Speaking after BBC and Channel 4 execs pulled out of Edinburgh TV Festival panel ‘Who Gets a Voice?’ (leaving her as a sole panelist), Carole Cadwalladr tells The Drum she believes she is being "gaslit" by the BBC.
Pulitzer-nominated journalist and Cambridge Analytica investigator Carole Cadwalladr has accused UK public service broadcasters of being "missing in action” on the data abuse scandal. Illustrating this concern, she claims she's only had three minutes on BBC TV channels to discuss the story.
Cadwalladr says the broadcasters removed themselves from a debate about providing a platform for new voices after seeing her name on the same bill. Hilary O’Neill, news editor of Question Time – a show Cadwalladr has been critical of – was originally slated to appear alongside her.
“I really do feel like 'Typhoid Mary' – it is incredible the way I clear panels," she says. "I am so frustrated with the BBC. This was my one chance to engage with them but I only found out yesterday (Tuesday 20th) they cancelled."
In 2016, Observer reporter and features writer Cadwalladr revealed how digital ad company Cambridge Analytica harvested Facebook user data to aid election campaigns, in particular helping Donald Trump win the presidential race. Its misuse of user data saw the social network's chief executive Mark Zuckerberg later probed by US congress. She then featured in Netflix documentary ‘The Great Hack’, which she considers her best chance to inform the UK public of the data scandal – shy of that much-coveted BBC coverage.
As she struggles for inclusion in the BBC News schedules, she questions why Nigel Farage, a Brexit advocate who failed to be elected as an MP eight times, is Question Time's most frequent guest this century (33 appearances). Should the former UKIP, Leave.EU (the second pro-Brexit group to breach electoral law) and Brexit Party honcho have been afforded such a regular spot on the show?
Cadwalladr says: “I feel gaslit by the BBC. It is so extreme now. I have no desire to be on TV but I want the story covered. They continue to avoid it and when they do touch it, they do it really badly.”
Foreign broadcasters like CNN, Al Jazeera and even an entertainment service like Netflix provide screen time to the journalist. She hopes interview clips reach the UK on social media to give the story a footprint outside of The Guardian and Observer's audiences.
Meanwhile, Cadwalladr continues to fight a “bullying” defamation case brought by Leave.EU campaign donor Arron Banks, who has objected to her claims he was offered Russian government money to bankroll the referendum campaign. She says the lawsuit is an “attempt to silence” her. Notably, she does not have legal backing from The Observer because Banks sued her for comments made during a Ted Talk and a Westminster presentation – and not the content of her published articles.
There's a vitriolic relationship between the pair. Banks described Cadwalladr as a “sad cat lady” on Twitter in 2018, a term later riffed upon by then BBC Politics Live host Andrew Neil who described her as “mad cat woman… Karol Kodswallop”. Cadwalladr campaigned for a right to respond on the BBC but that never came to fruition.
To fund further investigations, she is looking to raise £300,000 in lawyers' fees on GoFundMe. 10,600 donors have ensured she is just £6,000 away from the target at the time of writing.
Cadwalladr is also calling for a platform to be afforded to Shahmir Sanni, the Vote Leave whistleblower who revealed that the group deliberately broke the law by donating £625,000 to youth wing BeLeave.
“[The BBC] never covered the Shahmir story and then committed to that, so the mainstream missed it. If it is not on the BBC, it hasn’t happened. They absolutely dominate the news schedules but have been missing in action.”
So then, you may be surprised to learn then that Cadwalladr is “sick of” criticising the BBC. She describes it as “a great cultural institution” and “a journalism bedrock that is vital to the public interest”. But her conflict with the broadcaster is "painful".
"I have been at the frontline in witnessing the BBC’s total failure to report these really serious issues."
She says it needs to show more leadership at a time when "print media is so partisan and owned by foreign oligarchs".
“We really do depend on the broadcast media to be fair, balanced, factually accurate and neutral. If they are not doing their job, it is problematic.”
Belly of the Beast
Cadwalladr has spoken directly to the apostles of Silicon Valley (home of the data giants Facebook and Google), ad land at Cannes Lions and now the TV industry at the Edinburgh TV Festival on a tour of her "Typhoid Mary act".
The ad industry in particular needs to look at its role in misinformation and data misuse, she claims.
“I agreed to go to Cannes Lions to tell people things they don’t want to hear." She claims to have received a hostile reception and ended up at Extinction Rebellion's protest after talking to a half-empty room.
“The advertising industry is hugely responsible for the disinformation network, it funds it. And Cannes Lions had nothing about Cambridge Analytica on any of its panels.”
That was with the exception of Cannes inviting Alexander Nix, former Cambridge Analytica chief executive, to discuss ‘The Morality of Data’ at the event. After pressure from attendees and the industry, he dropped out at the last minute.
As digital and programmatic advertising spend continues to increase, is it possible there is willful ignorance of these issues, she asks. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) this year said that real-time-bidding, the auction in which ad impressions are bought and sold in microseconds, could be unlawful and is "likely to result in a high risk to the rights and freedoms of individuals".
“You could tell from the adtech yachts and parties, there was so much money swishing around [in Cannes]," Cadwalladr adds. "When I was there, there was a ruling by the ICO saying the whole adtech industry may be in breach of GDPR. It didn’t really get any mainstream coverage."
The Drum asked the BBC and Channel 4 why their officials pulled out of the panel. They had not responded at the time of publication.