The Observer’s Carol Cadwalladr has denied claims that documents linking Brexit campaign donor Arron Banks to Russia reached her after being hacked from former Sunday Times political editor Isabel Oakeshott.
Documents seen by the Observer suggested Leave.EU donor Banks had three meetings with Russian embassy officials in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. He had previously disclosed only one.
However, the story was published first in the Sunday Times online on Saturday after Observer journalist Cadwalladr (pictured, left) contacted Banks for comment for Friday.
Banks asked for more time to respond, and the Observer decided to give him “the benefit of the doubt” because of the seriousness of the allegations.
Cadwalladr told Press Gazette the team decided it was “the most ethical, proper, fair, journalistic way to proceed”, even though they believed they would have a robust public interest defence in publishing.
She added: “We felt in a legal case the judge would say why didn’t you wait until Monday?”
However, Cadwalladr said she received a call from Oakeshott (pictured, right) the next day asking her to delay publication until Monday, saying she would hand over the material if she did so.
Later on Saturday, the story appeared on the Sunday Times website citing emails shown to the newspaper by Oakeshott as the main source. The Sunday Times splashed on the story the next day.
Oakeshott wrote in a separate comment article that she had been given the emails by Banks when she was helping him write his book The Bad Boys of Brexit after the EU referendum.
She said the material would have been published as part of her upcoming book White Flag this autumn, which will contain details about the Kremlin’s “hybrid warfare” capabilities.
Explaining why she had sat on the material for so long, while the Electoral Commission continues to investigate Banks’s Leave.EU donations, Oakeshott wrote: “The timing of my decision to release some of Banks’s and Wigmore’s personal communications with their Russian contacts was forced by the criminal hacking of my computer files.
“In the early hours of March 30 this year, in the midst of my investigations, a concerted attempt was made to break into my email and other computer storage systems. The hackers succeeded in accessing some of my accounts. All were fully password protected.
“It was always my intention to publish this information. I believe it is in the national interest. The release of these communications is not comfortable. I am a passionate Brexiteer and remain convinced that Britain has a brighter future outside the European Union.”
Oakeshott also wrote that she had decided to speak to the Sunday Times after “limited material was hacked and passed to third parties”.
However, Cadwalladr defended the Observer’s source, telling Press Gazette: “We had received some material that we knew came from a perfectly legitimate source and it was somebody who thought that it desperately had to be out in the public domain.”
A Guardian News and Media spokesperson also defended the way the material had been obtained.
“Our reporters were given access to documents which support these serious allegations in line with normal journalistic practices,” the newspaper told Press Gazette.
“We have done thorough due diligence and have documentary and verbal evidence to support our reporting.
“Those at the heart of this story have significant questions to answer about who they met, when, and why they did not see fit to declare any of this until contacted by the Observer on Friday.”
In March, both women appeared on The Andrew Marr Show in the midst of the Cambridge Analytica fallout and Oakeshott told Cadwalladr there “just isn’t a conspiracy here”.
“I just feel that you’re kind of chasing unicorns,” she added.
Cadwalladr said today: “Now knowing what’s in these documents I just can’t believe that Isobel has known about this for months if not years.
“I mean, to not bring this forward into the public domain. She sat there on that sofa and told me I was chasing unicorns. It’s really shocking.”
Cadwalladr said the accusations of hacking were a “distraction technique” away from the main story of Banks’s meetings, adding that she hoped “journalists don’t fall for it”.
Since speaking to Press Gazette earlier today, she tweeted that she and the Observer were both considering legal action for defamation.
It came after Banks tweeted that Cadwalladr and journalist Peter Jukes had “used stolen property to write the story” and that he would be reporting the theft tomorrow.
Cadwalladr also raised concerns over whether the Sunday Times story was “framed” by Banks himself, saying this would be “really highly problematic”.
She said: “I think more questions need to be asked.”
Press Gazette understands the Sunday Times’s position is that the story came from multiple sources, went strongly on the allegations against Banks, and quoted him transparently.
Cadwalladr was, however, pleased the story had reached the public domain – whoever got the scoop.
She said: “Journalists jealously guard their scoops. However in this instance I thought if this is what it took to get this information out in the public domain, it also had to go in the Sunday Times, I was delighted, really pleased.
“The objective was to get it into the public domain. Whether that’s in the Observer or the Sunday Times I don’t care that much.”
MP Damian Collins, who chairs the Commons committee which is investigating fake news and whether there was any Russian interference into the Brexit campaign, told BBC Sunday Politics yesterday it was “big news” and that there were “important questions” for Banks to answer.
Banks and Andy Wigmore, who was also present at many of the meetings, will appear before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee tomorrow morning.
According to the Sunday Times Banks “downplayed the significance of the meetings”, denied that Russian officials had sought to influence the Leave.EU campaign, and said he revealed the details of his contracts to US spies.
Picture: BBC/The Andrew Marr Show