The government let a warlord sue our best journalist. Here’s why it matters
OLIVER BULLOUGH: Yevgeny Prigozhin shows just how much the legal system favours the wealthy over the truth
Before I talk about the scandal around Yevgeny Prigozhin’s defamation case against Eliot Higgins, I want to lay out the steps a journalist has to go through before she writes about a Russian oligarch employing a mercenary army to loot the world.
First of all she has to decide to be a journalist, to consciously choose to do a job where there is an ever-more-limited supply of organisations able or willing to pay a decent amount for her time.
Secondly, she has to decide to investigate financial crime, perhaps the most moribund corner of this dying profession, instead of something more clickable.
Thirdly, she has to focus on investigating financial crime in the kind of countries readers don’t much care about – poor, remote ones where people speak different languages from us – instead of writing about Donald Trump. That’s before she does a stroke of work on this particular investigation.
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When the investigation begins we get to step four: she has to find people willing to talk to her, to expose the secrets of a man with his own army, who has exulted in the fact that his people murdered a supposed deserter with a sledgehammer.
Fifthly, she needs to find his financial documents, to prise them out of the world’s tax havens, to interpret them and to explain their secrets in plain language.
Sixthly, she needs to find an editor willing to publish the piece. Take a look at today’s papers: most editors aren’t.
Every single one of those steps is sufficiently large to deter any sensible person from taking it. No one can be blamed for looking at this serious of obstacles, and thinking: “Nah.” But, fortunately, there are some journalists out there who decide not to be sensible, and who choose their subjects not because they’re profitable, popular or easy, but because they’re important.
On to step seven: when she’s finished her investigation, but before she can publish a word, she needs to persuade her publication’s lawyers that not only can she back up everything she’s reported, but that the subject of her investigation won’t bring defamation proceedings anyway. To avoid ruinous legal proceedings, simply telling the truth isn’t enough: you can be as easily bankrupted by the expense of defending an accurate article as an inaccurate one.
And that brings us to step eight: can she persuade her editors to stake not just their own jobs but the careers of all of their colleagues on this one article? Or will they say, as one once said to me, this just isn’t a big enough deal for us to take the risk.
If you ever wonder why we hear so little about the wrongdoing of the oligarchs, this is the reason. Sensible people don’t take these risks. The deck isn’t merely stacked in the oligarchs’ favour: they’re being dealt an extra hand to play with, and a whole hill of chips. I’m not asking for sympathy, just explaining how it is. The fun, the camaraderie, the sense that we’re pushing back against entrenched injustice, they all make up for the downsides of writing about financial mega-crime for a living. But they don’t make it easy.
Here, though, is the significance of the revelations about Yevgeny Prigozhin’s case against Eliot Higgins, as revealed by openDemocracy, The Intercept and the FT. We journalists have become accustomed to being outgunned. We knew the game was unequal, but at least we knew the rules, what risks we were taking. But all along, the situation was worse than we knew; there was a whole separate series of steps to smooth the oligarch’s path on top of the ones put in place to impede the journalists seeking to reveal the secrets of their crimes.
We now know that everything Bellingcat reported about Prigozhin, and which Higgins tweeted about, was true. Prigozhin did run the Wagner Group, his mercenary army. And we know this because he has boasted about it: he has opened an office building in St Petersburg with Wagner written on it, and he has openly recruited for new mercenaries in Russian prisons.
This wasn’t a war crimes tribunal. Prigozhin was in Russia, merrily spending the money his mercenaries were earning for him, using some of it to sue perhaps Britain’s best investigative journalist
There is no suggestion that Prigozhin’s British lawyers knew he was lying at the time he contacted them. But one way or another, even with all the facts of Higgins’s investigation before them, they were prepared to put their name to letters accusing Higgins of causing harm to their client’s reputation.
And worse, they could do so because the UK’s Treasury let them, even though Prigozhin was sanctioned, and could not transfer the money that paid their fees without official permission. Lawyers are particularly gifted at explaining why it’s not only reasonable but also right for them to be allowed to do whatever it is they already want to do, and I am sure Prigozhin’s argued forcefully that their client, like anyone, has the right to legal representation. But should this have extended to the right to bring a libel case against Eliot Higgins over some tweets he didn’t like? This wasn’t a war crimes tribunal. Prigozhin wasn’t on trial for his life or his liberty, sitting in a cell in The Hague. He was in Russia, merrily spending the money his mercenaries were earning for him, using some of it to sue perhaps Britain’s best investigative journalist for writing the truth.
Since the autumn, lawyers have had a “general licence” to take fees from sanctioned individuals in Russia and Belarus without having to check with officials first. But before that, officials from the Treasury’s Office for Financial Sanctions Implementation had to make a decision on whether to allow lawyers to be paid by any sanctioned individuals. There have been examples of commercial litigation having been adjourned because the lawyers could not be paid, so we know officials have been willing to exercise those powers.
But in this case they did not. Officials from the Treasury’s Office for Financial Sanctions Implementation listened to his lawyers’ arguments, and then had to make a judgement about priorities. How would justice be served: by enforcing the sanctions intended to stop Prigozhin using his wealth, or by allowing him to use that money to sue a journalist? In the event, they sided with the oligarch, despite everything that was already revealed about how he earned his fortune, including in Bellingcat’s own spectacularly-well-documented reporting.
This is a disgrace. Over the last year, we have heard endless British politicians talk about how important it is that Britain stops being a home for kleptocrats and their wealth. Now we can see if they were being serious, by how they respond.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board must both, as a matter of urgency, examine the conduct of Prigozhin’s lawyers. Their respective codes of conduct lay out straightforwardly how lawyers must behave. I’m not accusing anyone of anything but, on the face of the facts as we know them, we need to know when it became clear that Prigozhin was lying before we can be sure all the lawyers involved acted in the interests of justice.
And an independent enquiry must look into how the OFSI came to its decision to allow the money to move into those lawyers’ accounts, and must publish its findings. The OFSI is a new organisation, established post-Brexit to manage the UK’s independent sanctions policy, and inexperienced people can be forgiven for making mistakes. But after this, even more than before, how can anyone trust the Treasury to act in the interests of everyone, rather than of those able to afford the most expensive lawyers, unless we can see its justification for this – on the face of it – grotesque decision?
Britain is globally notorious for our willingness to shield oligarchs from other countries, to help them move and increase their wealth, and this has been highly profitable to a decent-sized chunk of our professional classes for decades. But now is the moment when the government must show whose side it’s on: that of the oligarchs, or that of their victims. No amount of chat about standing with Ukraine, and no number of photo opportunities with Volodymyr Zelensky, will disguise the truth if it makes the wrong choices now.
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