Goodbye, Melanie! Mehdi Hasan on the Spectator's departing blogger

Phillips leaves the Spectator as the complaints pile up.

Poor ol' Melanie Phillips. In today's Guardian, the Conservative Party chair Sayeeda Warsi goes on the offensive:

"I don't read her, actually. I call her Mad Mel," Lady Warsi says of Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, who has denounced her as "stupid".

Last week, Phillips announced her departure from the Spectator, where she has been blogging for the past few years.

On 16 June, under the headline, '"My blog's new home", she wrote:

This is my last blog post for the Spectator. I have decided to expand and develop my own website over the coming months and so if you would like to continue to read my blog you can find it at

But was this a voluntary or enforced departure? The blogger Guido Staines beat me to it but I can't help but notice how the Spectator has had to apologise to Alastair Crooke, director of Conflicts Forum, on its website this week, after a blog post by Phillips made "false" allegations about Crooke's past. Phillips's decision to move on might just be a coincidence but a well-connected source tells me that the payout to Crooke cost the Spectator "tens of thousands of pounds" and left Fraser Nelson and Andrew Neil "furious" with her.

Here's the full text of the apology on the front page of the Spectator website:

An apology to Alastair Crooke

A blog by Melanie Phillips posted on 28 January 2011 reported an allegation that Alastair Crooke, director of Conflicts Forum, had been expelled from Israel and dismissed for misconduct from Government service or the EU after threatening a journalist whose email he had unlawfully intercepted. We accept that this allegation is completely false and we apologise to Mr Crooke.

Crooke is a former member of MI6 who has long been the subject of vitriolic attacks from the UK's neocon brigade for having the temerity to suggest that a) we should consider talking to, and negotiating with, Islamists, and (b) all Islamists aren't the same.

He wasn't, however, the first person to be smeared by Phillips. Remember this apology to Mohammed Sawalha, of the British Muslim Initiative (BMI) group, on the Spectator website in November 2010?

Mohammad Sawalha: Apology

On 2 July 2008 we published an article entitled "Just look what came crawling out" which alleged that at a protest at the celebration in London of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, Mohammad Sawalha had referred to Jews in Britian as "evil/noxious". We now accept that Mr Sawalha made no such anti-Semitic statement and that the article was based on a mistranslation elsewhere of an earlier report. We and Melanie Phillips apologise for the error.

To lose one legal case to the "Islamist lobby" may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness -- especially since Phillips's husband, according to his own website, "is Britain's best-known commentator on the law". Perhaps, in future, she should run her blog posts past him before she hits "publish".

But "Mad Mel" shouldn't feel that bad. She isn't alone on this. Blinded by their monomaniacal obsession with Islamists under every British bed, members of the UK media's neoconservative faction have been the subject of other (successful) legal complaints and libel actions in recent years.

Stephen Pollard -- the current editor of the Jewish Chronicle who has, in the past, tried to portray me as an anti-western extremist on Twitter -- had to apologise to the London-based Muslim organisation, IslamExpo, after he described it as a racist group that promotes genocide in a Spectator blogpost in 2008.

From the Spectator website, August 2010:

Islam Expo: Apology

Stephen Pollard and the Spectator apologise for the unintended and false suggestion in a blog published on 15 July 2008 that Islam Expo Limited is a fascist party dedicated to genocide which organised a conference with a racist and genocidal programme. We accept that Islam Expo's purpose is to provide a neutral and broad-based platform for debate on issues relating to Muslims and Islam.

Pollard and Phillips have now both moved on from the Spectator, leaving its editor, Fraser Nelson, free to spend his cash on his editorial budget rather than on the magazine's legal budget. I'm sure he'll be delighted.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?