Misleading stories report a vague remark by the foreign secretary as a ‘British threat’ to take on the Kremlin
‘Britain threatens to expose Putin’s sleaze secrets’, boomed the Times this morning, after foreign secretary Philip Hammond gave a speech on the dangers posed by Russia and ISIS to the UK.
Heralding this bold move from the foreign office, which comes amid the fractious debate over defence spending, the paper said: “Britain could embarrass president Putin and his inner circle by exposing their murky financial secrets in a form of information warfare, the foreign secretary indicated yesterday.”
The Mail joined in the fun on its page 2 with ‘Threat to expose wealth of Putin cronies’, while the Telegraph posted a longer version of the story on its website (‘Britain may broadcast Putin’s financial secrets to Russian people’), with suggestions for the sort of the Russian gazillionaires the UK might target.
The trouble is, Hammond never made this threat.
Here’s what happened. The foreign secretary gave his speech at the Royal United Services Institute yesterday morning. Nowhere in the speech is the idea of exposing Putin’s pals mentioned. However, after the talk, the papers report that when a questioner asked if there was a case for releasing details of the “interesting” financial arrangements of those close to Putin, the minister replied: “There might be.”
“When we talk about having further steps that we can take, increasing the pressure on Russia, one of the headings that we regularly review is strategic communication: how can we message the Russian people and to people that Russia is seeking to influence about what is really going on?
“It is an interesting thought and I will make sure the Strat Comms people are thinking precisely about that.”
In other words, he gave a standard politician’s response to a policy suggestion – talking in general terms about the sort of thing the government is doing and saying strategic communications people are “thinking about” ways to pursue these general aims. When he says “precisely”, does he mean the questioner’s policy idea, or simply “messaging the Russian people” generally?
And if Strat Comms do think about this policy, for how long? And how hard? They could presumably float and then dismiss it over their morning coffee. This doesn’t amount to a “threat”, even when softened by the careful words “might”, “may” and “could”. (The UK “could” declare war, but they haven’t.)
There may be a case for revealing the financial secrets of Putin’s pals to undermine his support in Russia. But until this is seriously proposed and debated by our policymakers it’s misleading to report a vague remark by a minister as a “British threat” to take on the Kremlin.
Adam Barnett is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter
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