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Op-Ed: Can The UK’s Professions Stop Butlering to the World?

Article by Alex Jacobs

March 6, 2024

Op-Ed: Can The UK’s Professions Stop Butlering to the World?

A lively event in parliament this week discussed how Britain’s PR industry could stop ‘butlering to the world’: serving kleptocrats and some of the most corrupt people around.[1]


As the chair Liam Byrne MP noted, this ‘professional enabling’ is an integral part of Britain’s immense dirty money problem, which sees us in the super league of global economic crime.


Participants from PR, journalism and civil society discussed what was going wrong and how it could be stopped. But is something more needed to help Britain’s professions kick the butlering habit and the huge fees it generates?


PR and kleptocracy: a new report

The event marked the launch of an excellent new report: What’s the Risk? PR & Communication Agencies and Kleptocracy.[2] (Disclosure: it was funded by the Joffe Trust and published by the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC).)


It was hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Corruption & Responsible Tax and the FPC in partnership with Curzon PR, The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.


The report shines a light on how British PR firms have helped kleptocratic regimes, and others involved in grand corruption, to launder their reputations and turn illicit wealth into status, influence and power.


In a wide-ranging discussion, participants touched on how some PR firms may not know what harms they are enabling. Others may be more aware, for instance using anonymous social media to attack their clients’ opponents. Michela Wrong’s experience of ‘a tide of vilification’ was sobering.[3]


There was general agreement of the need for change. As the CEO of the CIPR, Alistair McCapra, put it: “if we don’t want to become a gangster paradise, we need to act.”


So what’s to be done?

General regulation of PR as a profession is unlikely to be practical. The solutions suggested included both carrot and stick.


Carrots included: raising awareness of the risks & human impact of kleptocracy; and promoting good practices like transparency, client due diligence and reporting suspicious activity to the authorities.


Sticks included: more naming and shaming, supported by better resourcing for journalism; investigating PR agencies alongside regulated professions; and better regulation in specific areas such as SLAPPs or on-line harm.


There was talk of an overall goal of changing the culture of the PR profession, to take an ethical approach to kleptocracy. Could the next generation of young professionals help drive change?


A wider problem

PR is only one of Britain’s so-called enabling professions, helping wrong-doers enjoy the ill gotten gains of kleptocracy and corruption at vast social cost. In 2022, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine raised the heat more generally on lawyers, accountants and others.


Since then, the Government has put great emphasis on improving the supervision of professions and tackling enablers through the second Economic Crime Plan and two recent Economic Crime Acts.


A number of civil society initiatives are also working to drive change, such as The UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition, The Taskforce on Business Ethics and the Legal Profession, Principals with Principles and The UK Anti-Corruption Coalition.[4]


But change remains elusive. For now, it seems the wider problem of butlering persists. Many states beyond Russia are seen to be involved, from Saudi Arabia to China. Last month’s evidence to the Business & Trade Committee suggests that the overall problem of economic crime may be getting worse.[5] And every crime needs its enablers.


A wider solution?

Recent legislation should deliver real improvements in Britain’s defences against economic crime. But the acid test when it comes to professional butlering is: what will change the established culture, in the teeth of ferocious commercial incentives?


This could be addressed head on, at the same time as new laws come into force. For example, professional bodies could promote awareness of the risks of tangling with kleptocrats and build associated good practices into their work.


However, a crucial link in the chain may be missing. Change will not happen overnight or by itself. The agenda will need to be consistently pushed among professionals and their institutions, alongside all their other priorities. This will probably take several years of consistent work, with creative approaches to build pressure and urgency for reform. It could be done, for instance, by some new specialist initiative, some kind of Kleptocracy Unit, working across professions. It could even be run by and for the next generation of professionals, as an engine of change.


Without such an initiative, there is a risk that this new report’s recommendations will gather dust on the shelf. As ever, the heart of the question is not only what should be done, but who is going to make it happen.


At the Joffe Trust, we would love to talk about any practical ideas we could support to help the UK’s professions kick the butlering habit, and close the UK’s doors to dirty money. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


Alex Jacobs has been the executive Director of the Joffe Trust since 2018. He was previously a board member and worked closely with Joel Joffe for 20 years. He has a particular focus on illicit finance and supporting non-profit leaders. (


[1] Robert Verkaik, Butler to the World by Oliver Bullough review – oligarch’s paradise, The Guardian, March 2022,

[2] Thomas Mayne, What’s the Risk? PR & Communication Agencies and Kleptocracy, Foreign Policy Centre, March 2024,

[3] Michela Wrong, I criticised Rwanda’s leader – now I wake up screaming after constant online attacks, The Guardian, January 2024,

[4] UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition, see:; Institute of Business Ethics, Taskforce on Business Ethics and the Legal Profession,; Principals with Principles, see:; UK Anti-Corruption Coalition, see:

[5] Business and Trade Committee, Oral evidence: Implementation of Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023, HC 522, House of Commons, February 2024,


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.


Photo credited to Menelik Samuels.

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