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1 Aug, 2020 13:57

Outcry over Lebedev’s peerage is predictable. ‘Russians under the bed’ focus easier than seeing issues with UK political system

Outcry over Lebedev’s peerage is predictable. ‘Russians under the bed’ focus easier than seeing issues with UK political system

The UK government’s awarding of a peerage to Evgeny Lebedev has been presented as ‘proof’ of a sinister Russian plot, but the simple truth is that he’s just another very rich media magnate who’s ended up in the House of Lords.

It didn’t take them long did it? The ‘Vladimir Putin ate my hamster’ brigade were very quick off the blocks to denounce the peerage given to Evgeny Lebedev – the owner of the Evening Standard, the Independent and London Live TV – and portray it as evidence that the British government was in cahoots with the Russian state.

Luke Harding tweeted that in April 2018 Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary, had flown to the Lebedevs’ Italian villa soon after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal. What did they discuss, he asks? 

Well, if the aim was to get BoJo to ‘go soft’ on Russia it couldn’t have worked considering the hard line the British government took against the Kremlin. Did Johnson lift or advocate lifting sanctions on Russia following the meeting in Italy? No. Did he in any way tone down his bellicose rhetoric towards Russia? No. The atmosphere remained very cold. So cold in fact that no British official went out to Russia to support the England team at the 2018 World Cup.

Harding reminds us that Lebedev’s Dad worked for the KGB back in the day, but what isn’t mentioned is that Alexander is the co-owner of Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper strongly critical of Putin and the Russian government. Lebedev identifies with the ‘liberal’ opposition in Russia, and neither he or his son could be described as ‘Kremlin stooges’. Their politics are more Mikhail Gorbachev’s than Vladimir Putin’s.

The conflation of anyone who is wealthy and Russian and living in the UK with ‘the Kremlin’ is absurd. Many, if not most, of the so-called Russian oligarchs based in Britain aren’t hugely enamoured of the Russian government, which is why they are living here and not in their native country.

Also on rt.com ‘Huge finger to the public’: Johnson prompts outrage after nominating Russian-born media mogul Evgeny Lebedev for peerage

Imagine if every wealthy American living in London was equated to Trump. Or every rich German accused of being an agent for Merkel? Quite rightly there’d be an outcry. But with Russians, anything goes.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday last November, Evgeny Lebedev attacked, quite rightly, what he described as “an ugly strain of Russophobia” that had infiltrated Britain. He pointed out that he had never met President Putin. Yet simply because he was Russian, he was being targeted as some sort of intelligence risk, and written about as if he was an undesirable alien. How can this be fair in a society which is supposed to be ‘anti-racist’ and lauds multi-culturalism?

The ‘Lebedev’s peerage proves Russian meddling’ narrative becomes even more bonkers when you consider the so-called ‘Brexit angle’. On the one hand, we are told that Brexit was a sinister Russian plot. Yet Lebedev’s newspapers were hardcore Remain. If he was “working for Putin” and Putin wanted Brexit to go ahead, why didn’t he shift his editorial stance? Why did he appoint the former George Osborne, a staunch Remainer, who campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote to edit London‘s leading newspaper in 2017? 

The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr, another one who sees dastardly Russian plots everywhere,  tweeted “Boris Johnson nominates Evgeny Lebedev to the House of Lords. No one has any clue why.”

Well, we can find out why by looking at history. A long line of wealthy newspaper owners have ended up with peerages and Lebedev is merely the latest. 

It began with the Harmsworth brothers who founded the mass circulation Daily Mail in 1896. Harold Harmsworth became the 1st Viscount Rothermere, Alfred became the 1st Viscount Northcliffe. Other newspaper proprietors who received peerages included the Canadian-born trio Max Aitken (who owned the Daily Express and became Lord Beaverbrook), Roy Thompson  (who bought the Times and became Lord Thompson of Fleet), and Conrad Black (who owned the Daily Telegraph group). Did anyone claim they were working for the Canadian governments?

You could say that if you do own a newspaper in Britain, it’s more or less accepted that you’ll end up in the House of Lords. So why the outcry over Lebedev?  Well, we all know the answer to that. It’s because he’s Russian!

The debate we could and should be having is on whether we need to have a House of Lords in the first place. It’s not just the fact that the peers are not elected, it’s the cost of the whole operation too. In 2018/19 expenditure on it increased 18 percent from £18.3 million to £26.4 million a year later. And the announcement of another 36 new members – pushing the number of peers up to 830 – almost 200 more than the number of MPs, means costs will rise still further.   

The current system of honours rewards cronyism and nepotism and ought to be abolished.  While the Russians-under-the-beds crowd hyperventilated over Lebedev, there was less attention given to the fact that former Prime Minister Theresa May’s husband Philip has been given a knighthood. What for? “For political service,” apparently. And Boris Johnson’s brother Joe has been given a peerage! Then there’s all the other ex-MPs who have been rewarded. Talk about an Establishment gravy train – of course all paid for by the taxpayers.   

That in a nutshell is the big problem with making Russia the focus of everything. It’s a ridiculous diversion that stops us from seeing the much bigger picture. Which is: the UK‘s entire political system is in need of an urgent and radical overhaul.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.