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Is there a link between Cambridge Analytica and the DUP’s secret Brexit donors?

Today we reveal the close relationship between a key Cambridge Analytica backer and a senior pro-Brexit Northern Irish PR man – who has Russian friends in high places

Cambridge Analytica/SCL's Alexander Nix. Image, Sam Barnes. CC2.0

Cambridge Analytica stands accused of using ‘unattributable and untrackable’ advertising to get Donald Trump elected, of illegally accessing 50 million Facebook profiles, and of much more besides. The controversial data company also has friends in high places, from Tory party donors to the British military.

But openDemocracy has now discovered that Cambridge Analytica’s establishment links run even deeper, leading to one of the most senior figures in Northern Irish unionism – a PR man who has represented everyone from British Airways to Russian oligarchs – and raising questions once more about who gave the DUP a secretive £435,000 donation for its Brexit campaign.  

Former Ulster Unionist MP David Burnside has been one of the most influential PR figures in Britain for decades, a Tory donor with links to senior figures in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. We have now learned that Burnside also works for Vincent Tchenguiz, a property tycoon who was the largest shareholder in Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group, for almost a decade.

A number of links between the various pro-Brexit campaigns and Cambridge Analytica have already been established. Taken together, Vote Leave, the DUP and other Brexit campaigners spent millions with a data analytics company that has been linked to Cambridge Analytica and is currently under investigation by the UK Information Commissioner. The Leave campaign’s biggest donor, Arron Banks, also says Cambridge Analytica pitched to work with him but that he never sealed the deal. These are coincidences that key Leave figures have so far failed to adequately explain.

There is no allegation that the Ulster Unionist David Burnside, via his close relationship with Cambridge Analytica-backer Vincent Tchenguiz, has done anything wrong, or that he is connected to the DUP’s controversial £435,000 Brexit donation. But his close relationship with Tchenguiz who, for almost a decade, was the biggest shareholder in the company that created Cambridge Analytica, raises fresh, troubling questions about how the Leave campaign was run, who paid for it – and in particular how far the web of influence of Cambridge Analytica and the Trump-backing billionaire Robert Mercer may stretch.

Speaking to openDemocracy today, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said: “We have seen this week the extent to which Cambridge Analytica sought to distort and manipulate the democratic process around the world."

"Now we learn that a major shareholder in the company that created Cambridge Analytica is directly connected to a senior pro-Brexit Northern Irish unionist – who is himself linked to some of Vladimir Putin’s associates. This poses serious questions about who is funding our politics and how."

“The Tories are being propped up by a party which refuses to say where it got a £435,000 Brexit donation. If the DUP won't come clean about these questions, the government should make them."

‘Connections to serious money’

David Burnside. Image, Paul Faith/PA Archive/PA Images

Few in Northern Ireland are as well connected as David Burnside. A former MP, ex-head of press at British Airways, and a constant presence at Tory party conferences, the pugnacious, cigar-chomping PR man “has long moved in very different circles to most of Northern Irish political figures,” according to a well-placed unionist source in Northern Ireland. “Burnside is also the only person here with connections to serious money.”

Politically, Burnside is firmly on the right of Northern Irish politics. He cut his teeth as a young man in the early 1970s as a press officer for the hardline Vanguard Unionist Progressive party, but by the early 2000s Burnside was an Ulster Unionist MP. In 2003, however, he and another UUP MP led a rebellion against the party’s support of the Good Friday Agreement. That other MP was Jeffrey Donaldson.

Burnside remained in the Ulster Unionist Party fold, but has often called for his party to merge with its more hardline cousins, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Jeffrey Donaldson, on the other hand, joined the DUP in 2004, and went on to manage its pro-Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum.

As openDemocracy revealed early last year, the DUP’s Brexit campaign was funded by a controversial £435,000 donation – the largest in Northern Irish history. Almost all the money was spent on campaigning outside Northern Ireland. The DUP has said the money came from an organisation that “wants to see the union kept”. But we do not know who gave the DUP the money because of Northern Ireland’s unique donor secrecy laws. (The Conservative government recently voted to maintain the veil of secrecy around the DUP’s Brexit donor.)

Burnside is a Brexit-supporting unionist and a founder member of both Friends of the Union and the Constitutional Reform Group, the pro-union think-tank set up by Lord Salisbury after Scotland’s independence referendum, whose patrons include a roster of high-profile Brexit backers. Burnside remains close to many in the DUP, particularly in Westminster. This week, he declined to answer openDemocracy’s questions about the secret £435,000 Brexit donation, but a spokesperson said “you should ask the DUP”. (The DUP has consistently refused to reveal who is behind the secretive front group that channelled them the Brexit cash.)

Jeffrey Donaldson (centre left) and David Burnside (centre right) in Orange Lodge sashes laying a wreath on the tomb of William of Orange, outside Westminster Abbey in 2007. Image, Fiona Hanson/PA.
Burnside left the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2009, saying he wanted to concentrate on his business interests. His PR firm New Century Media has offices near St James’s Park in London and has represented some of London’s richest individuals – including multimillionaire property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz. That’s where Cambridge Analytica comes in.

Vincent Tchenguiz and Cambridge Analytica

For almost a decade the largest shareholder in SCL Group – the company that created Cambridge Analytica – was Vincent Tchenguiz. (As in ‘Ghengis’: his father, the head of the Iranian mint, changed the family name to the Persian for the Mongol warlord.) Tchenguiz, a whip smart bon vivant born in Iran of Jewish-Iraqi descent, has been described by Bloomberg as ‘the UK’s biggest private owner of residential real estate’. (He made headlines in January for reportedly forcing leaseholders to pay to replace Grenfell Tower-style cladding in a building owned by one of his companies.)

In 2005 Tchenguiz bought a 24% stake in SCL Group via his company Consensus Business Group. SCL boasts on its website of offering “data, analytics and strategy to governments and military organizations” in over 60 countries and has links to the heart of the Tory party, British royal family and the British military. SCL’s shareholders and officers have given more than £700,000 to the Conservatives since 2015. It was also the company that, around 2013, created Cambridge Analytica to work on US political campaigns.

Vincent Tchenguiz and Lisa Tchenguiz. Image, Ian West/PA Archive/PA Images.

Over the last week, Cambridge Analytica has been accused of illegally buying data on 50 million Facebook profiles, with its executives filmed claiming to use honey traps and bribery to smear political opponents. Its CEO Alexander Nix has now been suspended. Throughout the period of these activities, SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica shared directors and they are often seen as essentially the same outfit. As Carole Cadwalladr wrote last weekend in the Observer, “For all intents and purposes, SCL/Cambridge are one and the same”.

Tchenguiz sold his stake in SCL in the summer of 2015 for just £147,746. (A tiny sum for a man who paid women £2,000 to spend a night dancing on his yacht.) Just weeks later, Cambridge Analytica began working on the Ted Cruz presidential campaign. Over the next year, Cambridge Analytica would earn more than $13m, working first for Cruz and then for Donald Trump. Much of this money came from Robert Mercer, the billionaire Trump and Breitbart-backing financier who was so impressed with Cambridge Analytica that he reportedly become a major shareholder in late 2013.

SCL’s current chairman, Julian Wheatland, is a former employee of Tchenguiz and widely seen as his place man. Wheatland is also chairman of Oxford West and Abingdon Conservative Association. US writer Ann Marlowe has suggested that Tchenguiz sold his shares to avoid awkward questions about his background and links. Tchenguiz denies this. “Consensus Business Group lost interest,” a spokesperson for Tchenguiz said when asked why he sold his SCL shares in 2015. “It was never a strategic investment for the company.”

The dour Northern Irishman, the flamboyant playboy – and the Ukrainian oligarch

Ulster Unionist David Burnside has represented Vincent Tchenguiz as his PR adviser for more than ten years. The two men are very different – the dour Northern Irishman and the flamboyant playboy – but have a strong working relationship, according to a former employee of Burnside’s PR firm New Century Media.

Burnside was representing Tchenguiz when, in 2011, the Serious Fraud Office arrested the property tycoon as part of a dawn raid prompted by the collapse of the Icelandic bank Kaupthing. The High Court later ruled the arrest illegal, and, in 2014, the SFO paid Tchenguiz £6 million in compensation and costs.

In addition to their ten year working relationship, there are a number of other connections between Tchenguiz and Burnside. Both Tchenguiz and his brother, Robert, are Tory donors, as are many of SCL/Cambridge Analytica’s senior figures. Burnside is also close to the Conservatives: his PR firm New Century Media has donated £142,850 to the Tories since 2009. “All the company’s political donations are a matter of public record,” a spokesperson for New Century Media told openDemocracy.

Both men have another, intriguing link in common: Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch wanted by the FBI. Tchenguiz has invested in a business whose largest shareholder was Firtash. After leaving Westminster, Burnside, alongside the PR firm Bell Pottinger, advised the Firtash Foundation, which is overseen by the Ukrainian oligarch.

Dmytro Firtash. Image, Wikimedia

Firtash is currently facing extradition to the United States on charges of international money laundering and other offences. Last year, federal prosecutors in Chicago described the Ukrainian as an ‘upper-echelon [associate] of Russian organized crime’, and he has long been associated with financing pro-Putin candidates in Ukraine. He also has close ties to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. (Manafort, who was running the Trump campaign when Cambridge Analytica began working for it, was recently indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller on dozens of counts, including fraud, as part of the ongoing US investigation into the Trump-Russia connections.)

Firtash has also donated millions to Cambridge University. Speaking in 2014, Firtash said the allegations against him were “purely political”.

The Russian connections

In Northern Ireland, David Burnside maintains a low profile, rarely making the headlines except for the occasional call for ‘unionist unity’ and a merger between the UUP and the DUP. But Burnside’s work has sometimes come to the attention of the UK press. It was reported that New Century Media earned at least £100,000 working for the Bahrain International Circuit. However it is Burnside’s ties to Russia that have attracted most attention.

In 2012, Burnside invited Sergey Nalobin, the senior diplomat from the Russian embassy in London, to a Tory fundraising dinner. Nalobin, whose father was a top-ranking officer in the FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet KGB, was forced out of the UK by the Home Office in 2015. Burnside has also provided “reputation management" and "personal introductions to individuals within ... politics” as part of a £900,000 a year contract with Vladimir Makhlai, a Russian billionaire who fled to Britain in 2005. When Makhlai stopped paying, Burnside got tough and sued in the high court, winning a £500,000 ruling

David Cameron speaking at the party to Vasily Shestakov (second right) and Russian billionaire Andrei Kliamko (right), translated by Alex Nekrassov of New Century Media (centre) - image, the Guardian.

In 2014, a photo emerged of then prime minister David Cameron with influential Russian MP Vasily Shestakov, co-author with the Russian president of Learn Judo With Vladimir Putin. The photograph was taken the previous June at a secretive Conservative fundraising party at Old Billingsgate Market. The Russians were guests of David Burnside, sitting at a table that cost up to £12,000 (the translator in the picture is one of Burnside’s staff).

Also pictured is Andrei Kliamko, a Russian judo executive with business interests in Crimea, who according to Forbes Russia is worth $1.9bn, and Alex Nekrassov, director of accounts at Burnside’s New Century Media. (Nekrassov’s father, Alexander, is a prominent pro-Kremlin commentator who recently linked the story of the poisoned former spy Sergei Skripal to a Westminster paedophile scandal).

In May 2013, a month before David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and others were photographed wooing Tory donors at that fundraiser in Old Billingsgate Market, Burnside’s longtime colleague at New Century Media, Tim Lewin, founded the Positive Russia Foundation. In an interview, Shestakov described the Positive Russia Foundation as "a new variant of RT, but under the patronage of English aristocrats" set up to combat 'anti-Russian propaganda' in the British media. The company was dissolved in 2016, as were two other companies that Lewin was a director of: Crimean National Tourism Office Limited and the Crimean Economic Development Agency Limited. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing, and New Century Media says it does not comment on client relationships.

Concerns about the role of Russia in British politics are growing. The Sunday Times recently reported that Russian oligarchs and their associates had donated more than £820,000 to the Conservatives since Theresa May became prime minister. Last year Ben Bradshaw MP, citing reporting by openDemocracy, told parliament that there was “widespread concern over foreign and particularly Russian interference in western democracies” and called for an inquiry into the role of dark money in the Brexit referendum. Key players in the Leave campaign such as Nigel Farage and Arron Banks have laughed off suggestions of any ties to Russia.

Who gets to shape our democracy?

Carole Cadwalladr’s revelations in the Observer about Cambridge Analytica and its networks have dominated headlines across the world, taking $50 billion off Facebook’s share price in just two days. They have raised a string of vital questions for modern democracy – who gets to shape our elections, and who has access to key information about our lives.

openDemocracy has been investigating a number of these issues for over a year. Our reporting on the DUP’s secret Brexit donation; on the finances of the Leave campaign’s biggest backer Arron Banks; and on the many groups seeking to shape Brexit have been picked up by media across the world. They have prompted questions in parliament; triggered a law change ending donor secrecy in Northern Ireland; and have contributed to three separate ongoing investigations by the UK Electoral Commission and one by the Charity Commission.

For a long time, we have been asking ourselves: how does Cambridge Analytica/SCL connect to the secret £435,000 funnelled to the DUP’s Brexit campaign? We now have one answer: that the man who controlled the biggest shareholding in SCL for more than a decade is represented by a key ally of the DUP.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by either David Burnside or Vincent Tchenguiz. But their link offers new insights into the secretive networks of money and influence that are seeking to shape western democracies. And it once again underlines the urgent need for full transparency on how the Leave campaigns in Britain operated to pull off one of the biggest political shocks in a generation.

Unaware that he was speaking on camera to an undercover Channel 4 investigator, Mark Turnbull, the Managing Director of Cambridge Analytica, said:

“Sometimes you can use proxy organisations, who are already there, you feed them. They are [often] civil society organisations - like charities, or activist organisations – and you feed them, they do the work...” The best thing about this type of messaging, he said, is that it has “no branding, so it’s unattributable. Untrackable.”

About the authors

Peter Geoghegan is investigations editor of openDemocracy's main site. He can be found on Twitter @PeterKGeoghegan.

Adam Ramsay is the Co-Editor of openDemocracyUK and also works with Bright Green. Before, he was a full time campaigner with People & Planet. You can follow him at @adamramsay.


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