Pluralistic: 04 Mar 2022

Today's links

An English five pound note; the Queen's mouth has been erased and covered over with an outsized zip. The zipper pull is colored in the white/blue/red stripes of the Russian flag.

How English libel law enables Russian kleptocrats (permalink)

Given the Current Circumstances, now is a good time to revisit the special relationship between UK elites – lawyers, estate agents, legislators – and Russian oligarchs, which was brilliantly documented in a Dec 2021 report from Chatham House:

I wrote about this in early January, drawing a comparison between the manifest compatibility between UK elites – including the royals and their Tory cheerleaders – and Russia's richest criminals and "The Klept" of William Gibson's Peripheral novels:

Both Gibson and Chatham House describe the UK (especially England, especially London, especially the City) as being uniquely well-suited among all world's tax-havens to catering to the need of post-Soviet kleptocrats. Of course, the UK offers financial secrecy (both onshore and in its offshore "treasure islands" in the Channel, the Caribbean and elsewhere).

But more importantly, it offers financial respectability: there are armies of estate agents that will convert ill-gotten fortunes into leafy mansions in London's best neighborhoods, with country estates for the weekend. The Tory party has an open cash-for-access system, run by party co-chair Ben Elliot, who also runs a "luxury concierge" business for the ultra-rich. If you give the Tories enough cash, you're rewarded with private dinners and other events with ministers and the PM.

It's not just the Tories, it's the Royals. The UK's charitable sector welcomes major donors no matter how filthy their money is, and adds the Klept's worst thugs to their rolls of "generous philanthropists." Chief among these charities are those associated with the royal family, where any looter can buy respectability for change from the back of the sofa cushions.

Truly, Britain is a reputation laundry without equal anywhere in the world. That's because all of these narrative-construction services have a flipside: the "free" world's most aggressive libel laws, which allow the wealthy to silence their critics in the press, such that we only ever hear about their generous philanthropy and not their role in murder, terror and looting.

For UK elites, this is a feature, not a bug. As I discovered when I wrote about a UK-domiciled one-percenter who styled herself a champion of human rights while secretly owning a major stake in a company that sold spyware to the world's most brutal dictators, merely reporting the truth will not make you safe from legal censorship.

As Nick Cohen writes in The Guardian, Putin's inner circle have used the UK as a safe-deposit box, a reputation laundry, and a forward operations base, but the press has barely touched the story because of English laws that let the wealthy decide who can say what about them:

Nominally, English libel law was amended in 2013 to reduce "libel tourism" and pretextual "SLAPP" suits aimed at silencing critics. But to invoke the defenses in the 2013 law, a media organization or independent journalist must spend millions in court.

Take Putin's People, Catherine Belton's bestselling 2020 book on the role that Russian billionaires at home and abroad play in maintaining Putin's wealth and influence.

Roman Abramovich and three of his fellow billionaires joined with Russia's Rosneft energy company to sue Belton's UK publisher, Harpercollins. The case was easily settled with some minor textual amendments, but according to Cohen, Harpercollins's legal bill came to £1.5m.

English libel law isn't just wielded against journalists – it was also used to effectively wipe out the National Crime Agency's capacity to follow dirty money. In 2020, the NCA used an "Unexplained Wealth Order" to investigate the family of Rakhat Aliyev, a former top Kazakh official. The NCA lost the case and then faced a £1.5m suit. The NCA's annual budget for following dirty money is £4m – just three of these lawsuits per year would leave the agency bankrupt. No wonder that enforcement against the Klept has shrunk to a minor nuisance.

As Cohen points out, this isn't the regional norm. Libel cases in France are settled for 10% of the typical cost of their English equivalents.

After the Russian invasion, Tories promised to finally fix English libel, creating an "anti-SLAPP" law. Their rhetoric condemns the dirty lawyers and charities that help oligarchs launder their reputations and cash – but they're schtum on the party's cash-for-access scheme:

Russia's dirties billionaires have laundered billions through the City, much of it on behalf of Putin or in service to the power-brokering that lets him retain his position. Today, Tories are promising to seize that wealth, but the reality is, they have no idea where it is. Yeah, we all know Abromavich owns Chelsea FC (he says he's selling it), but that's a mere ornament.

The Tories' unwillingness to liberate the press and even the police from the chill of England's billionaire-friendly libel regime is responsible for a lost decade when no one dared look too closely at that dirty money.

The reality is that England's Parliament of Millionaires had a vested interest in maintaining its ability to gag anti-corruption reporting. Finance leaks like the Panama Papers have revealed that top Tories – including the Tory Prime Minister – make extensive use of the same corrupt wealth-hiding schemes that benefit the Klept:

As Gibson mooted and as Chatham House confirmed, the Tory chumocracy and the Klept are two sides of the same coin. Financial secrecy, reputation laundering and cash-for-access are key to the rule of England's elites. It's hard to see how these corrupt practices can be reserved for the use of pure Anglo-Saxon monsters and not also be enjoyed by the Klept.

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago I just took a job with EFF!

#15yrsago RIAA student extortion site “looks forward to future business”

#15yrsago US detains 9-year-old Canadian

#15yrsago Bruce Sterling: Cyber-greens are here

#10yrsago China Mieville’s London: the (authentic) city and the (banks and surveillance) city

#5yrsago Snakisms: 22 philosophies expounded through the game of Snake

#5yrsago Bavarian intelligence agency says Scientologists secretly took over one of the world’s top art galleries

Colophon (permalink)

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