Editor’s note: Columnist Robert Eringer traveled to London and submitted this column about British matters.
LONDON — A curious lawsuit awaits a ruling any day in Britain’s High Court on whether it may proceed in what has become the censorship capital of the world for defamation venue-shoppers seeking not necessarily an opportunity to clear their name but to scare off reporters from writing about them in the future.
Wealthy Russian oligarchs, in particular, appear to have grown savvy to these strategies and tactics for deflecting unwanted attention — and U.K. law firms specializing in libel are of course delighted to cash in, or, as The Guardian’s Nick Cohen succinctly put it, “London‘s lawyers have a billionaire apiece in a kind of socialism of the litigious.”
The case in question revolves around a groundbreaking nonfiction book titled “Putin’s People” (also published in the U.S.) by British journalist Catherine Belton.
Full disclosure: Ms. Belton interviewed me in person and by phone several times and mentions me in her book with reference to undercover work I did for FBI Counterintelligence in Moscow during the 1990s.
I found Ms. Belton, who is now an investigative correspondent for Reuters and previously wrote for The Moscow Times and the (U.K.) Financial Times (as Moscow correspondent), to be a true professional who struggled over a period of five years to write a highly detailed (and now critically acclaimed) tome on Russia’s President Vladmir Putin and his rise to power from the corrupt city politics of his native St. Petersburg, where he served as deputy mayor following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and his career in the KGB.
However, I had a bone to pick with Ms. Belton over her depiction of my FBI operation and corrected her accordingly:
One evening in Moscow in June 1997, two KGB officers and two Americans gathered for a private dinner in Moscow.
One of the Americans was Edward Lee Howard, the only CIA officer to ever successfully defect to the Soviet Union, The other was myself, secretly working for FBI Counterintelligence to arrange a rendition of Howard — i.e. bring him home to face the music.
I had had been an independent contractor for the FBI since 1993, and my mission had evolved beyond renditioning Mr. Howard to cajoling former KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, who was present at the dinner, to open up about topics of interest to the FBI, supposedly for a book he desired to write for publication in the West.
The other Russian KGB operative at the table was Col. Igor Prelin, an aide to Mr. Kryuchkov and one of Mr. Putin’s lecturers at the Red Banner spy institute. Col. Prelin told me that soon the KGB would return to power.
He said, “We know someone. You’ve never heard of him. We’re not going to tell you who it is, but he’s one of us, and when he’s president, we’re back.” And, indeed, they were, after Russian President Boris Yeltsin stepped aside for Mr. Putin to take his place.
I’m not certain how or why Ms. Belton skewered my account into something a bit different and want to believe it was the exception and not the rule with regard to the contents of her book in general.
Whichever the case may be, she and her publisher HarperCollins (which stands by her) find themselves under siege by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich for “lazy inaccuracies” and connecting the multi-billionaire (who owns Britain’s Chelsea Football Club) to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Abramovich is suing both publisher and author, the former saying it will “robustly defend” the latter.
It seems clear to seasoned observers of Russia intelligence, including myself, that Mr. Putin and his cronies are behind Mr. Abramovich’s libel suit.
Mr. Putin is renowned for using his intelligence services — the SVR and FSB — for tracking down and assassinating (in Britain and Europe) those Russians he believes have betrayed the Motherland. And also for imprisoning Russian reporters and activists — such as Alexie Navalny— who expose his blatant and extensive corruption.
But the Russian dictator’s strategy for non-Russian investigative journalists who target his graft and murderous character is, while not lethal, certainly financially-crippling and stress-inducing: Stifle their freedom of expression by using unlimited riches (allegedly siphoned from the Russian state and energy companies) to bury those who offend him with expensive litigation as a warning to other investigative reporters to lay off or find themselves in a similar position.
Russian politicos and oligarchs have learned all the tricks about how to use our own systems (starting with monetary greed and the judicial process) against us. And while they proactively strategize by playing chess, our feeble leaders play a reactive game of checkers, focusing their energies instead on distracting the American public with nonsensical issues.
ET TU, BRUTUS?
My old friend Nigel Nelson is the longest-serving political editor on Fleet Street (the theoretical home to national British newspapers even if they’ve all moved away from that storied thoroughfare).
He reports for the (U.K.) Sunday Mirror and Sunday People and also enjoys the distinction of being the longest serving (since 1986) Parliamentary correspondent.
Lobby correspondents, as they are called, practically reside within Britain’s houses of Parliament (with offices and access privileges) and thus enjoy a ringside seat for reporting on the politics of the day. Members of Parliament and ministers come and go, but lobby correspondents enjoy a continuity that renders them far more knowledgeable about the internal workings of Westminster than many of those holding elective office.
Thus when in London, I always endeavor to break bread with Mr. Nelson for a briefing on What the Heck is Really Going On.
I once made a bundle on a wager at Ladbroke’s, the high street bookmaker, that not only would John Major win the general election in 1990 (replacing Maggie Thatcher as prime minister), but by specifying the precise number of seats in Parliament that Mr. Major’s party, the Conservatives, would win by. All were forecast correctly by Nigel Nelson. Thus, when he speaks, we listen.
On everyone’s mind in London is Boris Johnson’s future as prime minister — and it doesn’t look good, according to Mr. Nelson, who paints a picture of Boris as a charming, charismatic buffoon who bumbles and blunders his way through Westminster screwing everything up.
“He’s great company but useless as PM,” Mr. Nelson told The Investigator.
And it isn’t the opposition Labour Party, currently in shambles, Boris has to worry about, explains Mr. Nelson, but his own Conservative ministers and backbenchers, who recently joined forces to oust him.
“The problem is,” says Mr. Nelson, “Boris flip-flops on everything without keeping his fellow Tories in the loop. They go out to defend him, and then he changes his mind and makes new announcements without giving them advance notice, leaving them out on a limb.”
Those most concerned about Boris’s erratic leadership are “Red Wall” MPs, so-called because they won their Parliamentary seats in predominantly Labour-controlled constituencies. “Their seats,” says Mr. Nelson, “are the most vulnerable and now their polls are plunging due to Boris’s constant U-turns.”
According to Mr. Nelson, “The plot is real and the 1922 Committee” (which consists of all Conservative backbencher MPs) “needs only 56 Members to sign on for a leadership change, along with a credible candidate, in order to force a showdown on the Party’s leadership.”
And who might that replacement be?
The most likely successor Tory leader and next prime minister, Mr. Nelson believes, is Jeremy Hunt, a former foreign secretary who currently serves as chairman of the Health and Social Care Select Committee.
But another possible leader, according to Mr. Nelson, is Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and one of the party’s rising stars,
The plot’s chief architects are Damien Green, “the kingmaker of the party,” says Mr. Nelson, and Gavin Williamson, an MP he calls “master of the black arts” (for his tactical skills) and who was sacked as education secretary in the last Cabinet reshuffle. They and their supporters operate under the banner One Nation Group but are known, less officially, as “The Sensibles.”
On one point the “kingmaker” and the “master of black arts” agree, Mr. Nelson told The Investigator: “Anyone but Boris.”
We asked after the Royals, who traditionally have no role in politics (aside from its renegades, Prince Harry and his outspoken wife, Meghan), and Mr. Nelson confirms “they don’t have much impact on the political scene.”
He does point out, however, that there is a growing campaign to abolish the monarchy and transform Britain into a republic. He cites the queen’s advancing age — she is 95 — and predicts that the eventual succession of the throne will be the catalyst for pumping up the anti-monarchy movement.
Little wonder Prince Charles and his heir Prince, Prince William, are striving to modernize and streamline the monarchy
And speaking of royalty, the following is not something picked up in London but, through sources, is exclusive to this column and the News-Press.
A fiercely fought virtual war is under way on the internet between Montecito newcomers the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (or certainly their minions) versus a group of critics who, they say, find themselves increasingly oppressed, bullied and censored by the PR internet machine associated with the royal couple.
Among the latter is a social media activist who goes by the user-name Duchess of Narsussex.
The Investigator asked this self-styled “Duchess” what evidence exists (hard or circumstantial) that Harry and Meghan might be behind any such bullying or censorship.
“Circumstantial,” she replied, “in that they are so very well organized and that their groups are in the Sussex name. They do large fundraisers for Sentibale” (Prince Harry’s registered charity) “and Archewell” (Prince Harry’s foundation) “and anything else Harry and Meghan get involved with. They even put up their financials about it, at least $500,000 in the past two years. Meghan has also called Sussex Squad members to thank them for their fundraising efforts. If they weren’t behind the bullying before, they certainly are now.”
And it goes deeper, she explained. “The entire thing is about politics, plain and simple, involving Hillary Clinton and the woke/cancel culture crowd. Pretty much every left-wing celebrity sides with the Sussex Squad. Our name for them is The Sugars, and though our side is called Megxiteers, they refer to us, in a concerted effort to bully in Tweets, as Derangers. Our side is about free speech, and theirs is about silencing people.”
Christopher Bouzy, founder of Bot Sentinel (a “Twitter analytics service”, whom The Sugars perceive to be their chief antagonist, sees the situation differently, believing it is The Sugars who are harassing Meghan.
“Are these people who hate her?” Mr. Bouzy posed to BuzzFeed. “Is it racism? Are they trying to hurt Harry and Meghan’s credibility?”
BuzzFeed claims to have found Tweets “with clear racial overtones as well as posts claiming that she faked her pregnancy.”
Presented with this by The Investigator, the “Duchess of Narsussex” countered: “They say they’re trying to stop hate speech and racism against Meghan, which is a valiant effort, but they’re not. They just want everyone who isn’t praising Meghan off the internet. Anything that isn’t praise they call misinformation. Everything they accuse us of they’ve done ten-fold. They’ve even made death threats.”
The Investigator looked at a number of social media posts on both sides.
One striking post from Sussex Squad Podcast states: “The derangers can’t come on our platform. We will find you, call your jobs, contact your families, expose you etc. You have no free speech on any of our platforms.”
Another Sussex Squad supporter wrote: “If you’re a white woman and currently pregnant with a white baby boy do us all a favor and take a trip to planned parenthood.”
Seems to us that this qualifies for bullying and reverse racism.
Numerous posts are critical of Kate Middleton, suggesting an ongoing PR rivalry between Meghan and Kate (the Duchess of Cambridge and future queen). One such post calls her “the epitome of white mediocrity,”
On the obverse side, many Megxiteers have had their Twitter accounts suspended.
And speaking of that social networking service, Prince Harry now claims that he warned Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about a coup before the storming of the Capitol. Speaking on a web summit a few days ago, Prince Harry said, “Jack and I were emailing each other prior to Jan. 6 where I warned him his platform was allowing a coup to be staged. That email was sent the day before and then it happened, and I haven’t heard from him since.”
How very odd.
Odder still: Meghan, who, as a royal is not supposed to be political, was mocked in the U.K. press last week after she called several U.S. senators and representatives on their private phone numbers to lobby for paid paternity leave.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said, “I was happy to talk with her, but more interested in what the people of Maine have to say about it.”
Jason Smith, a U.S. congressman from Missouri, was incensed because Meghan had introduced herself as the Duchess of Sussex. “She’s lobbying Congress using her royal title,” said Congressman Smith. “If she wants to be a royal, she needs to be a royal — she can’t have it both ways.”
Finally, if you happen to visit London before March 20 March, don’t miss Tate Britain’s exhibition “Hogarth and Europe.”
To be “Hogarthian” (a term coined during his lifetime) meant possessing “an all-encompassing worldview: satirical, independent and insightful,” which is precisely what this column endeavors to be.
Robert Eringer is a longtime Montecito author with vast investigative journalism experience. He welcomes questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.