Tom Burgis, Investigative journalist and author of ‘Kleptopia: How dirty money is conquering the world’

STATUS: Concluded – Two cases filed in the UK in August 2021, one thrown out of court and the other retracted in March 2022.

Tom Burgis was subject to two legal cases relating to the publication of his book, ‘Kleptopia: How dirty money is conquering the world’, and related newspaper articles published in the Financial Times (FT). The Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation Limited (ENRC), whose business dealings are examined in Kleptopia, first initiated a case in the US courts against the US arm of HarperCollins seeking disclosure of wide-ranging information relating to Burgis’ book in September 2020. In August 2021, ENRC launched legal action in the UK, claiming Burgis and HarperCollins had made a series of ‘untrue’ and ‘highly damaging’ allegations made about the company. Burgis was also jointly named in a separate legal case against his employer, the FT, in relation to articles they published related to the issues raised in Burgis’ book. To note, ENRC has initiated more than 18 legal proceedings in the US and the UK, against journalists, lawyers, investigators and the Serious Fraud Office.

At a meaning hearing, held on 2nd March 2022, Justice Nicklin dismissed ENRC’s case against Burgis and HarperCollins finding their claim that Burgis had defamed the company was without merit as only individuals can commit murder, not corporations. The judge awarded £50,000 in costs against ENRC and refused the company permission to appeal. Burgis stated at the time, “It’s harder to imagine a higher public interest than reporting on the deaths of potential witnesses in a major criminal corruption case. I’m delighted that this attack on our journalism has failed”. Meanwhile, HarperCollins reaffirmed its commitment to “defend our authors in the face of legal attacks from those who would seek to use the UK courts to silence them”.

In his oral evidence on SLAPPs at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in March 2022, Burgis explained that; “What is happening here is that, especially in this moment when we are realising what a terrible threat dirty money is in our democracy, we turn to journalists and say ‘Ride to the rescue, This is your job. Please root out the dirty money wherever it is’, and what do we find? Our greatest obstacles are not GRU [the russian military agency] hit squads or cyber-attack teams; it is firms in London working, day in day out, to attack free speech in the interest of very rich and powerful people who rightly deserve scrutiny”.

Less than two weeks after Justice Nicklin’s judgment, ENRC withdrew its remaining case against Burgis and the FT on 14th March. Roula Khalaf, FT Editor, stated in response: “I’m pleased to hear of ENRC’s decision to withdraw a claim that was always without merit and had put Tom Burgis under enormous strain. The FT and all our reporters, including Tom, will continue to investigate the activities of businesses and individuals, however powerful or wealthy.”

Burgis’ case also sheds light on the psychological effects of these cases, and just how early in the process they begin. As part of his oral evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, he also detailed the tactics used by lawyers in the pre-action stage: “The psychological pressure that these firms begin to bear is really clever. The letters – such as those from Carter-Rusk, Schillings, Mishcon de Reya, Taylor Wessing and so on – are often written in a tone of righteous indignation, where the ‘journalist’ has behaved appallingly and in bad faith. There is never any question of, say, having made an honest mistake. I have spent quite a long time trying to realise why so many journalists – even really courageous ones – will recoil and walk away from a story when a letter from one of these firms comes in. it is because you risk humiliation in the public square. The letters go to your editors, publishers and lawyers, and you are cast as the most monstrous, scheming and corrupt version of yourself. That is how it works, quite apart from the massive threat of the costs”.