What I’ve learned from being hoaxed into an interview with a fake Zelenskyy

The celebrated food critic, Alden Juan-Cragg, warns fellow journalists on the scourge of fake Zelenskyys seeking interviews.

OPINION

Aulden Juan-Cragg

4/5/2022 3 min read

I take rather a lot of pride in my inbox. One need only the slightest glance to see why; a fact that I have exploited several times in pursuit of women.

Yes, it’s true. I correspond with many impressive people. I’m a successful journalist, restaurant critic and commentateur in my own right, and would have been regardless of who my parents were - so why wouldn’t I?

My inbox overfloweth with invitations to this restaurant opening, or that gala - sure; but much greater in volume are the requests to speak, or contribute my thoughts to this publication, or that politician. As I type, I have received invitations to deliver a talk at two of this country’s best universities and one from a sitting cabinet member after my thoughts on a private matter.

Last week I received a very flattering email from someone claiming to represent Rada TV, the Ukrainian state broadcaster, inviting me to talk about the impact of the Russian invasion on British restaurants. With none other than the great Elvish Prince of Ukraine, Zelenskyy.

I would be lying if I told you, dear reader, that I hadn’t wondered whether this was coming, and, in a trice, I accepted.

Within the hour we were connected, leaving me just time enough to dig out the right blue blazer and yellow cravat combination - much harder than you might expect! There’s but the merest shadow of a whisper of a shade between tasteful tribute and IKEA costume.

I won’t go into the full details of the interview, which I had sussed out as bogus after 20 minutes, if that. It did not strike me at all as odd when his video failed to appear on the stream - he’s in the middle of a warzone for heaven’s sake. Nor did the thick Georgie accent of his translator (though looking back he should have struck me as a deeply unlikely employee of the British embassy in Ukraine). What tipped me off was the troll’s pathetic inability to resist making cracks about my past legal troubles.

I had assumed, this being the state broadcaster, that a thorough background check had been performed on me; and one always has their guard against these things. Every so often a group of youths will recognise me and ask whether I “did it” - always to raucous laughter. I’ve stopped being quite so bothered by that, but it’s quite another thing entirely to be asked by the president of Ukraine.

As I struggled to formulate a response, it was laughter that gave the game away. I tore the router from the wall and crushed it repeatedly under my heel until I collapsed onto the sofa, exhausted. The police, who promised me that the intelligence services would be getting in touch, failed to reassure: I wanted the fellow shot, frankly.

We have crossed swords, this particular troll and I. After several days of round-the-clock detective work, I’m now around 75% sure that it was he who goaded me into making a number of threats on Twitter several years ago, resulting in the loss of my account. I have since had my solicitor work out the exact financial impact of this ban - a staggering figure, that I can’t print here for legal reasons, which will likely form the plank of the damages he will one day be ordered to pay me.

So, what have I learned? Firstly, that my thoughts and opinions are, to some, apparently intolerable; to the extent that they gladly resort to extreme measures in an ill-judged attempt to humiliate me into silence. To the trolls, I say this: you won’t win.

But more important is what I’ve learned about security. It has since been pointed out to me by a more technologically minded friend that the Ukrainian state broadcaster probably wouldn’t email me from a Yahoo account. I feel a little foolish now, but how could I have possibly known this? This is highly specialised knowledge. It’s very much worth reminding much of the world that some of us were indeed born before 1991.

Furthermore, it has been pointed out to me that it would be very unlikely that the president of Ukraine, while his country is being invaded, would want to speak face to face with me; this would only give his position away to the Russians. I truly don’t know how I would live with myself if I played a role in his murder. This is a lesson I don’t think I’ll be in a hurry to forget, and I hope this is a mistake from which you all can learn.