The UK reconsiders its super-rich friendly libel laws

Oliver Bullough



If you’d like to know what it sounds like when an entire journalistic culture internalizes the censorship created by the risk of being sued by rich and litigious oligarchs, check out this appearance by Coda Story co-founder Natalia Antelava on BBC Radio. Leaving aside the odd framing – “Why are Russian oligarchs only now in the press spotlight?” – which is only true if you ignore tireless efforts by many journalists to report on the doings of oligarchs when doing so was both risky and unfashionable, the program itself is extraordinary.

The host repeatedly jumps in to steer conversation away from potentially risky areas, and that is only the half of it, because the recorded version lacks material that went out live.

  • There are things you won’t see in the replay above as they have been cut out in repeat broadcast,” Antelava tweeted. “Libel risks are real but pretending to have a real conversation about oligarchs is worse than having none. It legitimizes kleptocracy.”

Right now, the threat of being sued (or, more accurately, the threat of having to pay the costs of lawyers so as to protect yourself from the risk of being sued) effectively muzzles the press both in Britain, and in many other countries where the press can be cowed by aggressive U.K.-based lawyers. Journalists don’t do research because of this threat, editors don’t commission articles because of it, and lawyers advise against publication because of it. The lack of public information resulting from this ingrained self-censorship then impedes law enforcement and private firms in their own investigations, which in turn deprives journalists of the material they need to write articles. In short, British libel law helps oligarchs get away with their schemes undetected.

Fortunately, at long last, British politicians appear to be taking the threat to free speech caused by the country’s stringent defamation laws seriously. The government has asked for people with views to contribute to a consultation, and officials are canvassing the views of journalists and lawyers to see how they might change the rules to make them less prone to being abused.

  • “For the oligarchs and super-rich who can afford these sky-high costs the threat of legal action has become a new kind of lawfare. We must put a stop to its chilling effect,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a statement.

The lawyer Caroline Kean, who worked with both Tom Burgis and Catherine Belton when they were sued by oligarchs, thinks the U.K. need a “public interest” guillotine, which would allow judges to stop proceedings at any early stage.

  • “There is a chilling effect generally from wealthy claimants, a case can run into the millions easily. Any heavily defended libel case is likely to reach at least a million to get to trial,” she told me when we chatted a couple of weeks ago.

The government has suggested capping costs, but I would like to see it go further, and find a way to bring wealth into play on the journalist’s side of the case, as well as on the oligarchs. I wonder if it wouldn’t be possible for judges to impose double or triple costs if a claim was found to be abusive. That way, litigation funders would be prepared to fund libel cases, secure in the knowledge they could potentially double or triple their money if they won. I’m not a lawyer, but this is a principle used in some courts in Canada and elsewhere to prevent abusive litigation. As the saying goes, if you want to change the world, you just need to find a way for lawyers to make money out of it.


Regular readers of this newsletter will know I am an enthusiast for the elaborate acronyms used to publicize American legislation. As such, I would urge U.S. legislators to hurry up with H.R. 5525, the “Establishing New Authorities for Businesses Laundering and Enabling Risks to Security” (ENABLERS) Act, which has been in committee for six months. It’s an unwieldy title, but it works for me.

The act would impose stricter due diligence duties on the intermediaries who help kleptocrats access the American economy.

  • “If we make banks report dirty money but allow law, real estate, and accounting firms to look the other way, that creates a loophole that crooks and kleptocrats can sail a yacht through,” said Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey, when introducing the bill in October. “Our bill closes that loophole and encourages the administration to move in the same direction.”
  • “American adversaries ranging from China to Iran to Russia have taken advantage of the U.S. enablers of kleptocracy – unscrupulous lawyers, accountants, and others, to push their dirty money into our system, attempting to undermine our republic from within. If we are serious about fighting dictatorship, we need U.S. professionals to do the most basic due diligence,” said Representative Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina.

Such impressive bipartisanship extended to the latest measure to cancel Belarus’ and Russia’s access to “most favored nation” status, something also done by Canada, and being considered by the European Union. Previously, only Cuba and North Korea lacked the status – which ensures that all nations are given equal access to each other’s markets under World Trade Organization rules. Which is a remarkable insight into how much of a pariah Vladimir Putin is turning his nation into.

  • “If they want to have peace it better be soon, and they better get to the table and stop this insanity in killing of the Ukrainian people,” said Victoria Spartz, Republican of Indiana, who was herself born in Ukraine.

Some 424 representatives backed the measure, and only eight opposed it for reasons that ranged from the incoherent to the irrational.

  • “All we’re hearing on the news is Ukraine, but yet here in America what real Americans care about is gas prices they can’t afford, inflation that goes up and up to where grocery bills are unaffordable, and they’re very concerned about our out-of-control open border. Crime is out of control, but yet Washington is completely disconnected,” said Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican of Georgia, who appears to struggle with the concept of foreign policy. Check out the other explanations; they’re wild.

Interestingly, one of the eight – Thomas Massie of Kentucky – also previously opposed sanctions against China following the crackdown in Hong Kong and against the Uyghurs. Those last sanctions were contained in the Uyghur Intervention and Global Humanitarian Unified Response (UIGHUR) Act, which is a natty acronym, but one that does suggest a lack of consistency in how to spell Uighur.


As I write this, I see that Alexei Navalny has been jailed for nine years for whatever offense the Russian authorities have decided to charge him with this time. He is looking so thin that I literally didn’t recognize him from the photograph. I think his conviction was nominally something to do with fraud but, let’s be honest, facts long ago ceased to be relevant to the Kremlin’s campaign against its most stubborn critic. If Novichok can’t get him out of the way, they’ll use prison.

  • “As the characters of my favorite TV series “The Wire” used to say: “You only do two days. That’s the day you go in and the day you come out”. I even had a T-shirt with this slogan, but the prison authorities confiscated it, considering the print extremist,” Navalny tweeted.

Navalny has keen political antennae and it is interesting that he has continued to call for protests against the invasion of Ukraine, in a way that he didn’t in relation to the annexation of Crimea. That suggests to me that public support for what Putin is doing is far more muted than it was eight years ago. Of course, his persecution is nothing to do with his calls for protests and all to do with the fact he has continued to expose hypocrisy and corruption by top officials. Putin’s rants against the West look even weaker if you know that he and his friends keep much of their money there.

In an act of extraordinary bravery, even by the standards of Navalny’s team, on the eve of his fresh conviction, the Anti-Corruption Foundation published its investigation into a yacht called the Scheherezade, which is currently docked in Italy, and which is worth – it estimates — $700 million. It is, according to this fan site, the tenth biggest superyacht in the world and its real ownership is unknown. Here are some photos.

  • “How do you prove that something belongs to Vladimir Putin, the most secretive and rich man on the planet? We’ve been investigating Putin’s corruption for over a decade. And there is one thing we know for sure. Putin never keeps assets under his own name,” tweeted Maria Pevchikh, head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s investigations.

So, they dug into its crew list, remarking on how many of them work for the Federal Protection Service, which guards the Kremlin (apart from the captain who, inevitably, is a Brit).

  • “A dozen of Vladimir Putin’s personal guards and servants are constantly maintaining one of the world’s largest yachts docked in an Italian port. We think that this is a solid enough proof that Scheherazade belongs to Putin himself and must be immediately seized.”

If you feel that it’s worth supporting the work of Navalny’s team to expose the assets of the oligarchs and the oligarch-in-chief, then you can do so via this link.

More excellent work to expose the assets of the Kremlin’s cronies is being conducted by the OCCRP. They will be updating their database as more information comes in. For now, though, you can marvel at the details of the properties on Lake Como in northern Italy which are owned by state television polemicist Vladimir Solovyov, and try to reconcile their existence with his unhinged rants about the West. There is something truly mind-warping about hypocrisy that is entrenched that deeply.

If you want to see integrity, however, then look at what Nobel Laureate Dmitry Muratov decided to do with his medal.

  • “Novaya Gazeta and I have decided to donate the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Medal to the Ukrainian Refugee Fund. There are already over 10 million refugees. I ask the auction houses to respond and put up for auction this world-famous award,” he said in a statement.

Surely there’s someone out there prepared to buy it and give it back to him?

In suspiciously related-looking news, Russia’s media regulator has just now sent his newspaper an official warning.


I have so many things I want to read at the moment, but have just got started on Very Bad People, the Inside Story of the Fight Against the World’s Network of Corruption by Patrick Alley, and I am loving it so far. He was one of the founders of Global Witness, which has done more than almost anyone to expose the misdeeds of the rich and unscrupulous in the almost 30 years since its creation.

Sadly, the problems that Alley and his colleague work to expose are even worse now than they were back then. If you want a taste of some of his thoughts, watch this Ted talk from a few years ago. I made a film with Global Witness once, it was really good, but no one got to see it because of some British lawyers threatening us with ruinously expensive litigation if we ever showed it. It’s funny how things come full circle, again and again.

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