Damian Collins: Voters have a right to know about Russian interference in UK politics
The Culture, Media and Sports Committee has become a safe space for whistle-blowers to expose malpractice. Its chair, Damian Collins, is now ready to take on the scourge of fake news. He talks to Sebastian Whale
Priti Patel is about halfway to Downing Street as I knock on Damian Collins’ office door in Portcullis House. Thanks to some enterprising hacks, political aficionados, grateful to be following a story unrelated to Brexit, wasted the best part of a day tracking the former Cabinet minister’s journey back from Nairobi. By the time she landed at Heathrow, a live feed of her Kenya Airways plane was broadcast to the country.
Collins, cutting a relaxed figure in a terracotta jumper and navy trousers, is characteristically unmoved by the events. After all, the chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is well versed in breaking news. In recent weeks, sessions on classifications in Paralympic sports and the handling of racist remarks by a former manager of the England women’s football team have received widespread and leading media coverage.
Intriguingly, Collins says that, void of formal channels to take their grievances, the parliamentary body has become a “safe space” for whistle-blowers to expose malpractice. “Investigative journalism and parliamentary select committees have become two of the routes by which people try and get these issues discussed,” he says.
The MP for Folkestone and Hythe became chair of the committee last October, having been a member from 2010-2012 and 2015 onwards. Before entering parliament, he worked for M&C Saatchi until 2008 before moving to Lexington Communications. A keen sports fan, Collins has made appearances for the Lords and Commons rugby and cricket teams. But with scandals never far away in sport, from accusations of corruption at Fifa to state sanctioned doping programmes in Russia, has his time on the committee turned him into a cynic?
“It’s always the case that most people are in sport for the right reasons,” he begins. “When you become slightly cynical is towards some of the people in authority in sports, particularly international sporting bodies, when they don’t seem willing to accept or recognise the failures of their own organisation.”
Still fresh in the memory is the committee’s hearing with senior officials from the Football Association over comments made to Eniola Aluko by former England manager, Mark Sampson. Collins expresses disappointment, particularly in FA chief executive Martin Glenn, at their “consistent refusal” to recognise the “failures of their own processes” in handling the allegations.
“I get frustrated when people try and defend the indefensible and defend something that’s clearly gone wrong. So therefore, you question well, are they really going to change, are they really interested in reform, or do they view this thing as just a bad news story they’ve got to weather out until they get to the other side,” he says.
Recent events though have given Collins pause for thought. Westminster has been dogged by allegations of sexual harassment, abuse and bullying, exposing major flaws in the existing processes (or lack thereof) for dealing with such allegations. Should a sporting body with Parliament’s track record be up before his select committee, he muses, “they’d be ripped to pieces”.
“Some of the failings that we’ve criticised sports governing bodies for not having those systems in place, if you look back over what’s happened here and the issues that we’re having to look at now and you’d say ‘well, are we much better’. We’ve got to make sure we’ve got our own proper, independent, robust procedures in place to protect victims as well,” he says.
Alongside the committee's inquiry into sports governance, Collins’ team will publish a report on combatting doping in sport before the end of the year. As part of the review, representatives from British Cycling and Team Sky appeared before the committee over the contents of a package delivered to Sir Bradley Wiggins at the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2011. The UK Anti-Doping agency (Ukad) on Wednesday closed its 14-month investigation into the “mystery” jiffy bag and said it would not be making any charges. The body was unable to confirm or refute that the package contained the decongestant Fluimucil, as claimed by Team Sky, and said its probe had been hampered by a lack of medical records at British Cycling.
Collins, speaking before Ukad produced its report, proposes two solutions to improving transparency. One, making doping in sport a criminal offence in the UK. “There’s not enough legal power behind UK Anti-Doping as a body, they don’t have the power to seize medical records or financial records. The police do. Therefore, if it was a criminal offence the police would have a clear legal power and obligation to do that and there’s a strong case to say we would have a more robust system if we did,” he says.
Secondly, Collins believes pro-athletes could be made to publish their medical records, or have them available to a “tight group of people or medics who work within their sports”.
“With the Bradley Wiggins case, you can look at it both ways and say it’s a massive failure on the part of Team Sky and British Cycling that we can’t prove what was in the jiffy bag, we can’t prove what he was taking. Also for them, it’s a massive failure on their obligations to Bradley Wiggins as well. If the allegation is that something suspicious is going on, people can neither prove it nor disprove it. The suspicion hangs over him, he can’t prove his innocence either and this is one of our senior Olympians and you think, how could we have got ourselves into this position,” he says.
It’s not just cycling which needs to get its house in order, Collins argues. “We also need the sports themselves to be investing far more in anti-doping measures and anti-corruption measures as a whole,” he says. “Across sport, not enough is invested into protecting the integrity of the competitions. In the long run, those sports are suffering as a result of that.”
He adds: “Things are starting to improve. In cycling, there is a recognition that there has to be real change. But, because of the problems sports bodies get themselves into, or the lack of a realisation of just how big the problems are, you think well, are they really determined to get to the bottom of what’s going on? And if they’re not, then it probably means there’s stuff going on that is so big they don’t know how to confront it or deal with it, and therefore there are problems. Most of sport is fairly conducted. But there are plenty of bad apples in the barrel.”
This thirst for transparency has led the committee to begin an inquiry into fake news, and the responsibility of social media companies to help stamp down on the phenomenon. In the past month, Facebook and Twitter supplied evidence to the US Senate Intelligence Committee that showed how Russian organisations used the platforms to promote messaging during the Presidential election. Twitter has identified 2,752 accounts linked to the St-Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, a Russian ‘troll factory’, which sent out 1.4 million messages in just over two months. The same accounts also posted content relating to UK politics.
Following the submissions, Collins wrote to Facebook boss Mark Zuckerburg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey to search for evidence that Russian-linked accounts were used to interfere with the EU referendum and this year’s general election. If there is indication to that extent, then what should happen next? “Firstly, it’s about identifying what happened. Voters have a right to know if that activity took place. The frightening thing about it is, looking at what happened in America, you can reach a very large number of people very effectively, spending a very small amount of money doing it. And also, the Americans so far have only really investigated one organisation, the Internet Research Agency. There could be lots more in Russia and let alone looking at countries like Iran, North Korea or China where these organisations might be based,” he says.
“The scale of the problem is potentially very big. People need to understand that, because if they understand that there is a lot of fake news out there, a lot of it linked to politics, it could be linked to propaganda campaigns being run by people out of other countries, it should make them rightly more questioning of what they see and what they read.”
Collins says social media companies have a “social obligation” to act on fake news in the same way they would on illegal or illicit material, cyberbullying or combatting piracy. But much of the argument surrounding their responsibility for cracking down on the spread of fake news, rests with whether they are viewed as publishers.
“What we probably need is a new definition that encompasses the social media companies. They have created a system for the distribution of news, the targeting of their users as well, it’s designed in that way and they make money out of doing it,” Collins says.
“What we should say is they have an obligation to act swiftly against content that’s brought to their attention, and within their powers as well they should proactively seek out and takedown problematic information.
“What it basically boils down to is a list of obligations that we believe, or parliament believes, these companies have, and therefore an understanding of the action we expect them to take. The best way of reaching that agreement is by negotiating with the companies about that. If that fails, then I believe you have to look at what countries like Germany have done and say that there are certain sanctions or penalties that will be imposed on companies if they fail to run and police their sites effectively.”
Looming in the distance is next year’s football World Cup, which Russia was controversially awarded in 2010. Theresa May significantly hardened her language towards Moscow this week, accusing Russia of meddling in elections and carrying out cyber espionage. Should there be evidence of significant Russian interference in UK politics, would that present a chance to boycott the event?
“There is always that opportunity to do it. What we need to do at the moment on fake news is map out more effectively – we know a lot of this is coming from Russia – the scale of it. The number of people involved in it is something we’re finding more and more about all the time,” Collins says.
“Certainly, there’s the whole scandal about the way the World Cup was awarded to Russia and Qatar. Clearly if there’s evidence of and proof of vote buying and breach of the laws in the bidding process, then I think even at this late stage a country should lose the right to host the World Cup. But that’s a separate matter that’s being dealt with by the Swiss Attorney General.
“I think we’ve got to be mindful and concerned about Russia’s activity in sports through doping and in the media through fake news.”
The term fake news, no thanks to US President Donald Trump, has permeated western political discourse. It has also drifted away from being a synonym for lying to the murky water of being used as a throw away retort to unwelcome accusations. “Donald Trump is obviously the most pernicious exponent of fake news as a catch-all for something you don’t like,” Collins muses. To combat this epidemic, journalists should take politicians who accuse them of “fake news” to task, he adds, to preserve its true meaning.
He also recognises that partisan sites on both the left and right of the political divide, where opinion and news are often blended together, pose an added dimension to the debate. On the day we meet, Buzzfeed News reports that left-wing site The Canary is being investigated by Impress, the government-approved press regulator, over an article it ran claiming BBC Political Editor, Laura Kuenssberg, was a speaker at an event at the Tory party conference. “The grey area is hyper-partisan news, where there’s a shred of truth to it but it’s highly distorted. Sites like the Canary, a lot of that is about press standards. Where it drifts into fake news we should absolutely call them out.”
The Canary is considering following in the footsteps of Evolve Politics, another pro-Jeremy Corbyn viral news site, in applying to enter the parliamentary press corps, the group of journalists who operate out of the Palace of Westminster. Does Collins believe they should be given them? “The short answer to your question is no, I don’t think the Canary should get a lobby pass,” he says. “We should say that we expect certain journalistic standards of organisations that are representing the parliamentary lobby, because that is status and recognition for those sites… I think where journalistic standards are very low, I think we should question whether lobby passes should be given out to organisations that can’t meet those standards.”
After nearly an hour covering the work of Collins’ select committee, which also includes a review into the impact of Brexit on the UK creative industries, we turn back to events in Westminster. That Wednesday afternoon marks yet another extraordinary week that encompassed further allegations of sexual harassment by MPs, and two Cabinet ministers in the shape of Boris Johnson and Priti Patel facing calls for their resignation. The latter, moments after my time with Collins comes to an end, does so.
As gaps appear in Theresa May’s top team, she faces further calls to blood some of the untried talent in her roster. Collins, who entered Parliament in 2010, is widely respected. His predecessor but one on the committee, John Whittingdale, eventually became Culture Secretary. Jesse Norman, his immediate predecessor, is now a Transport minister. Does the 43-year-old fancy a crack at a ministerial role? For now, Collins seems content with the “fascinating” work of his select committee, holding people to account that perhaps “otherwise open to scrutiny from anyone else at all”.
But, he adds: “Obviously, select committees ultimately can pose questions, make recommendations, but it’s not an executive body. It doesn’t have the power to act. You also want to see things done.
“If there was an opportunity, through being involved in the government to take forward some of our ideas and recommendations in the future, then clearly, like everyone who works in politics, that’s something you’d be interested in doing; to go from analysing and identifying things you want to see done to having the position as part of a government to actually deliver those things.”