John Whittingdale: 'I'd Support Leaving the EU Even if We Can't Get a Good Deal'

© REUTERS / Hannah Mckay/FileA demonstrator carries a Union Jack and a European Union flag as the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier visits Downing Street in London, Britain
A demonstrator carries a Union Jack and a European Union flag as the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier visits Downing Street in London, Britain - Sputnik International
Relations between Russia and the West have been poor in recent years but in Britain the political sphere is dominated by talk of Brexit. Sputnik discussed these issues with John Whittingdale, a Conservative MP and former Secretary of State for Media, Culture and Sport.

Sputnik: What do you think are the most prospective areas of possible dialogue and co-operation between Russia and the UK?

John Whittingdale: We have a number of disagreements with Russia. I am chairman of the All-Party Group for Ukraine and I visit Ukraine frequently and obviously, the British government very much supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine. We have a very strong disagreement over that and there are also a number of other areas to do with Russian activity but I do believe that it is important that when you've had disagreements that you have dialogue so that each side can better understand the other's position.

Sputnik: What would be the most prospective areas, for both cultures?

John Whittingdale: Well, I was Secretary of State for Culture and culture is something in which Britain is very strong, but equally so is Russia. Russia has a wonderful heritage. It is famous for its music, classical dance, literature, and there is a great support for those things in the UK and equally, Britain is strong in those areas too so the more we can have exchanges of cultural co-operation and sport too. These are areas where they provide an opportunity for communities to get together and create awareness of the strength of each other's communities but also provide an opportunity for dialogue at the same time.

© Photo : John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale
John Whittingdale - Sputnik International
John Whittingdale

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Sputnik:  You used to be Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport and I'm sure you are following the current doping scandal with Russia. What do you think about the story about WADA and the Winter Olympics? Can it continue?

John Whittingdale: Well it's very unfortunate that it appears that one of the Russian competitors (curler Alexander Krushelnitsky) has had a positive drugs test. Britain has always taken a very strong line against doping in sport. We have one of the best centers of anti-doping in the world. We have been very active in it and it has been a matter of great concern. The evidence that has emerged that there has been widespread abuse by athletes in Russia over a number of years. The IOC took action because the person in charge in Russia went on the record and said there had been abused. I can sympathize with individual athletes, many of whom will have been innocent. But they have made provision for them to compete as individual athletes. But for the integrity of the sport, it is very important that Russia is seen to have cleaned up its act and there is obviously still some way to go on that.

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Sputnik:  Another big topic is so-called fake news and the alleged involvement of Russia in different countries and the Media, Culture and Sports Committee have begun an inquiry. What do you think about this?

John Whittingdale: I await the outcome of the committee's inquiry. There does appear to have been at least some activity on the part of Russia in terms of setting up Facebook accounts and distributing stories on social media. In America, they have said very clearly it was taking place. I don't think it had any significant effect on the outcome of the election, either the presidential election in the US or the referendum campaign here. The examples I have seen have been relatively crude. If it was happening it is important that we know the extent to which it was happening and that measures are taken to try and prevent it but I will wait to see what the inquiry comes back with.

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Sputnik: Do you think this fake news problem is really significant?

John Whittingdale: Fake news goes much wider than whether Russia or a significant other player is promulgating stories. There is a problem that the proliferation of outlets through social media has meant that anybody can start distributing stories and the traditional professional standards which journalists apply for fact-checking and double-sourcing are not being done. That raises a far bigger question which is the effect it is having on journalism and the economics of newspapers.

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Because people are no longer buying newspapers because so much is free on the internet. One of the ways you address that is by showing people that if they want reliable news where they can have confidence it is true and it is objective and impartial you go to news sources that have that strong reputation. That may be the BBC or it may be the Telegraph or the Times. If you go to a professional news organization which employs professional journalists then you can have confidence and that in my view is the best way of addressing the fake news.

Sputnik: I cannot avoid Brexit. You are a former Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport. How do you think Brexit will affect higher education in Britain?

John Whittingdale: I am a supporter of Brexit. I was one of those who campaigned for it and I still believe in it. The only concern about higher education is the Erasmus program which is a cross-European program for the exchange of university students and I think there is a strong case for us continuing to be part of that.

Just because we're leaving the European Union doesn't mean we cut all links with Europe.

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There will be initiatives like Erasmus where we decide we still want to play our part in it….I see absolutely no reason why they should (lose European students). Britain has a number of top universities in the world, many more than any other country in Europe and Brexit doesn't mean we won't stop welcoming people to study here. There will be a question about how much they are required to pay but that is mainly a question for universities. At the moment people from other EU countries pay the same amount as British students while people from outside the EU pay more, that is down to European law. Arguably there may be a case for EU students paying the same amount as non-EU students, but that is up to universities to decide.

Sputnik: Are you happy with the way Theresa May has handled the Brexit negotiations?

John Whittingdale: I absolutely support the position of the British government. I think the position she has spelled out in her speeches at Lancaster House, Florence and most recently in Munich I agree with all of that. The negotiations are proving difficult. I was in Brussels yesterday meeting Mr. Barnier, the EU chief negotiator. There are still a number of issues which will have to be resolved and not much time to do so but we remain optimistic. I still support leaving. I hope we can get a good deal but even if we can't get a good deal I would support leaving…I would say she has the overwhelming support of (Conservative) MPs. There are a few very vocal members of the Conservative Party who take a different view and they get a lot of attention but they are a small minority. The overwhelming majority absolutely back her position…it would be very unhelpful to consider a change of leadership.

The views and opinions expressed by John Whittingdale are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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