Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones is not a household name among Lancaster University students, but for several years she has had a leading role in deciding many of the key issues that come before University Council, Lancaster University's governing body, as its Deputy Pro-Chancellor.
A Conservative peer by day, the 80-year-old former spook must find Council meetings mundane in comparison to her scandalous past. She has previously had MI5 express security concerns over her financial links to Russia, and a private military scandal forced her to resign from the governing body of the BBC.
So who exactly is Pauline Neville-Jones? And does she have the best interests of Lancaster University at heart?
Neville-Jones began her career in the British foreign and intelligence services in 1963, and over the next three decades worked around the world, from Germany to Singapore. According to the Financial Times, while stationed at the European Commission in Bonn, her codename was ‘Molestrangler’.
The Times has described her as having ‘a knack of being in the right capital at the right time’, stationed in Rhodesia in 1965 as its white minority government declared independence from Britain and based in Washington, DC in the 1970s, during the Watergate scandal. A declassified 1976 US State Department cable described her as ‘an incisive foreign service officer with extensive European experience.’
After years in the field, she was rewarded with increasingly senior positions back in London, eventually serving as the first female chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee (the ‘Spider Queen of spies’ according to the Daily Mail) from 1993–4. In that role, she reported directly to the Prime Minister, co-ordinating the work of the UK's secret intelligence agencies: MI5, MI6, and GCHQ. Upon her appointment, The Times reported that former colleagues had described her as ‘difficult, aloof, but highly competent.’
As one of the first women to hold such senior positions, her career was not without its experiences of sexism. She has described women as being treated as ‘second-class citizens’ in the civil service when she joined. For the first decade of her career, she would have had to resign had she got married. But after decades of smashing Whitehall's glass ceiling, her ascent within the Foreign Office came to an end in 1996, after she failed to be appointed the UK's ambassador to France, a decision which the press at the time put down to sexism.
‘We want to know where the money went’
Snubbed by the Foreign Office, Neville-Jones left the public sector to take up a role with NatWest's investment banking division, earning £200,000 a year. Just months earlier, her former boss – ex-Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd – had also joined NatWest on a six-figure salary.
As one of their last major projects in the Foreign Office, Neville-Jones and Hurd has been intimately involved in the Dayton talks, negotiating a peace deal in the former Yugoslavia following years of bloody conflict there. Controversially, the contacts they had built up in the Balkans as British diplomats were quickly (and profitably) repurposed in their new roles as bankers.
As a diplomat, Neville-Jones had built up a relationship with the Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milošević over the course of many ‘long conversations’. Whilst she later described Milošević as ‘a nut case’, when she worked at NatWest she and Hurd appeared to have had no qualms working with him. They helped set up the controversial 1997 part-privatisation of the state-owned communications company Telekom Serbia, which earned the Serbian government one billion US dollars, financially bolstering the Milošević regime as anti-government demonstrations were becoming increasingly regular in Belgrade. The sale was lucrative for NatWest too, which earned at least £13m in ‘excessive’ commissions, likely the result of Neville-Jones' and Hurd's influence with Milošević.
Following the overthrow of Milošević's regime in 2000, investigations in Serbia and Italy uncovered allegations of false accounting, bribery and embezzlement relating to the privatisation deal. Speaking to The Guardian in 2001, a Serbian investigator said: ‘I've got an entire team of financial detectives working on that privatisation. We want to know where the money went.’ The Serbian opposition maintained that the sell-off was crucial to enabling Milošević to bankroll the 1998–9 Kosovo War, during which Serbian troops committed countless war crimes.
No evidence emerged that NatWest, or either Hurd or Neville-Jones, engaged in any criminality when brokering the billion-dollar deal for Milošević. The former Serbian leader died before he could face trial for crimes against humanity at The Hague.
‘A disastrous chain of events’
In 1998, Neville-Jones was appointed as one of the twelve governors of the BBC, overseeing the UK’s state broadcaster. But after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the BBC's news coverage itself made the headlines, leading eventually to Neville-Jones' resignation.
Neville-Jones played a ‘pivotal’ role in how the BBC covered the government's false claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the primary justification for the invasion. It then emerged that Neville-Jones stood to profit from the war. As the British and US armies invaded Iraq, she chaired QinetiQ, a British private military company which supplied equipment to the US Army. After the fact she was profiteering from the war hit the headlines, she resigned from the BBC board.
As well as her six-figure annual salary as its chair, Neville-Jones made about £400,000 when QinetiQ was floated in 2006. A subsequent National Audit Office inquiry concluded that the incentives paid to QinetiQ managers through the floatation ‘exceeded what was necessary.’
After having made hundreds of thousands out of the war, Neville-Jones now admits that the invasion of Iraq was based on inaccurate intelligence. Speaking in the House of Lords in 2016, following the release of the Chilcott Report, she revealed that she now recognises that the ‘fragile assumptions’ that Iraq possessed WMD ‘were the starting point for a disastrous chain of events,’ saying: ‘even if everybody believes something, it is not necessarily right.’
However, at the time, not ‘everybody’ did believe that Iraq had WMD, and Neville-Jones used her position as a BBC governor to pursue those who dared to question the official narrative. She personally pursued her doubts about the credibility of government weapons expert Dr David Kelly, who was the source for a 2004 BBC story which questioned the accuracy of the government's WMD claims. Dr Kelly died in suspicious circumstances later that year, but there has yet to be an inquest into his death.
Neville-Jones' undoubtedly well-compensated relationship with private military and intelligence companies continues to this day. She is currently a Non-Executive Director of 17ARM, ‘a global asset tracing and corporate intelligence team’ headquartered in Dubai and Jersey. According to its website, 17ARM ordinarily only deals with cases involving more than £75 million in assets. Alongside three other British peers, she sits on the 17ARM advisory board, chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who resigned in disgrace as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee following a ‘cash-for-access’ scandal in 2015.
Earlier this year, it emerged that 17ARM is financing a convicted Russian fraudster's claim to recover $350m in shares from a former business partner through the UK courts. If successful, 17ARM would in turn be paid millions.
‘Upper echelon associates of Russian organised crime’
In 2007, Neville-Jones was appointed to the House of Lords by then-Leader of the Opposition David Cameron. Until 2010, she advised the Conservative Party leader on national security matters. But when Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010, she was blocked from becoming the government's National Security Adviser. MI5 had raised concerns over her suspect financial links to senior Russian oligarchs. At the time, the Daily Mail quoted a ‘senior security source’:
The job of National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister needed a high-security vetting clearance because it involved knowing and handling sensitive state secrets. As a result, Cameron’s private office at No 10 asked MI5 for any relevant information that was needed for the PM to make this appointment. MI5 sent a summary of the intelligence on Neville-Jones’s financial associations with the two oligarchs. Based on that submission and on a separate briefing by his political advisers, Cameron decided not to appoint her.
Neville-Jones had been receiving quarterly payments of £5,000 from Robert Shelter-Jones, a representative of Ukranian oligarch Dmitry Firtash. Described as being among the ‘upper echelon associates of Russian organised crime’ by the US Department of Justice, Firtash has spent years fighting attempts to extradite him to the US, where he's wanted on bribery and racketeering charges. Firtash is closely linked to alleged Russian mobster Semion Mogilevich, whom the FBI believe is responsible for ‘weapons trafficking, contract murders, extortion, drug trafficking, and prostitution on an international scale.’ According to the Byline Times, he is ‘one of the FBI’s most wanted men and the “boss of bosses” of most Russian crime syndicates globally.’
Also of concern to MI5 was Neville-Jones' close links to Uzbekistan-born Israeli oligarch Mikhail Chernoy, the main sponsor of the right-wing American ‘Intelligence Summit’ of which Neville-Jones had been a board member. Chernoy allegedly boasted about killing a US-Russian commodities trader in 1995, and has been banned from entering the US due to allegations of money laundering, illegal business deals and alleged connections to the Russian mafia.
Neville-Jones was reportedly furious after not getting the National Security Adviser job. As a consolation, Cameron appointed her Minister of State for Security and Counter Terrorism, but she resigned after less than a year in the job. The government officially briefed that she resigned for ‘personal, not political reasons.’ But it was also reported that she had repeatedly fallen out with her immediate superior, the then-Home Secretary Theresa May.
‘A deeply suspicious figure’
University Council is the governing body of Lancaster University, and after a series of controversial reforms in 2018, has become more powerful, whilst at the same time, less democratic, than ever before. After the reforms, just one directly-elected Council position remained – the student representative, but then even that last glimmer of democracy was abolished by the Students' Union (functionally the youth wing of University management) last year. Other bodies in the University's governance structure, such as the Senate, have had many key decision-making powers snatched from them by Council. But that's nothing compared to the fate of the independent-spirited University Court, which Council abolished entirely.
Pauline Neville-Jones is not the only member of the power-hungry Council to have a scandalous past. At the time of his appointment in 2013, SCAN reported on the Pro-Chancellor Lord Liddle's role in a 'cash-for-access' scandal. And earlier this year, Spineless reported on the six-figure financial scandal another Council member, the UK's National Statistician, Sir Ian Diamond, is currently embroiled in.
Lord Liddle (described by the BBC as ‘a deeply suspicious figure’) has chaired Council for seven years, competently overseeing the gradual erosion of democracy within the University. His extended term of office, originally set to expire in 2018, finally ends this year. Neville-Jones, as his deputy, is chairing the committee to recruit a new Pro-Chancellor, putting to bed rumours that she might go for the position herself. She has been a Council member since 2014, and Deputy Pro-Chancellor since 2017. Her term of office is due to end in 2022.
According to the glossy application pack, the ideal candidate to be the next Pro-Chancellor will have ‘a positive public profile, personal record and reputation.’ As someone with none of the above, is Neville-Jones really the best person to recruit someone who does? Spineless waits with bated breath to find out whom she deems worthy.
Editor's note: One month after this article was published, Spineless reported the appointment of former Conservative MP and minister Alistair Burt as the University's next Pro-Chancellor in the article 'Lancaster University's new Pro-Chancellor linked to “gay cure” group'.