Update, 27 November 2019: The Bureau has been force to end our legal challenge against the prime minister's decision to delay the release of the report. You can read the full explanation here.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has today launched legal action aimed at forcing the government to release a report into potential Russian interference in British politics.
The Bureau has written to the prime minister demanding the publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) report. The letter makes clear that if he fails to release it, lawyers have been instructed to challenge that decision by way of an urgent application for judicial review.
The contents of the 50-page ISC report are believed to detail possible efforts by Russia to subvert British elections and interfere in UK politics, and include an examination of the closeness of oligarchs to the Conservative party. Several of the known ties between the Conservative party and wealthy Russian donors were first exposed by The Bureau.
The report, prepared by a cross-party group of MPs, had been cleared for publication by the security services and passed to No 10 for final sign-off but – against the public wishes of several committee members – was withheld until after the election.
“The absolute minimum voters in any democratic election should expect is the knowledge that the previous election was fair and free of outside interference,” The Bureau’s editor, Rachel Oldroyd, said.
“British voters are being denied that by No 10’s decision not to publish the parliamentary report on Russian electoral interference. It is our duty as journalists to do whatever we can to bring that information to light, and it’s that duty – free of any kind of partisanship – that has driven our decision to launch this legal action.”
The decision to delay publication means it could be many months before the report reaches the public, as the Intelligence and Security Committee often takes some time to be reformed after a general election.
The long delay has led to multiple accusations of a cover-up, and concerns about politically motivated suppression. Speaking to the BBC yesterday, Hillary Clinton, the former US secretary of state, said the decision to withhold publication was “inexplicable and shameful”.
While the publication of an ISC report would usually be a matter for Parliament, counsel for The Bureau – which is represented by Leigh Day, Monckton chambers, Cornerstone Barristers and Brick Court Chambers – have argued that because the report is in the possession of No 10, and the parliamentary committee had given tacit endorsement of its release, publication is effectively in the power of the prime minister.
According to members of the security committee, the report was ready in October. The chairman of the ISC and independent candidate for Beaconsfield, Dominic Grieve, QC, told Parliament that the report had been approved for publication by both the security services and the Cabinet Office before October 17, 2019, and had been sent to No 10 for final sign-off by that date.
“How is it that the prime minister has claimed, through the No 10 spokesman, that there must be further delays for consultation about national security, when the agencies themselves indicated publicly this morning, in response to journalistic inquiries, that publication will not prejudice the discharge of their functions?” Grieve asked parliamentarians in an urgent debate on the report’s suppression.
The Bureau has made a formal legal request via a letter asking No 10 to urgently publish the report, and has instructed counsel to launch a judicial review should this request be refused.
Failing to release the report for political reasons would be unlawful, the letter states. The only lawful reason for withholding it is if release could prejudice the UK’s security – but given that intelligence agencies have already approved it for publication, that argument does not stand.
The Bureau is launching this effort as the first act in a new long-term investigation into the influence of overseas governments and oligarchs – predominantly from Russia and eastern Europe – on the UK’s political, civil and financial institutions. The reporting will examine the role the UK plays in enabling corruption and wrongdoing, and in laundering the reputation of those who engage in such practices.
To support the legal effort, which could incur substantial costs if The Bureau is unsuccessful, it is launching a crowdfunder. It plans to use any surplus funds to contribute to its reporting on this topic.
Politicians and human rights campaigners have welcomed The Bureau’s transparency efforts, and stressed the importance of securing the report’s release.
“Britain has had an ugly reputation for being soft on the Russian government and on crime connected to the Russian government for a long time,” said Bill Browder, a financier who has campaigned for governments to take action against Russian violations of human rights.
“The government refuses to issue sanctions on Russian criminals. I believe a lot of that is to do with Russia buying influence in the UK. The report would detail this and would focus minds on it so that policy-makers can fix this problem. If it’s swept under the carpet, this Russian influence will continue to plague the UK.
“I hope the government will release the report before the election. If they refuse, I fully support civil society putting the government’s feet to the fire on this. It shouldn’t be optional to keep this secret.”
These calls were echoed by Ben Bradshaw, a veteran Labour politician and parliamentary candidate for Exeter. “It is a lie for the government to say it is following normal procedure,” he said, “so it is entirely justified for the plaintiffs to seek this remedy when the government is covering up an official report of public interest.”
Stewart McDonald, the SNP’s defence spokesperson and candidate for Glasgow South, said: “While it is absurd that we now find ourselves in this situation, the SNP welcome the decision taken by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism to launch a judicial review into the disgraceful decision by Boris Johnson to suppress this report.
“With a general election only a few weeks away, Boris Johnson’s decision to sit on the report is unjustifiable and poses a serious threat to the integrity of our democracy. He must publish without delay.”
The Bureau is represented by Leigh Day Solicitors, Victoria Wakefield, QC, and Malcolm Birdling of Brick Court Chambers, Julianne Morrison of Monckton Chambers and Sam Fowles of Cornerstone Barristers.
Additional reporting by Jess Purkiss
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