BST


As we try to face the future, we are usually fighting the last war, not the one that’s coming next. One of the most striking points the political philosopher David Runciman made in his seminal book How Democracy Ends was that democracies don’t fail backwards: they fail forward. That’s why those who see in the current difficulties of liberal democracies the stirrings of past monsters – Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, to name just three – are always looking in the wrong place. And if that’s true, the key question for us at this moment in history is: how might our current system fail? What will bring it down?


The answer, it turns out, has been hiding in plain sight for years. It has three components. The first is the massive concentration of corporate power and private wealth that’s been under way since the 1970s, together with a corresponding increase in inequality, social exclusion and polarisation in most western societies; the second is the astonishing penetration of “dark money” into democratic politics; and the third is the revolutionary transformation of the information ecosystem in which democratic politics is conducted – a transformation that has rendered the laws that supposedly regulated elections entirely irrelevant to modern conditions.


These threats to democracy have long been visible to anyone disposed to look for them. For example, Lawrence Lessig’s Republic, Lost and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money explained how a clique of billionaires has shaped and perverted American politics. And in the UK, Martin Moore’s landmark study Democracy Hacked showed how, in the space of just one election cycle, authoritarian governments, wealthy elites and fringe hackers figured out how to game elections, bypass democratic processes and turn social networks into battlefields.


All of this is by way of sketching the background to Peter Geoghegan’s fine book. It’s a compulsively readable, carefully researched account of how a malignant combination of rightwing ideology, secretive money (much of it from the US) and weaponisation of social media have shaped contemporary British (and to a limited extent, European) politics. And it has been able to do this in what has turned out to be a regulatory vacuum – with laws, penalties and overseeing authorities that are no longer fit for purpose.


His account is structured both chronologically and thematically. He starts with the Brexit referendum and the various kinds of unsavoury practices that took place during that doomed plebiscite – from the various illegalities of Vote Leave, through Arron Banks’s lavish expenditure to the astonishing tale of the dark money funnelled through the Ulster DUP and a loophole in Northern Ireland’s electoral law. One of the most depressing parts of this narrative is the bland indifference of most mainstream UK media to these scandalous events. If it had not been for the openDemocracy website (for which Geoghegan works), much of this would never have seen the light of day.


Geoghegan’s account of the genesis and growth of the European Research Group is absolutely riveting.


The middle section of the book explores how dark money has amplified the growing influence of the American right on British politics. This is a story of ideology and finance – of how the long-term Hayekian, neoliberal project has played out on these shores. It’s a great case study in how ruling elites can be infected with policy ideas and programmes via those “second-hand traders in ideas” of whom Hayek spoke so eloquently: academics, thinktanks and media commentators. In that context, Geoghegan’s account of the genesis and growth of the European Research Group – the party within a party that did for Theresa May – is absolutely riveting. And again it leaves one wondering why there was so little media exploration of the origins and financing of that particular little cabal.


The final part of the book deals with the transformation of our information ecosystem: the ways in which the automated targeted-advertising machines of social media platforms have been weaponised by rightwing actors to deliver precisely calibrated messages to voters, in ways that are completely opaque to the general public, as well as to regulators.


Remainers will probably read Geoghegan’s account of this manoeuvring by Brexiters as further evidence that the Brexit vote was invalid. This seems to me implausible or at any rate undecidable. Geoghegan agrees. “Pro-Leave campaigns broke the law,” he writes, “but we cannot say with any certainty that the result would have been different if they had not. Instead, the referendum and its aftermath have revealed something far more fundamental and systemic. Namely, a broken political system that is ripe for exploitation again. And again. And again.”


And therein lies the significance of this remarkable book. The integrity and trustworthiness of elections is a fundamental requirement for a functioning democracy. The combination of unaccountable, unreported dark money and its use to create targeted (and contradictory) political messages for individuals and groups means that we have no way of knowing how free and fair our elections have become. Many of the abuses exposed by Geoghegan and other researchers are fixable with new laws and better-resourced regulators. The existential threat to liberal democracy comes from the fact that those who have successfully exploited some inadequacies of the current regulatory system – who include Boris Johnson and his current wingman, Cummings – have absolutely no incentive to fix the system from which they have benefited. And they won’t. Which could be how our particular version of democracy ends.

  • Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics by Peter Geoghegan is published by Head of Zeus (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15