International mega-rich have weaponised British legal system to silence critics, investigative writer claims

Tom Burgis and his new book, In Cuckooland - Where the Rich Own the Truth
Burgis' new book, In Cuckooland - Where the Rich Own the Truth, follows a trail from the Kremlin, through Kathmandu to a royal retreat in Scotland. Photo credit: Harper Collins via RNZ

The international mega-rich have weaponised the British legal system to silence critics, investigative writer Tom Burgis claims.

Burgis' new book, In Cuckooland - Where the Rich Own the Truth, follows a trail from the Kremlin, through Kathmandu to a royal retreat in Scotland.

He hunts down oligarchs and traces vast sums of money flowing between multinational corporations, ex-Soviet dictators and the west's ruling elites.

Mohamed Amersi was one such very rich man who made his multi-millions brokering telecom deals, Burgis said.

"And then spent some of it essentially buying access in the Conservative Party, giving big donations that got him close to ministers all the way up to the Prime Minister."

Amersi had his eye on a job within the party, Burgis said.

"To basically take over Conservative Middle East relations, quite an important job, a bit like being a diplomat, but for a political party and handling a lot of relationships between the UK's ruling party and the Middle East.

"But somebody already had that job, a former MP called Charlotte Leslie, and she had looked into Amersi's past a little bit and wondered where he made his money." 

Leslie raised some questions about Amersi in a memo which she circulated within and outside of the Conservative Party, he said.

"A few people in the party, a few people in national security and a few diplomats, basically saying, and this is how she would later put it in a witness statement, saying there is a gap between the story that Mohamed Amersi tells about himself and what appears to be reality."

According to Burgis, once Amersi got hold of the memo, he deployed his wealth to hammer Leslie with legal threats.

"These reputation management law firms that write a certain type of outrage letter on behalf of various clients, telling people to stop talking about them, or to change their view about them, or to retract scurrilous, outrageous comments they've made about them.

"And normally these letters go to journalists, but in this case, it went to former MP Charlotte Leslie."

This piqued Burgis' interest in Amersi and so he started to dig, he told Susie Ferguson.

Amersi wanted to rub shoulders with the top echelons of British society, which is where old Etonian Ben Elliot comes into the picture, Burgis said.

Elliot, who was also a co-chairperson of the Conservative Party for three years, founded a company called Quintessentially, providing "anything and everything" that his global elite clients wanted. 

"When someone wanted to propose on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, he would shut it down and make that happen. He could get you backstage at Beyoncé. He could get you dinner on an iceberg. He was the ultimate favour trader."

Amersi was a client and Elliot fixed it for him to have dinner with the then Prince Charles in Scotland.

"Charles would have a dinner with him and then Amersi and his partner would leave after a couple of magical days and the aura of the royals, and then the email would arrive from one of Charles's flunkies saying, these are fundraising opportunities… this is how you can donate to the causes close to the prince's heart.

"So, Ben Elliot gets his fees, Prince Charles gets some money into one of his causes, and the client gets to advance in society, and gets to use that aura of legitimacy to penetrate any social circle he wants."

It was an example of money and politics working in lockstep, Burgis said.

"It's really vivid picture of how this process works, how you can translate money into power and access in a way that really, I think ultimately you could argue, cuts against the spirit of how democracy is meant to work, the fundamentals of a democracy that's meant to be to dilute power so we all get a little share of it, rather than allowing it to be concentrated in the hands of those who could afford to buy it."

Burgis believes a "weaponised" legal system in the UK compounds the situation.

"Look at which bits of the legal system are working, and which bits aren't. The criminal legal system in the UK is in a state of complete collapse. Barristers can't get paid, Legal Aid has been underfunded to the point that it just doesn't work anymore, trials are perpetually delayed, the guilty are getting away and the innocent are getting punished. That part's falling apart. 

"But tens of billions a year is flowing to the civil courts, where the oligarchs of the world fight their disputes and divorces and so on."

Burgis had experienced this chilling legal heft himself, he said.

"A company controlled by some oligarchs went for my last book. My brilliant friend Catherine Belton, who wrote Putin's People, an absolutely spectacular book about Putin, got dragged through the courts by Putin's cronies."

Certain law firms in the UK specialised in this reputational management area, he said.

"I don't think readers understand the power of Carter-Ruck, Mishcon de Reya, Schillings, these legal firms, whose names have been whispered for so long, decide what we get to read and what we don't get to read, because they will threaten unbelievably expensive legal proceedings in Britain's unbelievably expensive legal system, where the real weapon is the costs of the lawyers, and if you can be manoeuvred in such a way or forced into a corner so that you have to pay those costs of those lawyers - it's ruinous amounts."

Consequently, newspapers often "just bail", he said.

"Sometimes even the threat of legal action from one of these firms is enough to give their client carte blanche."

This stifling of open discourse was taking us back to a time pre-Darwin, he said. 

"For 150 years maybe, a lot of discourse is becoming freer, if you go back to perhaps Darwin would be a good point to pick, where the truth is something that's contested, and it's arrived at by rigorous argument and debate. It's not in the hands of popes and princes and so on, it's democratised."

Now with the business model of newspapers collapsing, Burgis said he felt the entities with a chance of holding the powerful to account were withering at the same time the wealthy were flexing their legal muscle to control the narrative.

"I don't think there had been much understanding of the fact that there is actually a really well orchestrated, well-funded industry that's allowing the richest and most powerful to capitalise on this collapse of our truth-seeking institutions and establish themselves as the arbiters of reality."

Tom Burgis' writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Independent, The Observer and the New Statesman. His 2021 bestselling book is Kleptopia - How Dirty Money is Conquering the World.