The BBC flagship current affairs programme Panorama used to have the reputation of fairness and even-handed investigative journalism. That hard won stature has been tarnished by a few dodgy programmes made by journalists with an axe to grind and a production team that seemingly doesn’t care about balance.
Chelsea fans tuning in to find out about Roman Abramovich’s money will have been disappointed that, having spent ‘four-years’ investigating Abramovich’s wealth they failed to come up with anything we didn’t already know.
In imposing sanctions on Abramovich the Foreign Office have refused to divulge the information they based their actions on. The allegation that Roman’s mining and steel company, Evraz, could supply the Russian military with material to build tanks was completely absent here but most of the Foreign Office’s case was covered by this Panorama. Those seeking some enlightenment about why the UK government imposed sanctions on Chelsea Football Club would find little or nothing here.
For a four-year investigation they started badly, just ten minutes in and the first allegation to surface is the old chestnut about stealing a train load of diesel oil. We all did some dodgy things in our 20s but few of us rerouted a train and sold the cargo in Riga. The cold case from thirty years ago is hardly proof that the money used to fund Chelsea is tainted. Mr Abramovich was never charged and however murky you want to make the political protection he received; it isn’t as if we don’t do similar things here. The well connected get away murder, or killing 97 people at Hillsborough or scrapping fire safety measures that led to Grenfell. We let people off crimes if they are rich or well-connected and Abramovich’s lawyers argue that this was a misunderstanding that was never prosecuted.
The seat of all the allegations that Chelsea are funded by fraud and ‘blood-money’ come from the privatisation of Sibneft. Roman Abramovich came up with a plan to split up and buy part of the state-owned Russian oil industry with the help of Boris Berezovsky. We knew this from the start in 2003. Panorama produced one disaffected former minder to Boris Yeltsin who said he had been offered a cut but had turned it down. And then we move on to the auction of Sibneft which Abramovich has admitted in court was rigged by paying bribes.
Which is pretty damning but given that it has been admitted in open court hardly a revelation. Panorama is pretending that the evil empire built up by Abramovich in Russia in the 1990s is somehow morally abhorrent. But the evidence they presented is far from conclusive.
Few billionaires acquire their wealth honestly. We know this already. Roman was doing business in a failing state where many turned to gangsterism and assassination to keep their positions. The period has been described as the wild east but critics forget that it was Britain, America and the World Bank who imposed the privatisation of state assets on the former Soviet Union in exchange for international credit. The rules for these transactions were draw up by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to continue and perpetuate the economic orthodoxy of neoliberalism.
The aim of this market dogma was the creation of wealthy elites. The number of billionaires has been growing in the west as well as the former eastern bloc. It is all corrupt, based on dodgy money, dodgy banks, weakened tax regimes and dodgy accountancy practices. Blaming Abramovich for being uniquely corrupt or evil is absurd.
Panorama dropped any mention of Berezovsky’s role in the purchase of Sibneft. That is possibly because he was an opponent of Putin, had close links to the Conservative Party and was a friend of Alexander Litvinenko. They didn’t mention that the sales to Berezovsky and Abramovich were discounted by Boris Yeltsin in return for electoral support from Berezovsky’s TV stations. Margaret Thatcher’s chief spin guru Lord Tim Bell ran Yeltsin’s re-election campaign with the help of Berezovsky’s channels. And we don’t want you to look to closely at the role of the Conservative Party in running Russia in the 90s.
Our current government’s role in prostituting London to Russian money was completely ignored. We are the playground of the super-rich simply because we allow them tax-free status on our wretched little archipelago and all of the lawyers, accountants and politicians here who have grown rich and powerful on the back of that cash are reluctant to get off the ride. A top accountant back in ’94 admitted as much, Private Eye reported, that a senior partner at Arthur Andersen said “We expect to do very well … they couldn’t make a civilised transition without us” and so it has continued.
Abramovich could have been prosecuted for fraud, Panorama breathlessly state. What a terrible criminal he would be if he had.
But the point is that he hasn’t. No case been brought. Abramovich we are told modernised and improved Sibneft in the decade he owned it before selling it back to the Russian state for $13bn. Panorama want you to think the whole affair was corrupt but they haven’t proof that this was anything but a business deal on favourable terms. Retrospective claims that Sibneft was undervalued are just that, after the fact. No evidence that Sibneft was independently valued before the sale has been provided. The Russian state was short of foreign capital, underinvested in its oil infrastructure and inexperienced at owning or privatising assets.
And, all this time, Abramovich’s firms were being audited by the top London firms and they found nothing untoward. But then the big-four accountancy firms are really corrupt and Panorama never looks at them.
There is a basic hypocrisy at work here. Not only is London awash with roubles, our politicians, lawyers and accountants set up the corrupt system Roman benefitted from. We have sold off our state assets cheaply too. For example, in 2013 our government undervalued Royal Mail by around £1bn. We don’t, routinely, describe the companies and institutions who snapped up the profit as evil or tainted.
Panorama then got really wet in the knickers that Roman had admitted he was corrupt in court. The fact that Panorama presented little or no evidence that wasn’t available at that 2011/12 case somewhat undermines their own arguments. Abramovich admitted being corrupt, the screamed, but what he actually admitted was that Berezovsky had asked for $10m to bribe a general and he had arranged the cash and bank transfers.
When Boris Berezovsky tried to sue Abramovich for £6bn, and failed, Roman admitted that he relationship with Berezovsky and the purchase of political influence and protection from him was corrupt. But you have to ask what the difference is between the purchase of Berezovsky’s protection and the award of a peerage to Baron Lebedev. For a Foreign Office run by the Conservative Party of the UK to base its case on buying political influence is staggeringly hypocritical.
Panorama claim they have been investigating for four-years and yet have come up with nothing that wasn’t already stated in open court. In a case Abramovich won. Or from a secret document, based on “files held on Mr Abramovich by Russian law enforcement agencies” which Panorama cheerfully admit they cannot verify. The only corroboration they have came from Yury Skuratov, who while drawing up action against Berezovsky and Abramovich, decided to discuss the details of the case with several naked young women. Of course, the poor guy was set up to be discredited by Yeltsin’s regime but, come on, this is the meat of Panorama’s case, this is their proof?
They then repeated the line that Abramovich was reported in a Spanish legal investigation to be ‘regarded as’ controlling Putin private economic interests. The accusation was repeated in parliament by David Davis but not outside Whatever MPs say inside the building is protected from legal action under parliamentary privilege. Davis’ intervention isn’t actual evidence and Panorama were silent on who it was who ‘regarded’ Abramovich as Putin’s private banker and what proof they offered.
None of the revelations from tranches of tax-haven secret documents, the paradise papers, pandora papers etc, has yet provided verification that our own oligarch actually runs Vlad’s private bank account. The closest Panorama could get Vladimir Milov, former deputy energy minister, to say was that Abramovich might be sharing his wealth with Putin. Might.
Obviously Abramovich, as a businessman in Russia over the last twenty years, must have done deals with the overt or tacit approval of the Kremlin. This is not necessarily corrupt and until the invasion of Ukraine would have just been described as business.
Panorama’s slam dunk was the Slavneft deal. The troubled Russian oil company was taken over in 2002. There was allegedly a larger offer for Slavneft from a Chinese company when the deal was awarded to the consortium that included Abramovich. Now, which other governments have recently made strategic decisions to keep Chinese money and technology out of its infrastructure.
There was widespread anger in Russia, in the parliament and media, about the possibility of a Chinese bid for a Russian oil firm but Panorama would have you believe that Roman met them at the airport and kidnapped one of the Chinese delegation.
But then what the programme actually said was “There is no suggestion the Roman Abramovich knew anything about the kidnapping plot or played any part in it.” So, our only motive for including it in this programme is to make Abramovich sound like a criminal. Or this is as close to criminal activity as they could safely allege.
They wheeled out Andrew Mitchell QC, and here we have to be careful, who said that the evidence from the 2011/12 court case suggested that Abramovich’s wealth is a result of corruption and that he added “there comes a point, where as a matter of principle, we have to take a stand … Britain is not open to corrupt people”. The problem is that Britain is open to anyone’s money. Private Eye have spent a decade detailing exactly how corrupt the city of London has become and how some of that money is funnelled into the Conservative Party. But not just the governing party, lawyers, accountants, bankers, hedge fund managers are all up to their necks in money laundering, sanctions breaking, epic tax evasion, protections rackets, industrial scale banking fraud and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
What is notable about all the criminality, corruption, fraud, murder, intimidation and outright evil that goes on in the Russian economy is how little of it, even allegedly, involves Roman Abramovich.
The BBC, through its flagship current affairs show, has spent four-years finding out little not already known. Makes no substantive allegations that Roman is linked to the Putin regime in anything other than a legal and normal business manner. Cannot link him to criminal behaviour or gangsterism but threw as much mud as they could to see what sticks.
Nobody condones what the Putin regime is doing in Ukraine and nobody wants to minimise the chilling effect on the world and Europe’s future. But the British government in lashing out at anything Russian has swept Chelsea Football Club into the story. The evidence we have been offered for why this is happening is extremely thin, based on supposition, innuendo and MPs making claims under privilege. We have asked the Foreign Office for evidence that Evraz provided steel for military use. They have refused to answer. Evraz, for their part, have denied the construction steel they provided to the Russian government can be used for tank armour.
So, the case set out here by Panorama is all the evidence we have that Roman Abramovich’s money is tainted or corrupt and by inference that Chelsea have ‘bought the league’ with ‘blood-money’ (©The Guardian) and yet it doesn’t stack up.