MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
I'm Mary Louise Kelly in London where people are asking some of the same questions that have been dominating Washington of late. What might Russia be doing to mess with their politics? Just as in Washington, investigations are underway into whether Russia collaborated with the Trump campaign. Here in London, they are asking whether Moscow tried to push Brexit, and the man leading that investigation here at Parliament is named Damian Collins. He's an MP. His committee is leading that probe, and we've come here to talk to him.
Collins' office is down a long wood-paneled hall, other MPs and their aides scurrying past. We settled into two enormously overstuffed armchairs, and I dove right in.
Is there evidence of Russian interference in British politics? I know there's a lot of smoke. Is there fire?
DAMIAN COLLINS: Well, there is some fire, yes. We know that Russian agencies were involved in using Twitter to try and spread messages during the Brexit referendum. We know there was intent to do that on Facebook during the referendum as well, although the amount of money spent directly in the same way that it was spent in the American presidential election campaign seems to be a lot smaller.
KELLY: I should mention your committees run the hearings here for Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, some of the things we've also been holding hearings on in the U.S.
COLLINS: That's right. Now, we've also been looking at Russian involvement in other elections in Europe as well, and we've also looked at the way in which their official news agencies, which are really, you know, controlled by the state - the way they seek to dominate debates as well. So they were very active during the Brexit referendum in pushing out messages there, and they were also very active around the Salisbury poisoning.
KELLY: The Novichok poisoning...
COLLINS: The Novichok poisoning as well. So...
KELLY: ...Of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal.
COLLINS: Yeah, that's right. And if you went to Facebook news feed and search for news stories about the poisoning in Salisbury, you would find that maybe in the top 10 searches, the BBC might be in the top two, but the rest will probably be stories all coming from Russian sources. And what they're seeking to do is create enough doubt or to pose questions that are difficult to answer so you disbelieve what the BBC and other news outlets are saying.
KELLY: In very recent days, you've also been trying to pinpoint what connections there may have been between British individuals and Russia. And you've focused of late on a guy named Arron Banks, who - I'll explain for an American audience - British financier, biggest political donor in British history.
COLLINS: That's right.
KELLY: And that money all went toward the Brexit campaign, toward trying to get the U.K. out of the EU. Your committee's been asking, is Arron Banks' money - is some of that Russian money? What have you found?
COLLINS: Well, what we've found is that Arron Banks was known to have connections with Russia on a personal basis. His wife is Russian, and that he visited Russia was not a secret.
KELLY: He's talked publicly about bougie lunches with the Russian...
COLLINS: Bougie lunches with the Russian...
KELLY: ...Ambassador here in London.
COLLINS: Exactly, but...
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS CHIMING)
KELLY: What's that?
COLLINS: That is prayers. And then there will be another bell in about two minutes.
KELLY: Did you say prayers?
COLLINS: Yeah, the bells go to let members know prayers have started and that - and then the next bell will go to let people know that the session has started. Then we'll be clear, so - but there will be - (laughter) we might as well wait for the second set of bells.
KELLY: So we'll stand by for another bell.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS CHIMING)
COLLINS: Right. So no secret that Arron Banks has personal ties to Russia, but we also know that he met the Russian ambassador on other occasions as well in meetings that weren't disclosed. And obviously what for us is of interest is if Arron Banks profited out of his relationship with the Russian embassy in London. That's clearly of interest for someone who is the biggest...
KELLY: As he was pouring millions into...
KELLY: ...The Brexit campaign.
COLLINS: Exactly, the biggest individual donor on the Brexit campaign. And that makes him - although he's not an elected politician, that makes him a person of considerable political interest.
KELLY: In the U.S., as you know, there's a huge interest in figuring out what may have happened in our 2016 election because we've got another one coming up in November. What lends it urgency here?
COLLINS: Well, I think there's urgency for all of us because I feel that we're all playing catch-up on this issue as well. But I think for all democracies, there's an urgency to actually uncover what's been going on and to say, why is it that our electoral law has not - is not robust enough to stop this happening? Why is there a lack of transparency over who is running political ads on sites like Facebook and where they're doing it from as well to make it easier to spot, you know, bad actors or people running ads from foreign countries? And I think what this has exposed is, we were blind to the fact this was going on and that out, we need to tighten our rules and regulations to stop it happening.
KELLY: Damian Collins, thank you.
COLLINS: Thank you.
KELLY: Damian Collins, member of Parliament - we have been speaking with him here at Parliament. His committee is the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. That is the one leading the charge in investigating Russian interference in British politics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.