We knew that networks rooted in the US and Russia were fuelling ultra-conservative, far-right and anti-democratic forces in Europe, and were seeking to influence the outcome of last month’s European parliamentary elections.
And we had the right journalists, networks and groundwork in place ready to expose them. Our Dark Money Investigations team had spent two years tracing the secret funding that fuelled the Brexit campaign, and which continue to push pro-Brexit lobbying. Their work has led to multiple investigations by criminal, regulatory and parliamentary authorities; forced changes in the law on political transparency; and prompted follow-up coverage across the global media. At the same time, our Tracking the Backlash team led by Claire Provost, based in Italy, had been following the movements seeking to roll back women’s and LGBTIQ rights globally. Unsurprisingly, we had spotted that many of these networks and interests overlap. And we had gathered a trove of leads – including leaked documents, data analysis and intelligence gathered from our networks on the ground – which gave us a head start.
We set both openDemocracy teams, plus other core editorial staff, to work full-time on the European elections. We also quickly built out a continent-wide network of freelance journalists, hiring reporters based in Spain, Italy and Germany, and collaborating with journalists at Source Material, L'Espresso, Internazionale, Taz (Germany) and Vanity Fair, as well as with researchers at UnHackDemocracy Europe and Investigate Europe.
We kicked off with an ambitious and forensic data project, which revealed how US Christian extremists linked to Donald Trump have poured millions of ‘dark money’ into Europe. Over 40 MEPs wrote to the presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament demanding an urgent investigation, and the story was covered by CNN, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Deutsche Welle and other outlets across 15 countries including Hungary, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.
Then we sent undercover reporters to the ultra-conservative Christian World Congress of Families in Verona, Italy: a summit which Matteo Salvini, a headline speaker this year, described as “the Europe we like”. Our main report from the conference itself was published in The Face, the newly relaunched lifestyle and fashion magazine (and was also cited by the Guardian).
The intelligence we gathered there led us straight to Spain for an undercover investigation into the Madrid-based campaign group CitizenGo – which we revealed, on the eve of the Spanish elections, to be working as a de-facto 'Super PAC' to boost Vox and other far-right parties across Europe.
Our reporting prompted more lawmakers from across Europe to write to the presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament, this time demanding action to protect the integrity of the European elections. It was another story covered across the global media, including in two pieces in the Washington Post, Deutsche Welle, Taz and Focus in Germany; Internazionale in Italy, Polish Newsweek and in Spain by the national newspaper El Periodico, the online journal La Marea and lots of local press across the country.
Former US senator Russ Feingold (who sponsored campaign finance efforts with John McCain) called our investigations "frightening" and warned: "Europe has an opportunity to get ahead of this and not make the same mistakes that were made in the US."
He also noted: “There is a great irony in this. [Far-right parties] are trying to appeal to ultra nationalist sentiments but they are using tactics that are completely contrary to the sovereignty of those countries. These are international actors, oligarchs and others who are trying to control the political processes of these countries. Even if you are a nationalist, one would think you would be a little bit concerned about that.”
Reflecting on these insights, we decided to pivot from our planned story pipeline. We wanted to reach outside of our filter bubble; to produce more of the types of stories that might impact more citizens who were actually considering voting for far-right parties. With that in mind, we decided to invest resources in a big cross-border data project, which revealed how hundreds of European citizens (farmers, priests, firefighters and elderly women, not only activists) have been ‘criminalised’ for helping migrants, particularly in places where the far-right holds national or local power. The resulting story, published the weekend before Europeans voted, had wide pickup globally – not only in the UK, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, but across the world, including Turkey, Lebanon, Cameroon, Morocco, Egypt and the United States. Journalists, researchers and NGOs from several countries also asked us to share the underlying dataset to facilitate further follow-up work on this theme. These include a reporter at PRI who looked at similar trends in the US and heavily cited our research; the Migration Policy Group which is working on a key report for European policymakers; and the Church of Sweden – perhaps not an obvious ally, given our previous work exposing religious lobbying against womens’ and LGBTI rights.
This story, as well as our collaboration with Source Material on attacks against the Pope and on the Brexit party (see below), enabled us to significantly build out our networks, reach outside of progressive filter bubbles, and to build a wider range of alliances.
Unhacking Hungarian democracy
Also in the final days before the European elections, we broke a major story which went to the heart of Europe’s far-right electoral surge. Working with UnHackDemocracy Europe, we published a detailed report of hundreds of allegations of electoral fraud which appear to have helped Viktor Orbán’s landslide ‘supermajority’ victory in Hungary last year – and which outlined how Hungary’s European elections were vulnerable to even wider electoral fraud.
UnHackDemocracy Europe is a new, volunteer-run NGO which had approached us with large amounts of raw data, but very little experience of how to turn this wealth of information into a publishable, legally-sound piece of journalism. Working closely with them over a number of weeks, we were able to turn their research into a highly impactful story which was reported by BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’, the BBC World Service and RFI as well as outlets in Hungary itself, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, Germany, Ghana, Indonesia, Luxembourg, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and the US.
The full story list
Other stories published as part of this short, intensive project period revealed:
- The growing list of far-right politicians and aristocrats connected to the ultraconservative World Congress of Families. Our analysis of every summit programme since 2004 was cited in the UK UK Independent newspaper – and provided a key new piece of evidence for our investigation into links between far right and religious right movements.
- How Pope Francis became a hate figure for the far right, charting the transatlantic assault against the pontiff and Steve Bannon’s deep roots in Italy (in collaboration with Source Material); picked up in Politico, French Catholic news site La Croix, Haaretz, La Reppublica, RAI, Mail Online, The Daily Telegraph, The Observer, The Guardian, The Economist, British Catholic newspaper The Tablet, the Financial Times, NBC, the New York Post and the National Catholic Reporter.
- MPs from 14 countries called for an inquiry into the ‘dark money’ millions spent by the US Christian right in Europe, following our report
- A candidate for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party had spread propaganda for a Balkan warlord and was tracked by MI6 (reported in the right-leaning Times of London)
- How a former Brexit minister breached ministerial rules by meeting the controversial Spanish far-right Vox party, shared widely across social media and described by the editor of Buzzfeed UK as “a really important story”.
- How Facebook and Google pressured EU experts to soften fake news regulations (in collaboration with Investigate Europe, and co-published with Buzzfeed Germany); picked up by La Repubblica, The Register, EU Reporter, the Columbia Journalism Review and multiple outlets in Italy and the Czech Republic.
- Leaked proposals from a senior Irish MEP, backed by powerful Christian lobbyists, to boost the power of religious groups in Brussels (reported in the Irish Times and YLE, Finland’s national broadcaster)
- How a leading prosecco company and a cheese business sponsored the ultra-conservative WCF in Verona, at the Lega’s request, sparking calls for boycotts from Jay Rayner, an influential British food critic, as well as high profile LGBT rights activists such as Peter Tatchell, and picked up widely in the Italian and German press.
- We also discovered a surprising number of Brexiteer politicians cosying up to an Armenian oligarch
- And, more positively, that many bold young women are ready to cross Europe to challenge the far right
Painting the bigger picture about Europe’s far-right
In addition to our investigative reporting, we also produced a number of op-eds, videos and infographics which contextualised our findings as part of a bigger, global picture.
A Project Syndicate op-ed from our Editor in Chief, detailing ‘America’s dark-money bid for Europe’s soul’, has so far appeared in 15 publications, across 13 countries and 5 languages.
Another, ‘What the far-right really mean when they talk about taking back ‘Christian Europe’ was syndicated in the UK Independent newspaper and by Business Insider (Germany). Mary also contributed to a post-election special feature by the Irish Examiner, and has co-authored (with Claire Provost) a forthcoming piece on the far-right in Europe in the New York Review of Books.
We also have a forthcoming feature in the print issue of the newly-relaunched British fashion and lifestyle magazine, the Face. And our editors and writers continue to be interviewed by media outlets globally about our findings.
In all, our stories running up to the European elections were picked up by media outlets in 50 different countries globally, between them publishing in 20 different languages.
On openDemocracy.net, the articles in this project had attracted over 165,000 page views by 30th June. The most-read article – ‘Revealed: Trump-linked US Christian ‘fundamentalists’ pour millions of ‘dark money’ into Europe, boosting the far right’ – had over 34,000 hits. The second most-read – 'Fresh evidence of Hungary vote-rigging raises concerns of fraud in European elections’ – had almost 29,000 hits.
Across Facebook and Twitter, the four films we made promoting our European elections work had over 20,000 views, and the infographics we produced (see below, on the migration story and on the $51m dark money from the US) together attracted over 23,000 hits.