Much has been made in the press about President Trump’s relations with Putin, and with good reason.
Several men in his administration, not to mention Trump himself, have been compromised by their links with Russia’s government, history’s unique fusion of secret police and organised crime.
Even if the links are unimpeachable from the legal standpoint, they’re certainly questionable morally – any personal, especially remunerative, relations with an evil regime have to be highly suspect.
Contrary to the Zeitgeist, immoral isn’t a full synonym of illegal, as many British newspapers keep telling us. However, to cite an unfashionable source, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
This brings us to The Evening Standard’s new editor, former Chancellor George Osborne, who since his sacking has further strengthened his already impressive credentials as a spiv to rival Tony-Dave.
In the good, if relatively recent, tradition of our public (self-) service, George has used the intervening months to earn millions in various jobs, most of them sinecures. Nothing new about this: we’re used to politicians using government as a springboard to self-aggrandisement, and only as that.
But even against that rotten background George’s editorial appointment has taken many a breath away. The papers are full of indignant accounts, with the phrase ‘conflict of interest’ ever-present.
True enough, it’s odd to allow a man who so recently occupied the second-biggest HMG post and is still an MP to take charge of an influential newspaper. Surely this gives Osborne an unfair jump on the competition, what with his being privy to most government secrets?
It’s unclear how free press can hold government to account if a major editor is servant to both masters. For a minister or MP to toss off the odd column explaining government policy is one thing; quite another for him to assume a role that presupposes “throwing bricks through windows”, in the phrase of a prominent journalist.
Anyway, every possible legal angle of Osborne’s appointment has already been explored under the electron microscope. Bereft as I am of such fine optical instruments, I have nothing to add to that scrutiny.
However, none of the commentators on this dodgy deal has mentioned the Russian connection involved, or more precisely the direct link to the aforementioned fusion of secret police and organised crime. Yet this is more interesting than the legalistic casuistry.
The Standard is owned (through the proxy of his son Evgeny) by the Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev, who carries that fusion in his own person. He has parlayed his KGB career into a fortune.
Exactly what Lebedev did in the KGB isn’t known. Officially he, like Putin, served in the First Chief Directorate (foreign intelligence). However, again like Putin, he must have first made his bones in domestic oppression. At the start of his business career he did like to threaten his competitors with KGB ‘torture chambers’, boasting of his experience in their use.
In 1995, having been in business for only two years, Lebedev bought a moribund National Reserve Bank. Government-owned Gazprom, the world’s biggest gas producer, instantly transferred $300 million into its accounts, even though the bank seemed to be on its last legs.
That started Lebedev’s empire, which now includes a large media portfolio spearheaded by our own Standard and Independent. The true purpose of those acquisitions was revealed by hacked Kremlin e-mails, showing how Lebedev used the papers to orchestrate a press campaign securing Western approval for the theft of the Crimea.
His son, the papers’ nominal owner, commented on this with characteristic effrontery: “My father has spent his life trying to promote freedom of expression and justice in his fight against corruption in Russia.” Of course he has. Shame on you for thinking KGB officers cum billionaires may devote their lives to anything other than promoting human liberties.
Why did this de facto KGB operation decide to hire Osborne? It certainly wasn’t for his journalistic experience, of which he hasn’t had a single day. Would it be wild conjecture to suggest that the Lebedevs want to explore Osborne’s government connections for their own nefarious purposes?
One wonders how professional journalists on The Standard will like working for an amateur spiv. Probably they’ll like it well enough, having bought into the paper’s implicit editorial policy. One of them once tried to explain to me over drinks why Putin is a force of good in the world.
He stopped just short of repeating the line uttered yesterday by Dmitri Kisilev, Putin’s chief TV propagandist. Commenting on the 1917 October revolution, the man the Russians affectionately call ‘Putin’s Goebbels’ said: “The amount of freedom in the world grew as a result.”
The Standard, operating as it does in London, can’t yet be quite so forthright, but perhaps George will sort it out. After all, he has form in dealing with Russian Mafiosi.
As a rising mock-Tory star, Osborne once had several meetings with Oleg Deripaska, the Russian ‘aluminium king’, whose Mafia links have made him persona non grata in the US.
Since in Russia organised crime is inseparable from the KGB/FSB, it’s useful to remember that this organisation never offers something for nothing. If, as was established at the time, Deripaska used Osborne as a conduit for donations to the Tory party, he didn’t just pursue his own business interests.
Osborne acted, and still does, on the principle first enunciated by Emperor Vespasian: pecunia non olet. To him money, whether flowing into his own coffers or his party’s, indeed doesn’t smell. To some of us the Lebedevs’ shilling stinks to high heaven.
Then again, if we let KGB Mafiosi buy our newspapers, how can we object to our politicians working for them?