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8 February 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 8:39am

The Telegraph’s George Soros story follows in the footsteps of the alt right

Accusing something of being “Soros-funded” is one of the most commonly deployed tropes of Breitbart, Infowars, and the online far-right everywhere.

By James Ball

Do you have to stoke anti-Semitism knowingly in order to be responsible for doing so? This is a question that should be seriously addressed within the offices of the Daily Telegraph, following the newspaper’s six-column and four-byline splash headline about George Soros funding a “secret plot to thwart Brexit”.

The lead bylined author of the article is none other than Theresa May’s former right-hand man and chief of staff, Nick Timothy, supported by some of the paper’s most senior political and investigative reporters – and yet it’s a story which plays into authoritarian and anti-Semitic tropes which have taken root in far-right movements across Europe and America.

The Telegraph has a commendable recent record calling out anti-Semitism when it has seen it, including among the Labour party. Nick Timothy has said he has “campaigned against anti-Semitism” and adds that he is a supporter of Israel (although how relevant this is has been questioned) , to the point that he finds “accusations and insinuations” suggesting he’s anti-Semitic “offensive”.

Absent other evidence, we should of course take Timothy’s assertions at face value. But that makes it all the more mystifying as to why he, and the newspaper for which he writes, produced something which so neatly and dangerously tapped into the worst strains of conspiratorial thinking against Jewish people in general and George Soros in particular.

Soros stands accused of a “secret plot” – the simplest and nastiest of the framing frequently used against Jewish people across the world and throughout history, and one especially dangerous in the political context in which an elite is being accused of trying to undermine the democratic will of the people (namely Brexit).

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This headline charge doesn’t just tap into one of the ugliest media tropes in recent history, it’s also patently absurd. The Telegraph reports that Soros agreed to donate to Best for Britain, an an organisation which does oppose Brexit. But it does so publicly. Visiting the organisation’s public website and clicking “our goals” reveals in huge all-capital text “THANK YOUR MP FOR THEIR ROLE IN THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP TOWARDS NO BREXIT SO FAR”. The organisation is mounting a public campaign to change public opinion, through the UK’s democratically elected parliament.

Best for Britain had not yet disclosed that it had received funding from Soros – but despite making the story the lead in the newspaper, The Telegraph does not try to allege this was improper or illegal. Indeed, the newspaper gave nothing like the same prominence to Electoral Commission investigations into undisclosed donations in support of Brexit, while Timothy himself used to head an organisation which has previously refused to publicly identify its financial backers – the New Schools Network.

If The Telegraph and Timothy are now backing much stronger rules for financial disclosure, many people would welcome that – but there’s no sign publicly that they’re doing so, and there’s only one billionaire with a huge photo on the front of the page.

The choice to tackle George Soros in this way is particularly egregious given that if any reporter concerned had even basic knowledge of current affairs, they would be aware how he has been used as a target and hate figure by the US alt-right and by nationalist politicians in Hungary and Poland, a furore which is stirred up in part with Kremlin support. Accusing something of being “Soros-funded” is one of the most commonly deployed tropes of Breitbart, Infowars, and the online far-right everywhere.

Soros was, in the US, accused of funding anti-Trump protest marchers (he had donated, often years before, to some of the groups who supported marches), and also, on alt-right forums, of working with the Rothschilds (the subject of another anti-Semitic conspiracy) to manipulate America’s currency. Most offensively for a Jewish survivor of World War II, he is frequently accused by those on the hard-right of collaborating with the Nazis during the war – a claim which has been recycled by dozens of Twitter users defending The Telegraph’s story, and one which is comprehensively debunked here

In Hungary, the government accused Soros of working to “Muslimise” Europe, worked to shut down a university he helps to fund, and launched an intelligence services investigation into Soros. 

Part of why Soros can draw such ire is because he operates quite transparently: his foundations publicly disclose that he has donated billions to them, and states its mission is to open up societies – including working to boost support for immigration and asylum. Unlike other billionaire political donors, he routinely gives interviews and speeches about his political “open” versus “closed” outlook.

A fact box accompanying The Telegraph article includes a distorted version of some of the central European opposition to Soros’s activities, including noting his Open Societies Foundations are “banned from Russia and Uzbekistan”, noting “he has been accused of using Open Society to orchestrate an ultra-liberal crusade in Hungary” and quoted a Romanian political leader saying he had “financed evil”. Taken together as a package, The Telegraph material doesn’t just inflame anti-Semitic tropes, it also recycles them.

It would not be hard to interpret the story, its prominence, and its headline as a sign that The Telegraph, while not indulging in conspiracism and anti-Semitism itself, is quite happy to run a story which would be taken by those far right people who do as a call to action – a signal they are willing to accept any bedfellow in the Brexit battle.

The Telegraph and Nick Timothy, though, deserve the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the newspaper’s star columnist, its senior reporters, and whichever senior editors agreed the story was worth huge front-place prominence were unaware of the online hate it would enable, the conspiracists it would cheer, and the anti-Semitic tropes its headline tapped into.

We can afford them the benefit of that doubt, but we can equally expect a better response to the one seen so far. Clearly a team which made those mistakes is one which needs to apologise for what it has unwittingly enabled, explain how it made those mistakes, and set out what actions it would take to make sure it did not happen again.

Absent that action, it doesn’t matter whether Nick Timothy or anyone else at The Telegraph is anti-Semitic or not – if their lack of anti-Semitism results in stories like this, it is simply meaningless.