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The Political Quarterly and the Orwell Foundation have teamed up to produce a series of exclusive interviews with female Orwell Prize winners and shortlisters. In the first interview, Anya Pearson speaks to the Observer and Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr, who won the Orwell journalism prize for her investigation into the collapsed political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

Cadwalladr has reported on alleged malpractice by the campaigners for Brexit, and the reputed illicit funding of Vote Leave, in the 2016 EU membership referendum. Before Cambridge Analytica closed operations in 2018, the company took legal action against The Observer for the claims made in Cadwalladr’s articles. She has also uncovered alleged links between Nigel Farage, the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump and the Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election currently under investigation in the United States.  

You won the Orwell journalism prize for your investigation into Cambridge Analytica. What impact has winning the prize had?

I never used to think that awards mattered. But actually, winning the Orwell does give you a kind of heft and gravity which I have hitherto lacked and that is really helpful. Because there are so many attempts to undermine my credibility by the likes of Brexit campaigners, Aaron Banks, Andy Wigmore and so on. Now there is an Orwell Prize, which can go in front of my name. It just helps to back them off.

You have made some very powerful enemies through your work and been targeted personally because of your investigative journalism. What form has this taken?

My initial interest was tolerated by the hard right Brexiteers. Because they felt very untouchable and triumphant. So having a liberal lefty Observer journalist asking questions didn’t bother them. But then very quickly I scored an early hit. My first big piece on Cambridge Analytica back in February last year kicked off serious legal investigations by the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office. Banks and Wigmore still proceeded to treat it all like a joke, but it progressively got nastier and more personal.

One of their most effective means of hitting me was through pure misogyny. They called my credibility as a journalist into question by calling me “a crazy conspiratorial woman who lives alone with their cats”.  What upsets me is that this has real world consequences. This is how disinformation works. It takes an existing prejudice, which is that women are afforded less gravity and less respect, certainly in the media.  It then feeds off that prejudice and also amplifies it.

Leave.EU put out a spoof video of Airplane, Photoshopping my head in and we couldn’t get it down. Arguably, Leave.EU had committed an offence under the Malicious Communications Act. But you’re completely in the hands of Twitter and Facebook.  The day after that video came out, another editor (not from The Observer) took me aside and said: ”We feel that you were too much of a risk to work on this story. We’d like to bring in another journalist to validate your reporting”. That was another lesson in how online disinformation and propaganda works.

You definitely stirred the hornet’s nest to have such an extreme reaction. I think it’s brave of you because you always write with the journalistic ‘I’ – as Fintan O’Toole noted when you won your prize – and that does come at some personal risk. You’ve described yourself as “boiling with rage”. Do you think there is enough anger from the public about data targeting and disinformation, or fake news? What can be done to cut through public apathy?

This is something I think about every single day. It’s such a complicated subject. It’s hard to convey a big picture narrative, and it’s difficult to know which bit one should be hammering home.

At the moment I’m feeling engaged and depressed by the fact that it honestly feels like we’re in the middle of a government cover-up. I keep on using ‘car crash’ to describe the referendum, but I can’t think of anyway else to describe it because there’s just such a pileup of issues: laws being broken; unexplained sources of wealth; and the involvement of the prime minister’s closest advisor and a minister in her cabinet.

The government has admitted there’s no evidence of ‘successful’ interference by Russia. So now we are in the position of acknowledging they tried. The issue is whether they in fact succeeded. We would have so much more information about that if Facebook were obliged to hand over the data and information that the parliamentary committee has been asking for. But they won’t. And they won’t come and testify. And the government has failed to back parliament’s call for that.

In my more hopeful moments, I think that one day there will be a public enquiry into this. I think people will want to know what happened. But of course, it’ll be like the Chilcot Inquiry.

Far too late to influence anything. 

What’s also frustrating me is that I feel that the public has been really poorly let down by coverage in other newspapers and also broadcasters. I feel really let down by the BBC.

Your analysis shows that Cambridge Analytica clearly broke data protection laws. And you convincingly trace the connections between Cambridge Analytica and the Leave campaign’s targeting strategy.  But is there compelling empirical evidence that Cambridge Analytica’s activities had any effect on the EU referendum outcome?

The thing that I discovered very early on, which kept me going was this covert link between Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ (AIQ), this Canadian company.

What’s been very satisfying is, after having various people try to sue us over this, the Information Commissioner’s Office – thank the stars – have now established this link between Cambridge Analytica and AIQ. That’s beyond doubt. And we know that AIQ was hired by four different leave campaigns: by Vote Leave, BeLeave, Veterans for Britain and the DUP.  We have laws that campaigns are not allowed to coordinate. How did four campaigns find the same obscure, tiny, company in Canada above an optician’s shop? AIQ was the entity through which most of the money spent in the leave campaign was funnelled. How can we be in this position, where our entire election was won through foreign companies and it’s entirely beyond the arm of the law?

It was a really big moment, when the DCMS select committee published its report. It contained a lot of the stuff I’d been reporting on for 18 months. And then Damien Collins spoke out and said we needed a public enquiry, a Mueller-style enquiry, and now that’s been backed by Tom Watson and David Lammy. It feels like an awareness is beginning, but it’s so slow. I’ve been banging on about this for so long, and I do feel I have to keep going, but it’s exhausting.

I think it’s inspiring. When you collected your prize you stated: “Our laws do not work and our regulators are unable to regulate”. But in July when you interviewed Elizabeth Denham of the Information Commissioner’s Office you did seem quite reassured about some of the work that the government had done. Are they putting more weight behind the issue now?

I was so profoundly grateful that they’d taken that investigation really seriously. Denham was very responsive. She has really gone for it, in terms of trying to get evidence, but it’s yet to be seen what they come back with.

With the evidence breaking of election laws and Russian interference, do you think that Brexit negotiations should be put on hold, at least while the DCMS committee’s inquiry takes place?

That’s not my call. The politics of Brexit are something I have deliberately kept away from, in that sense. My focus is that it’s not democratic and not lawful. So if our politicians push Brexit through on that basis, then that’s up to the people of this country to call them out. The first hurdle is just getting across what happened – and telling the story better.

I’m really interested by the whistleblower Christopher Wylie. I think he is a fascinating character in your fight to expose misinformation and collusion. What do you think personally motivated him to become involved in the Facebook data mining for Cambridge Analytica in the first place, and what drove him to help your investigation instead? What was the change in mentality that you think he went through?

Chris is just such an ideas person. He loved the intellectual playfulness of reading about a theory and the challenge of how you could put that into practice. Could he do it? Could he pull it off? In fairness, I think it was very unclear what the potential consequences were. I think that it was only when Trump got elected that he started to speak about his own culpability.

He really was just glad I found him, glad to talk about it, and glad that he could potentially do something about it. He took it extremely seriously. The thing about Chris is, if he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it well.

He had very clear ideas about the protection he needed. If he was going to expose himself and put so much on the line, then he wanted it done properly.

In a way, you share this in common with Chris Wylie. 

Yes, to be honest with you, we were united by an understanding of the gravity, and the potential impact, of the story.

It’s been suggested that your journalism has resulted in the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg issuing a public apology for the misuse of user data. What level of ethical and legal responsibility do you think Zuckerberg and other tech leaders should take for the content on their platforms?

I just don’t buy it. It’s a nonsense to say Zuckerburg has apologised. On my To Do list today is to write to Facebook and ask again for an interview with him. He hasn’t engaged with us at all. They tried to sue us [the Observer, in 2015].

Where is the limit of their responsibility?

They keep on trying to control the narrative around this by trying to make the focus on stuff they’re doing for the future. But their new rules around transparency don’t work.

What really annoys me is you can’t just brush the most consequential election in modern British history under the carpet by ‘moving forward’. We’ve got the know what happened. Otherwise it will happen again.

I was reading David Runciman recently, who in his new book writes that democracy is slowly being killed by demagogues and tech companies, and will turn into “a kind of ‘half-life democracy that could continue existing for a long time”. Do you think democracy can survive in the age of big tech?

I don’t think it’s possible to hold a free and fair election in Britain at the moment. Our electoral laws need rewriting from the bottom up.

You can see Facebook is a tool for dictators. The word that academic Martin Moore uses is ‘managed democracies’. This is increasingly the way the world is turning. These tech platforms facilitate that. It’s about as alarming as it could be.

What do people need to do to make a difference?

They need to put pressure on their MPs; to try to understand what’s going on; to read up on what is happening. This is because change will come in response to political pressure from the ground up. The government is desperately trying to ignore the issues. So it’s only if they can be forced not to ignore them that we’ve got any chance at all.

The Orwell Prize is Britain’s most prestigious prize for political writing. Each year prizes are awarded for the books and journalism which come closest to George Orwell’s ambition ‘to make political writing into an art’.

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