Putin used Britain’s Rich Man’s Law to avoid scrutiny, at a crippling cost to us all | Nick Cohen

The truth is supposed to be the first casualty of war, but in Britain the ability to tell the truth about Russia was shot down before Putin ordered his armies forward.

You have to write about Russian power to fully understand the anger and shame that plutocratic censorship brings. Anger because Britain is our country and claims to be a free country, yet foreign oligarchs can manipulate the truth here as surely as Putin can in Russia. Too bad because we cannot fulfill the first duty of journalists and speak in clear English without our newspapers accepting the risk of huge legal costs.

In the safe space of the House of Commons, Labor MP Chris Bryant cited leaked government documents, which indicated that Roman Abramovich was to be watched because of “his ties to the Russian state and his public association with activities and corrupt practices”. God help anyone who says that on the outside when the government hasn’t put him on their sanctions list.

Keep the costs of hardship in mind when wondering how London became a center of corruption. Anglo-Saxon law provides class justice rather than real justice. The verdicts of individual judges are not to blame – whatever their faults, they do not accept bribes. But the price to pay to reach a verdict is so high that few dare to risk being left with the bill. A system can be rigged even if the people responsible for it are honest, and there are institutional biases in favor of wealth in English justice as pervasive as institutional racism in the police.

Let’s give an example worth thousands. Parisian intellectual Nicolas Tenzer tweeted that the French equivalents of George Galloway and Nigel Farage acted as the Kremlin’s “useful idiots” when they appeared on Putin’s propaganda channel RT. RT has filed a lawsuit, claiming that not only did Tenzer defame the station, but that he was guilty of an ‘outrage upon the dignity’ of its journalists – as if security guards weren’t stripping his hacks of dignity every time they went to work. Naturally, French justice proved RT wrong. Amazingly for anyone involved in free speech struggles in the UK, the cost of the case was just €10,000 (£8,400).

Compare that with the price of writing about Putin’s diet in the UK. In January 2021, after Putin’s agents poisoned him but before he was imprisoned, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny praised Catherine Belton’s action Putin’s People. It is indeed the book of the moment, which shows how the men of the KGB created the most dangerous rogue state in the world. Abramovich, three other Russian billionaires and Putin’s energy company Rosneft sued.

The case was trivial. Belton’s editors, HarperCollins, settled it by agreeing to make changes to the text that most readers wouldn’t notice. Yet, although never given a full hearing, the case, I was told, cost HarperCollins £1.5million, 178 times the price of the defamation lawsuit in France. Indeed, HarperCollins was sentenced to a small fortune for publishing an anti-Putin book by the English court system.

You may not care about journalists when it is the job of the police to arrest the corrupt. “Our” rich man’s law, however, ensures that the police have all but given up. The government introduced unexplained wealth orders in 2018 as a “full-spectrum” attack on illicit wealth laundered through the property market. He didn’t realize that the incredibly wealthy could hire the best lawyers in London, who are more than up to par with the barristers the state can afford.

When the National Crime Agency lost a case against the family of Rakhat Aliyev, a former deputy head of the Kazakh state security service, it had to pay £1.5million in court costs, which appears to be becoming a standard charge in the High Court. Its annual budget for tracking down money launderers has been virtually wiped out.

The story of the world in the 21st century is one of the rise of dictatorial states and their accomplices and the collapse of the power of democratically accountable police forces and journalists meant to fight them.

If we were able to be ashamed of the misery that British corruption inflicts on the world, we would radically reform the law. We would be closer to a continental legal system. We would make judging a career in its own right and phase out the recruitment of judges from lawyers and notaries, who seem to think obscene costs are reasonable. We would stop selling English law as a luxury service in the world market and say that its first duty should be to meet the needs of the people of this country. And we would put limits on the fees lawyers for the super rich can charge in high court.

As things stand, I suspect nothing will happen. Apart Private detective and a handful of patriot MPs, no one points out how part of legal London is profiting from Russian billionaires. Among the lawyers who chose Catherine Belton were Hugh Tomlinson, who sits on the board of Hugh Grant’s Hacked Off, who says he wants to have the ‘power of accountability’, not act as a servant, and Geraldine Proudler, who was until recently on the board of the Scott Trust, which regulates us here at Guardian and Observer and ensures that we maintain the highest ethical standards.

Get off your high horse, the lawyers tell me when I raise an eyebrow. Everyone would do the same if they had the chance.

And if that’s not everyone, then many would and would. It’s not just lawyers who simper about respect for human rights while slipping wads of oligarchic cash into their pockets. Politicians, footballers, estate agents, heads of private schools, hedge fund managers, bankers, art gallery owners and whole sections of the professional class are addicted to dirty money.

The Treasury opposes any anti-corruption measures because, I suspect, they clearly see their dependence. He views the British economy with profound pessimism. He notes the poor quality of our managers and entrepreneurs, and the self-inflicted wound of Brexit, and concludes that dirty money is better than no money.

As Russian tanks roll through Europe, a real cause for anger and shame is that at no time have we had a public debate about whether we want a future where we live on immoral incomes and have so afraid of immoral lawyers that we no longer dare to describe what this country has become.

Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist