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British media speak out about legal threats from the super-rich, while UK commitments to tackle financial crime and corruption appear to disappear

Article by Susan Coughtrie

May 20, 2021

British media speak out about legal threats from the super-rich, while UK commitments to tackle financial crime and corruption appear to disappear

Last week, three British media outlets – the Financial Times, openDemocracy and The Observer – published articles regarding the impact of legal threats against journalists. The importance of media speaking out on this topic cannot be underestimated. As identified by the Foreign Policy Centre’s global survey last year, legal threats are being widely experienced by investigative journalists, they pose the greatest challenge in their ability to continue working and the UK is the leading international source of these threats.[1] Such findings remain shocking, particularly considering that public discourse on this issue in the UK has been relatively limited.


This is in part due to the fact that it can be challenging for media to highlight legal threats against themselves or others without potentially opening themselves up to further legal risk. In his opinion piece for The Observer, ‘Are our courts a playground for bullies? Just ask Catherine Belton’, published on 8 May, Nick Cohen illustrated this point, writing “here at the Observer we have been wondering what we can safely say about the cases of assorted Russian billionaires v Catherine Belton. Something? Anything? Nothing at all?”[2]


The legal cases against Belton, brought by four Russian oligarchs as well as the Russian state owned oil company Rosneft, relate to her critically acclaimed book ‘Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West’, published by HarperCollins last year. The Financial Times, Belton’s former employer, took the notable step of releasing a statement on 10 May, entitled ‘London, libel and reputation management: The English courts attract those with deep pockets and much to lose.’ Written by the FT’s Editorial Board it references the case against Belton but focuses its attention on broader concerns about how the UK legal system, as well as British law firms and PR companies, help the rich and powerful manage their reputations and fight their critics. Ironically, a topic also described by Belton in Putin’s People.


While the FT and Cohen are clear, rightly, not to take a position on merits of the various cases against Belton, both speak to the inequality of arms that the UK legal system provides when the claimant is super wealthy and how this undermines both the justice system and chills media freedom. The FT piece also raises concerns about the extent to which reputation management services are also coming hand in hand with other ‘increasingly sinister’ tactics, something their own reporters are only too acutely aware. In September 2020, FT journalist Dan McCrum described how he was subject to “furious online abuse, hacking, electronic eavesdropping, physical surveillance and some of London’s most expensive lawyers,” while investigating the Wirecard fraud.[3] The independent journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown has also gone on the record regarding similar tactics being used against her while she investigated the Malaysian 1MBD scandal.[4]


These stories are in the public domain now, but such cases rarely get heard until after the legal threat has dissipated. They are effectively the tip of the iceberg, and every time a journalist speaks out it is possible to get a glimpse at the extent of what remains hidden beneath the surface. openDemocracy’s Editor Mary Fitzgerald and Investigations Editor Peter Geoghegan provide such an opportunity in their article, “Jeffrey Donaldson sued us. Here’s why we’re going public,” also published on 10 May.[5] At the time of the article’s release, Donaldson was a potential frontrunner in the race to be the new leader Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (he eventually came second to Edwin Poots). In 2018, after openDemocracy had published several articles on his political and business affairs, Donaldson began sending legal letters and ultimately filed proceedings against the media outlet in Belfast. Fitzgerald and Geoghegan powerfully describe the impact this legal challenge had – “Those two years cost us a lot. We spent months dealing with legal letters, burning through thousands of pounds and precious time that would otherwise have been spent on our journalism. The psychological toll was even higher.”[6] They point to the fact they never ended up in court – instead the ‘ordeal’ was dragged out until the legal timeframe for the case to proceed eventually ran out in May 2020.


The impact of legal threats, and other associated forms of harassment, have on individual journalists is, of course, of primary concern. If we as a society believe in protecting journalists – as the UK Government has stated it does both at an international level, through its leadership of the Global Media Freedom Coalition since 2019, and domestically having established in 2020 a National Committee on the Safety of Journalists – then addressing this type of threat must be a priority. However, there is a secondary impact for wider society that must also be recognised. openDemocracy’s reporting in 2017 on a ‘record breaking, controversial’ donation to DUP’s Brexit campaign, a campaign managed by Donaldson, resulted in a change to the law on anonymous political donations.[7] McCrum’s persistent reporting on Wirecard over four years brought to light what has since been described as the ‘biggest accounting fraud case since the Enron scandal in 2011’ and the company’s ultimate demise.[8] Rewcastle Brown’s reporting led to the collapse of the former Malaysian government, the imprisonment of the former Prime Minister and the businessman thought to behind the scandal on the run.[9]


These scandals all have a real cost to societies and the people living in them. If journalists are hampered by legal threats and other forms of harassment that drain their financial, human and psychological resources, what will be the ultimate impact on our right to know about the nefarious influences affecting our society? And who will stop them?


This latter question appears more crucial than ever. Writing in The Guardian, the investigative journalist and author of the book Moneyland, Oliver Bullough critically assessed the policies put forward by the UK Government in last week’s Queens Speech.[10] Despite previous anti-corruption commitments, including off-shore beneficial ownership registry and reform of Companies House, UK Government appears to now reneging on these, while other concerns, such as underfunding of key agencies such as the National Crime Agency, remain unaddressed. Instead, there has been a focus on issues that appear peripheral at best, such as ID cards to prevent voter fraud (the levels of which have been highly questioned) and protecting free speech in universities. Bullough argues that the UK Government has missed the mark – “In my opinion, freedom of speech is under threat, but not from right-on students excluding rightwing speakers. Instead it is from wealthy people using British courts to shut down investigations into their wealth.”


In December 2020, FPC’s Unsafe for Scrutiny report highlight two interlinked concerns.[11] Firstly, the impact the UK’s facilitation of international financial crime and corruption has on media freedom, particularly when connected to political elites in countries with poor democratic records. Secondly, the enduring role London continues to hold as an international libel capital, despite reforms to English and Welsh law in 2013 intended to crack down on libel tourism, and the impact such legal action, or even the threat of it, in the UK can have on journalists here and abroad.


Leadership is needed in the UK to tackle both of these issues, but a first step would be to recognise the symbiotic nature between the two. It is not possible to effectively protect and promote media freedom without first addressing the financial and legal systems that support the violations against it.



For more on this topic, watch or listen to FPC’s event Suppressing Stories: How legal threats and challenges impact investigative journalism, held on 4th May 2021 together with Index on Censorship and the Justice for Journalism Foundation to mark World Press Freedom Day. Speakers included Gill Phillips, Director of Editorial Legal Services, Guardian News & Media, Franz Wild, Editor and Reporter at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Jessica Ní Mhainín, Policy & Campaigns Manager, Index on Censorship and Susan Coughtrie, Project Director, Foreign Policy Centre. The event was chaired by Chris Matheson MP, Shadow Minister for Media.



[1] Susan Coughtrie, Unsafe for Scrutiny: Examining the pressure faced by journalists uncovering financial crime and corruption around the world, FPC, November 2020,

[2] Nick Cohen, ‘Are our courts a playground for bullies? Just ask Catherine Belton’, The Observer, May 2021,

[3] Dan McCrum, Wirecard and me: Dan McCrum on exposing a criminal enterprise, Financial Times, September 2020,

[4] Clare Rewcastle Brown, A scandal of corruption and censorship: Uncovering the 1MDB case in Malaysia, FPC, December 2020,

[5] Peter Geoghegan and Mary Fitzgerald, Jeffrey Donaldson sued us. Here’s why we’re going public, openDemocracy, May 2021,

[6] Ibid

[7] Mary Fitzgerald, We’ve forced a change in the law on ‘dark money’. But we still need to do more, openDemocracy, July 2017,

[8] Janet W. Lee, WME Signs Wirecard Scandal Journalists Dan McCrum, Paul Murphy, Variety, August 2020,

[9] Clare Rewcastle Brown, A scandal of corruption and censorship: Uncovering the 1MDB case in Malaysia, FPC, December 2020,

[10] Oliver Bullough, What links cybercrime, terrorism and illegal trade? Dark money, The Guardian, May 2021,

[11] Susan Coughtrie, Unsafe for Scrutiny: Examining the pressure faced by journalists uncovering financial crime and corruption around the world, FPC, November 2020,


This piece was produced as part of the Unsafe for Scrutiny project, which is kindly funded by the Justice for Journalists Foundation.

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