Lesley Riddoch: Don’t ban him from TV, here’s how to tackle Arron Banks

Arron Banks, speaking to Andrew Marr on Sunday
Arron Banks, speaking to Andrew Marr on Sunday
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Arron Banks’ appearance on Marr should hasten his interview by the real experts writes Lesley Riddoch

Are the viewing public any the wiser about Arron Banks and the real source of the cash he donated to Leave.Eu, after yesterday’s grilling by Andrew Marr on BBC1?

Does the BBC’s political flagship emerge smelling of roses after giving airtime to a man under investigation by the National Crime Agency (NCA) after the Electoral Commission decided there were reasonable grounds to suspect Banks was “not the true source” of his £8million donation?

If the answer to either question is no, why did the Marr programme fan the flames, allow Banks to spread yet more mis-information, further bolster the false cult of personality in British politics and run the risk of interfering with the legal process?

Banks’ willingness to be interviewed live undoubtedly boosted viewing figures, and must have seemed like a bit of a coup for the programme. After all, the billionaire has tended to avoid scrutiny. He walked out of a Select Committee in June after more than two and half hours, saying he had a lunch appointment.

The desire to leave was probably enhanced by the line of questioning. Banks was appearing before MPs after newspaper reports of repeated contacts with Russian officials during the referendum campaign, centring on a potential business deal involving six Russian gold mines. Banks told the MPs no money from his overseas business interests formed part of his political donations and he was “crystal clear” about the rules.

“I pay a shed-load of tax, probably more than the entire committee put together,” he said, before discovering his ill-timed lunch appointment beckoned. But not before admitting he had “led people up the garden path” and used “alternative methods” to influence the Brexit vote.

This pattern of denial, obfuscation and stunning (diverting) revelation was repeated on Sunday’s Marr programme where Banks denied that his firm Rock Services was just a “shell company” without sufficient funds to hand cash to Better for the Country (BFTC), which ran Leave.EU.

When Andrew Marr put this to him, Banks said the company has “all sorts of revenues” but wouldn’t detail them, saying merely; “We insure half a million people. I know it’s complex for journalists to understand but … this is about … undermining Article 50 and the Brexit result.”

And true to form, he bowed out with an astonishing googly, claiming he would now back Remain if the European referendum was re-run.

“The corruption I have seen in British politics, the sewer that exists and the disgraceful behaviour of the government over …selling out [Brexit], means that if I had my time again I think we would have been better to probably remain and not unleash these demons.”

Now, there’s no question this was interesting stuff, and since there is no arrest, warrant or summons the interview probably doesn’t offend English law under contempt of court. That however wasn’t the real question.

Firstly, was Marr the right interviewer? Arron Banks used legal jargon and made hard-to-challenge assertions about business behaviour, which would have needed a skilled business journalist to pick apart. Indeed, maybe that’s why Banks’ PR company decided to “reveal all,” to Marr, handing over redacted and very partial company accounts.

It would have been far more interesting if the veteran Scots interviewer had made way for investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who along with Scots-based Peter Geoghegan has done all the donkey-work uncovering the dark money links that lie behind the Brexit campaign. She writes for pressure group Opendemocracy and the Observer newspaper, and of course, to card-carrying Leave supporters, those connections inevitably sound fishy making it easy for Banks to insist the campaign against him is politically motivated.

Indeed, it is a sad reflection on the state of British democracy, that the important civic job of investigating Arron Banks has been left to freelancers backed by an online crowdfunder. But this weekend OpenDemocracy published information supplied by whistleblowers from Banks’ insurance company, which suggested that he lied to MPs & failed to declare Brexit expenses. Banks refused to answer questions from Cadwalladr on Friday, prompting her to tweet just before Sunday’s Marr interview; “I think he should be questioned. But #Marr is the outlet his PR has chosen.” In other words, a soft touch interview. Since very little emerged from the interview, she might be right.

Secondly, and more damagingly, Banks was able to put his own account of proceedings on the same level as the Electoral Commission and the Select Committee – both of whom he accused of political bias. Jo Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project commented; “How robust Andrew Marr’s questioning is – and he is a good interviewer – is completely beside the point. The interview is an invitation to viewers to choose between what the independent regulator has said and what Arron Banks says. That is a false and dangerous equivalence.”

This indeed is the nub of the matter.

The Brexit vote surged on the back of a deep-rooted suspicion of the professional classes by marginalised voters. In the opinion of many poor folk, self-important, well-paid upholders of the public good have done nothing to protect the average man and woman and everything to feather their own nests. That means there are two entirely separate audiences for Arron Banks extraordinary claims. For professionals it’s self-evidently outrageous that a billionaire can impugn the bona fides of the Electoral Commission. For folk stuck at the bottom of a society without social mobility, money, sympathy or hope of change, independent commissions and government quangos are all the same - staffed by the same set of well heeled professionals and therefore fair game.

This is the genie that jumps out of the box every time Arron Banks gets airtime. In truth though, the best way to lessen his corrosive impact on democracy is not to ban him from TV, but to ensure he’s up against truly expert interviewers, to change the composition of democracy quangos so they look less alien to working class voters, and to make sure nothing delays Banks’ next interview with the real experts - the National Crime Agency which has the ability to fully investigate his financial transactions in the Isle of Man.

With any luck, that will get underway before the Brexit deal is signed, sealed and delivered and if it undermines the result, Banks will have a lot more explaining to do.