A newspaper proprietor awarded a peerage by Boris Johnson today condemns the ‘snobbery and casual racism’ of critics who have accused him of being one of the Prime Minister’s ‘cronies’.
Evgeny Lebedev, a friend of Mr Johnson, was part of the latest peerages list which included the Conservative leader’s close political allies, party donors and his own brother, Jo.
Now Mr Lebedev, who owns London’s Evening Standard and The Independent publication, has hit back in an article for today’s Mail on Sunday, describing the criticism as part of ‘a new wave of McCarthyism’, in which ‘trials by the social media mob’ are followed by denouncements and confessions resembling Stalinist show trials of the 1930s.
The ennoblement of Mr Lebedev, the Moscow-born son of a former KGB agent, came shortly after Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee warned of the growing influence of a ‘Russian elite’ in British life.
After telling of his ‘real pride in becoming the first Russian peer’, the 40-year-old writes that he wants to ‘register my reaction to the snobbery and casual racism which is still widespread throughout British society – even in surprising places.
‘This is a racism that considers the House of Lords to be no place for someone such as me,’ he adds.
Mr Johnson’s 36 new peers included chief of staff Sir Eddie Lister, England cricket legend Sir Ian Botham – to whom Mr Johnson once compared himself – former Scottish Conservatives’ leader Ruth Davidson and Tory donor Michael Spencer.
Mr Lebedev was at the centre of controversy last year after it was claimed in evidence to the ISC’s inquiry into Russian influence that he had gathered damaging information on Mr Johnson during a celebrity-packed party, where guests included celebrities Joan Collins, Pixie Lott and Katie Price.
He was disappointed over claims he obtained ‘Kompromat’ – compromising material used for blackmail – during a visit by Mr Johnson to his villa in Umbria, Italy.
According to a Left-wing website, Mr Johnson travelled to Mr Lebedev’s villa in the hills near Perugia in October 2016, shortly after he became Foreign Secretary.
He was with his now estranged wife Marina Wheeler but without his usual entourage of close protection officers. It was one of several visits Mr Johnson has made to the villa, dating back to his time as London Mayor.
Mr Lebedev moved to London aged eight to be with his father, Alexander, and has remained in the UK ever since. In 2009, the pair bought a 65 per cent stake in the Evening Standard. A year later, he bought The Independent and launched the i newspaper.
By EVGENY LEBEDEV FOR THE MAIL ON SUNDAY
Over the past week, I have been reflecting on the media and public reaction to the list of peers appointed by the Prime Minister at the end of July. Two questions prevail: Why on earth have these people been made peers, and what is it they want from office?
Let’s take the last point first. Anyone who claims that vanity plays no part in the decision to enter the House of Lords is simply not being truthful. I can certainly acknowledge that I feel great pride in becoming the first Russian peer.
But I also have a more serious reason for accepting this honour. If, like me, you are a child of the Soviet Union, you place a real value on some of the things that are taken for granted in this country.
First and foremost among these are freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Sometimes you only realise the value of these when you don’t have them – as we didn’t in a communist country, or when they have been lost.
And this, my friends, is exactly where I fear we are poised to go now in this country. A new wave of McCarthyism has emerged, with trials by the social media mob followed by denouncements and confessions, which resemble the 1930s Stalinist show trials.
Virtually anything one says on gender, race or sex can now be seen as an act of violence of some sort. The problem is that this leads to an impoverishment of discussion and debate.
The personal consequences, whether online or actual, can be a huge deterrent against speaking freely. Just look at the lengthy denunciations of J.K. Rowling and Professor Steven Pinker for sharing opinions online about gender, racial justice and sexism.
Equally shameful are the condemnations of Halle Berry for accepting a role as a transgender man and of fellow actress Zoe Saldana for darkening her skin to play a character, and their public renouncements followed by disturbing apologies.
Isn’t the point of acting precisely to portray someone you are not?
We would surely be poorer without these people, but some are determined to drive all diverse voices out of the public sphere.
I want to use my new position to speak out on these issues. I also want to register my reaction to the snobbery and casual racism which is still widespread throughout British society – even in surprising places. This is a racism that considers the House of Lords to be no place for someone such as me.
Take, for example, the extensive coverage of me in The Guardian, that beacon of tolerance, over the past 12 months, where stories invariably describe me as ‘Russian’ or ‘Russian-born’ in their first sentences.
The newspaper might alternatively have chosen to describe me as a first-generation immigrant, who came to this country when I was eight, was educated in the British state school system, became a British citizen in 2010 and has also tried to make a difference by campaigning and fund-raising through my newspapers.
But such a narrative doesn’t fit their prejudice that I am racially suspect, possibly corrupt and corrupting and maybe even a spy.
Indeed, if you replace the word ‘Russian’ in these articles with the word ‘Jew’, I hope you will see my point. I understand the objections to the way admissions to the Lords are conducted and I have some sympathy for the view there are far too many time-serving politicians, party donors and even prime ministerial cronies on all sides.
For some, I seem to fall into the categories of both crony and suspect Russian.
But I hope the fact that over the past decade I’ve led campaigns which have raised more than £75 million for charity, and that together with my father have invested more than £120 million to save two great national newspaper titles counts in my favour.
We have converted one of these titles into a free daily service for Londoners. This has not been easy – in March in the midst of the coronavirus crisis I had to step in again to save the newspaper from closure and protect as many jobs as possible. Our other publication, The Independent, is a global publishing giant.
This summer we campaigned to raise millions of pounds to feed the vulnerable during the lockdown and beyond. We are also appealing to stop the illegal wildlife trade.
In any event, I hope to deploy this experience in my new role.
I would also add for the record: I have never given tuppence of my money to the Conservative Party; indeed, I am a crossbench peer. And my pet wolf, Boris, is named after Russia’s first democratically elected president (Boris Yeltsin), not my friend the Prime Minister.
As Russia Today reported last week, ardent believers in the narrative of omnipresent Russian influence in the UK see my interactions with the British elite as some sort of Kremlin influence mission.
But the officially sanctioned RT describes me as a persistent critic of the Kremlin.
Anyone who thinks I am a Boris-crony or a Putin-stooge obviously isn’t one of the 28 million online readers of The Independent in this country. I take its editorial independence very seriously and am proud of the fact that this title is one of very few in Britain with no political alignment whatsoever.
So, to all those who sneer at my Russian background, I say this: Is it not remarkable that the son of a KGB agent and a first-generation immigrant to this country has become such an assimilated and contributing member of British society?
What a success for our system. Don’t you think?