Geoffrey Robertson warns, in the TLS of January 20, 2023, about the clear and present danger of Russian Oligarchs.

Old Socialist attempts a reading of the 4,401 word polemic …

Here is the introduction, by Martin Ivens , to this January 20, 2023 edition of the TLS -the opening sentences tells The Reader that ’Anti­semitism is still virulent in the modern world’ via political fiction writer David Baddiel, who now replaces Jonathan Freedland, as the most current political hysteric. That acts as introduction to Geoffrey Robertson’s essay, which is an extract from his book, published by TLS Books.

Headline: A town called Sue

Sub-headline: How Russian oligarchs use British courts to close down investigative journalism.

In his recent TLS book, Jews Don’t Count, David Baddiel challenged the lazy, sometimes malign assumption that because many Jewish people are white, they cannot be victims of racism. Anti­semitism is still virulent in the modern world. This week we publish Lawfare by Geoffrey Robertson KC, a free-speech champion who has challenged literary censorship, state secrecy and the abuse of the law of libel by the rich and infamous throughout his career. It is an unequal struggle. In Britain the defendant in a libel case must establish their innocence – a reversal of the general presumption of innocence – and the judiciary, some shining exceptions apart, are unsympathetic or inexpert. Robertson identifies a new threat – Russian oligarchs who exploit British courts to suppress investigations into their affairs and those of their master, Vladimir Putin. In London, on the eve of Russia’s war with Ukraine, Catherine Belton’s book Putin’s People “attracted a sudden blizzard of legal actions from Roman Abramovich and three other oligarchs”, writes Robertson. It would have cost Belton’s publisher, HarperCollins – which publishes TLS books – £5 million to fight a successful defence and more than twice that if it lost. The action had already cost the publisher £1.5 million in legal fees before it arrived at a confidential judicial settlement. Other works about Russia have never even reached British bookshops, as publishers have decided they cannot bear the likely legal costs. Ninety-five per cent of libel claims are won or settled on terms that required withdrawal, according to one bleak survey. Robertson argues for sweeping reforms of the laws of libel and privacy. The government concedes the injustice of the current system and promises change. Robertson, however, suspects ministerial legerdemain. Legal reforms may also restrict access to human rights legislation and impose further restraints on reporting national security issues.

The Reader might wonder what David Baddiel’s book shares in common, with Geoffrey Robertson’s book about the menace of Russian Oligarchs? I’ve highlighted that part of the editors introduction.

Is the virtue of Geoffrey Robertson’s book excerpt that The Reader finally arrives at the bad actor Vladimir Putin, after 845 words of evocative British Legal/Political History, and a portion of John Betjeman’s poem? This was once the most prestigious Literary Review in ‘The West’, that has descended into being The British National Security State’s propaganda arm.

What might The Reader think about this books published as part of ‘The TLS Companions’ series in 1992:

Geoffrey Robertson wastes not a moment of utterly valuable propaganda time and space. He is after ‘reform’ that protects the virtuous. I’ve highlighted the last sentence of the quoted text.

Vladimir Putin gushes lies to justify his barbaric attack on Ukraine. These lies are, for people in Russia, “facts”, and his lickspittle MPs have rushed through a law to make it a crime for anyone to deny them by publishing the truth. Such censorship is anathema to a nation like Britain, which boasts of its history and tradition of “free speech”. But wait a minute. As the Privy Council (comprising English law lords) pointed out:

Free speech does not mean free speech: it means speech hedged in by all the laws against defamation, blasphemy, sedition, and so forth. It means freedom governed by law.

And governed by lawyers, who act for the very rich to wage a bloodless but nonetheless scary war, in the form of litigation, against those who attempt to criticise or expose them. “Lawfare” in this sense has come to mean the use of legal strategies to harass or intimidate publishers – to make them pay, literally, in large and unrecoverable (even if they win) legal fees, and in heavy damages and their own legal fees if they lose. This is not a new problem, but it has come into recent focus as publishers of prescient books about Putin have been frightened and deterred by lawyers acting for his oligarch friends, threatened with legal costs that can run to millions of pounds. You cannot blame lawyers for using the law. But that law is antipathetic to serious journalism and must be reformed if the Fourth Estate is to function effectively in our democracy by scrutinising the wealthy and the powerful.

Is it news to Robertson that litigation favors powerful political actors, with reservoirs of cash? This ad hoc naiveite is the self-serving pose adopted by a propagandist. I’ll quote selected portions of this rhetorical behemoth. In his way Robertson adopts the Neo-Conservative rhetorical strategy, of drowning The Reader in a toxic bath of History Made to Measure, as expressed via logorrhea. Have I engaged in reductivism? this 4, 401 word polemic demands a severe pruning!

“Lawfare” is a weak pun, with a pejorative tinge when used by those on the receiving end of writs for libel and breach of privacy. The term originated in America in the 1950s, first used by army chiefs who objected to legal actions brought by civil liberties groups over discrimination in the military.

The most notable victim was a distinguished journalist, Catherine Belton, author of Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West, which attracted a sudden blizzard of legal actions from Roman Abramovich and three other oligarchs, and from Rosneft, Russia’s national oil company, claiming that the book libelled them.

This is the perennial problem of defending allegations about Russians, and wealthy claimants from the Middle East, or indeed from Britain, namely the impossibility of proving truth when it is hidden behind offshore trusts or in tax havens, or has come from sources who fear reprisals.

They hardly needed it: over the previous few years books had gone unwritten, or had been censored or simply not published, for fear of defamation actions about statements reasonably believed to be true, but not capable of proof by evidence admissible in a British court.

Such people are embraced by British judges. As one judge recently said of an international businessman, “his professional achievements and family wealth make him a rare member of a small elite in the world of business.

But it is the current state of British law that allows this. Judges, not parliament, have fashioned the most recent threat to press freedom – the sprawling growth of a law against the invasion of privacy.

Britain (to its discredit) had no protection for privacy at all until the 1998 Human Rights Act reproduced Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”.

The rot began, fairly precisely, in 2004–05, when both the top court in the UK (then the House of Lords Judicial Committee) and the European Court of Human Rights decided that two much-photographed women, the supermodel Naomi Campbell and Princess Caroline von Hannover of Monaco, had a reasonable expectation of privacy when they walked down a public street.

For this incoherent reason an enforceable right of privacy over social and financial networks was soon being claimed by kleptocrats and conmen alike.

So privacy actions proliferate, to deter or freeze investigative journalism by suppressing information that is factual.

Any self-respecting kleptocrat with a mansion and a superyacht and a tax-avoidance scheme has a vast amount of information he or she can call on the courts to protect from exposure, unless the defending author or journalist can prove (the burden of proof, of course, being on the defendant) that publication serves an overriding public interest.

This ruling was applied by the UK’s Supreme Court in 2022 to prevent Bloomberg from reporting a highly significant development in tackling corruption.

But the Supreme Court merely ruled that “ZXC” had a “reasonable expectation” that investigations into his alleged corruption should be kept private. As a Supreme Court decision, the Bloomberg case carries great weight.

What is striking is that none of the Supreme Court judges could discern any public interest in publishing the names of suspects, even though it is well known (especially in rape cases) that doing this often causes more witnesses to come forward – sometimes with evidence of other crimes, and occasionally with evidence that exonerates the suspect.

Damages for injury to reputation tend to be more than the law awards for the loss of an arm or a leg, and more than the criminal compensation board awards to those who have suffered grievous bodily harm or rape.

As for kleptocrats and foreigners who have been formally sanctioned by the UK government, the sanction should deprive them of the right to bring any action in England, because they no longer have a reputation here.

In the first month of Putin’s war on Ukraine, his most odious sanctioned oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin (“Putin’s chef”), continued his libel action against Eliot Higgins, founder of the investigative website Bellingcat, who had published evidence of Prigozhin’s connection with the Wagner Group, Russia’s brutal mercenaries.

For all that Britain boasts about free speech, it has had a wretched history here – other countries do it better. American law gives much surer protection to defamatory words if they are published in good faith about public figures, and most European laws treat defamation as no big deal, providing a right of reply for those attacked or else an order for retraction, rather than heavy costs and damages.

SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation” – a nonsense name dreamt up by American academics. In the US more than thirty states have adopted anti-SLAPP laws, enabling judges to strike out defamation and privacy claims that abuse the legal process because their primary objective is to stop legitimate reporting.

In England, meanwhile, the first problem was how to define a SLAPP. Raab described it as an action “where the primary objective is to harass, intimidate and financially and psychologically exhaust one’s opponent via improper means”.

Reforms to end the unequal justice dispensed by defamation and privacy laws and lawyers are not difficult to identify, but they appear nowhere in Raab’s plans for a Bill of Rights to “strengthen protection for freedom of speech”.

Lawfare disrupts democracy by enabling the wealthy to intimidate publishers and suppress news and opinions that the public are entitled to hear. It is, for the most part, fought below the waterline, in confidential letters between lawyers and trips to a judge in chambers behind closed doors, or in the offices of taxing masters privately assessing costs.

This Reader has to think out loud, about the revelations offered by The Labour Files – The Crisis I Al Jazeera Investigations that has been subject to a complete political blackout at The Times, The TLS and other British Corporate Media. While Geoffrey Robertson inveighs against the destructive power of Putin’s Oligarchs in Britain, the fact that that media has simply ignored the facts offered by the Al Jazeera expose, offers primary evidence, of the utter political bankruptcy the whole of that Media and Political Class!

Old Socialist

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.'
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.