A neo-conservative think tank was widely mocked after it claimed that half of Russian immigrants could be “informants,” the unfounded conclusions were then parroted by sections of Britain’s right-wing press.
The Times article cites a report, titled: ‘Putin Sees and Hears It All: How Russia’s Intelligence Agencies Menace The UK,’ by the Henry Jackson Society, which argues that “Interviewees… suggested that anywhere between a quarter and a half of Russian expats were, or have been, informants.”
The think-tank also tweeted the report’s claim that there were «75,000 informants.» It was estimated that in 2014 there were 150,000 Russians in London alone.
To draw such striking conclusions, the report’s author Dr. Andrew Foxall, held 16 “on-and off-the-record conversations” with “individuals who currently occupy, or previously occupied, positions of influence and power, particularly those who are consequential to Russian affairs.”
Foxall said that there has been an “increasing paranoia” among Russian immigrants, following the Salisbury poisoning and the subsequent deterioration in UK-Russia relations.
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The Times even found their own unnamed “dissident” who told them “that the proportion of informants was about half.”
Despite backing up the report’s claims, the newspaper cast aspersions on the identities of the so-called informants, writing that it was unclear whether they “were all individuals reporting directly to diplomats or included loose-tongued Russians who repeated information that would eventually get back to the embassy.»
Due to a small sample size and the lack of quantitative evidence, leading journalists, some of whom experts in Russian affairs, attacked the report and the subsequent article.
Shaun Walker, of the Guardian, posted that the “idea that *half* of all the tens of thousands of Russians in the UK are informants seems absurd and insulting.” Foxall responded that the “figure is based on estimates.”
The article proceeds to reference several pieces of anecdotal evidence from the report, including the passage: “One westerner was followed on school runs by men who gathered in the street speaking Russian while peeling and eating sunflower seeds, a popular snack in Russia.”
The ridicule stretches to the article’s own comment section with some Times reader’s posting that the article made them laugh. Another asked: “Is any of this corroborated or substantiated? So much of what I read about Russia and the West sounds overblown, like a bad version of a John Le Carre novel.”
Despite the report’s questionable methodology, the Times, the Daily Mail and City AM parroted its conclusions uncritically, with the latter’s headline: ‘Londongrad: Explosion in number of Russian spies in UK,’ not even attributing the claim.
The Henry Jackson Society is a neoconservative British foreign policy think tank. It claims to advocate an interventionist foreign policy with a strong military that “can protect our homelands from strategic threats.” Its associate director Douglas Murray, who has been accused of Islamophobia, has suggested that “less Islam” is a solution to terrorism.