Alexander Nix looks the part of a Bond villain: the sinister-sounding surname, the cut-glass accent and his position at the centre of a conspiracy theory involving Brexit, Trump and dodgy data. Even Steve Bannon – the man most people love to hate – thinks he is bad news.
But have we all got the beleaguered former chief executive of Cambridge Analytica wrong? Is he actually the victim in the fallout surrounding his company’s downfall?
You’d be forgiven for thinking so on the basis of his appearance in parliament this week. Nix’s time in front of the select committee was supposed to be a chance for MPs to pile in and complete his humiliation. In the end, they failed; the pillorying backfired. If nothing else, it seems, Nix is at least a good salesman who knew how to make the most of the platform given to him in Portcullis House.
Firstly, he was able to use parliamentary privilege to call out his accusers, in particular his most vocal, flamboyant adversary: the pink-haired, self-professed 'data nerd' Christopher Wylie. Wylie ‘lied over a great many issues’, Nix told the committee, adding that the ‘unfounded’ and ‘groundless’ accusations made by his former employee had been largely discredited. Nix was angry – and out for revenge, pouring cold water on the idea that Wylie was the hero to Nix’s villain. After all, Wylie had, Nix claimed, once said that he wanted to create ‘the NSA’s wet dream’ and ‘courted Russians, stating that he found the idea of working with ‘crazy evil Russians’ quite intriguing.’ as he sought investment in his new enterprise after leaving Cambridge Analytica.
As well as going on the attack, Nix also did his bit to recast himself as more sinned against than sinning. ‘What happens if I was the victim?,’ he asked MPs:
‘Let’s just run with this hypothesis...what happens if we are accused of working on Brexit, we didn’t work on Brexit. We were accused of disseminating videos in Kenya, we didn’t disseminate videos in Kenya. We were accused of 'capturing governments, colonising countries and being part of some white, right-wing conspiracy'. What happens if none of that is true? And, in due course...people realise that we were simply the guys who were perceived to have contributed to the Trump campaign and were wrongly accredited with being the architects of Brexit. And as a result of the polarising nature of those two campaigns, the global liberal media took umbrage and decided to put us in their crosshairs and launch an extremely well coordinated and effective attack on us as a company in order to destroy our reputation an our business.’
To be fair to Nix, he may have a point. Some of the wilder claims about Cambridge Analytica would have led you to believe the firm was wholly to blame for Brexit. This was nonsense and in reality the firm had precious little to do with Britain’s vote to leave the EU. But what about the firm’s ties to the Trump campaign? Here things are somewhat harder to assess and the half-truths trickier to unpack, not least because Cambridge Analytica had previously been keen to talk up its part in The Donald’s success. Now, Nix wants to do the opposite if the above is anything to go on – a marked change from 2016, when he told Paul Wood that:
‘A lot of vendors refused to work for Trump because they didn’t believe he had a cat’s chance in hell of winning. Cambridge Analytica did the opposite. We invested in Trump.’
This sales pitch made it sound as if Cambridge Analytica was a campaigning heavyweight that knew how to defy the political odds. Not so, Nix said on Wednesday: Cambridge Analytica’s bread and butter wasn’t politics, according to Nix, but toothpaste:
‘…the media’s impression (is that) we are this large, nefarious multi-national company that influences politics and other things around the world. The truth of the matter is we are a very small advertising agency that happens to work across a number of sectors, one of which is political campaigns, which only constitutes about 25 or 30 per cent of the revenue of the business, where most of our time is spent selling toothpaste and automotives and things like that'.
The fact that this view of Cambridge Analytica came from the horse's mouth, rather than simply the media, appears to have been forgotten.
So given Nix's new found modesty, does this mean that there really is nothing to see here? It's right to correct the narrative that Brexit – or Trump – was all part of the Cambridge Analytica masterplan. Yes, Cambridge Analytica did work with the Trump campaign but they didn’t win it for him. And it’s good that this false narrative is being corrected. But while some things were cleared up during Nix’s three-and-a-half hour questioning session, others remain harder to assess.
Nix was certainly cagey on some subjects, not least when asked about his ties with the so-called ‘Passport King’, Dr Christian Kalin. Kalin, the chairman of Henley & Partners, is in the business of citizenship-by-investment, whereby rich folk can obtain passports in return for pumping money into a country. As The Spectator revealed back in March, Kalin struck up a relationship with Nix around a decade ago. According to Henley & Partners, it was ‘not a formal working relationship’ but involved an ‘exchange (of) some information and ideas with a view to better understanding the political landscape in the Caribbean’. But what was Nix’s take on what his relationship with Kalin actually involved? Here's what he had to say yesterday:
Jo Stevens: ‘Were you working with him (Kalin) when you were doing election work (in the Caribbean)?’
Alexander Nix: ‘I knew Mr Kalin, I’d met with Mr Kalin on numerous occasions when I was working in some of those countries he was also involved in. He was obviously a colleague of some of our clients when we were both working with him.’
JS: ‘Did you undertake work with him?’
AN: ‘He certainly had an interest in the outcome of the elections.’
JS: ‘You said you knew him, did you do any work together? I ask again’
AN: ‘It is a difficult question, because I don’t want to mislead you. Of course, he didn’t work on any of the campaigns, that would be a ridiculous notion. But he dipped in and out of the island and I met with him.’
JS: ‘To do what?’
AN: ‘He would ask me about the election campaign erm, and, erm, we had a relationship.’
JS: ‘Did he finance any elections?’
AN: ‘He may well have made contributions towards the election campaigns but you would have to talk to him about that.’
Henley & Partners has made it clear that it ‘does not get involved in political campaigns’. So what was the nature of Kalin’s relationship with Alexander Nix? It’s difficult to say. And after his appearance in front of MPs, we're no closer to finding out.