Are there really 75,000 Russian spies in the UK?

The right-wing media have misled readers over the extent of Russian spying

This week, various right-wing newspapers have published headlines like The Sun’s “Putin has up to 75,000 Russian spies in Britain, shock report reveals” or The Express’s “Half of Russians in London are SPIES”.

Does this sound believable? Could Russian spies in the UK could fill out Old Trafford? Is every other Russian you meet a spy? While the claims obviously did not ring alarm bells with credulous reporters at The Sun and Express, they are very unlikely to be true.

The source of the claim is a report by the Henry Jackson Society. More precisely, the source is probably the bullet-pointed summary of the report which is aimed at time-pressed journalists and claims: “Among the report’s findings [is] out of an estimated population of 150,000 Russian ex-pats living in London, up to half are said to be FSB, GRU, or SVR informants – potentially, some 75,000 assets.”

In fact, the actual report by Andrew Foxall is far more sceptical of this claim by Russian dissidents. It says (my emphasis):

“Perhaps reflecting the level of paranoia within London’s Russian community, interviewees and interlocutors suggested that between a quarter and a half of Russian expats were, or have been, informants.”

So the report’s own author is sceptical of this claim but that didn’t stop it being reported uncritically in The Telegraph, The Express and The Sun and (admittedly more critically) in The Times.

Even the estimates of the number of Russians living in London are suspect. The bullet-pointed summary of the report cites “an estimated population of 150,000 Russian ex-pats living in London”. The source for the 150,000 figure is a Guardian article from 2014 which does not mention its own source.

Yet in 2017, the Office for National Statistics estimated that there were just 59,000 Russian-born people living in the whole of the UK. 

While arguably you can be Russian without being Russian-born, this is unlikely to explain the huge difference in the figures – the Guardian’s 150,000 in London versus the ONS’s 59,000 in the whole of the UK.

When contacted, the report’s author Andrew Foxall pointed out that, in the report itself, it says the Russian community in London is (his italics) “estimated to number up to 150,000 people”.

This is technically true – an estimate of 150,000 people has been used, by the Guardian, but where has this estimate come from? Foxall told me to ask the author of the Guardian article (which I have and not heard back).

Of course, there are Russian spies in the UK and they and Vladimir Putin are very dangerous but if the Henry Jackson Society doesn’t even use a substantiated estimate of the Russian population how much credibility does its research have?

And if media publications don’t scrutinise explosive claims made in reports, especially ones which stigmatise a whole immigrant community, how much credibility do those media publications have?

Our former editor James Bloodworth argued in 2013 that Labour should break its ties with the “illiberal” Henry Jackson Society. It seems he didn’t get his wish as the Russia report is endorsed by Labour MP for Dudley North Ian Austin.

Joe Lo is a freelance investigative journalist and writes for Left Foot Forward. You can follow him on twitter here.

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