A longstanding critic of Kremlin corruption has accused NatWest of closing his bank account in the UK because it had been influenced by an intense and pervasive “black PR” campaign mounted against him by Russian actors in their home country.
“Black PR” is a term referring to a series of connected practices used by Russian state and non-state actors seeking to discredit individuals as part of political or business disputes, and can involve trying to create or obtain kompromat (compromising material) or generating fake media reports.
The accusation by Bill Browder appears in a thinktank report that warns the widespread Russian practice of disseminating falsehoods to ruin reputations is seeping into the UK.
The report calls for businesses, researchers and the courts to be more sceptical about media reports coming from Russia, for British PR firms to adhere to high ethical procedures and for lobbyists to declare when they are employed by foreign powers.
Browder said the example of his banking status can highlight the reach Russian black PR can have internationally, although NatWest said the decision to shut his personal account in 2015 was “a commercial one” that it had reviewed and stuck to.
Browder, once a large investor in Russia, was expelled from the country in 2005 and has actively campaigned against the Kremlin since the murder in prison of a tax lawyer who had worked for him, Sergei Magnitsky.
Since then, Browder has been subject of an intense campaign against him by the Kremlin, which has included the broadcast of at least four films on Russian television falsely accusing him of stealing IMF money and even of killing Magnitsky.
The campaign in Russia, Browder said, ultimately influenced the British bank. “I had an account at NatWest for 25 years, I was considered one of their most profitable customers, and they told me outright they were closing my account because of the Russian press reports,” he told the Guardian.
The author of the report, Andrew Foxhall, former director of research at the Henry Jackson Society thinktank, said: “It would be easy to dismiss the significance of this black PR campaign against Browder if it had remained in Russia. But it has not”.
Some of the false accusations made against Browder had also appeared in newspaper articles and court documents in the UK, Foxhall added, in a report entitled “Russian ‘Black PR’: Examining the Practice of Ruining Reputations”.
Among the measures called for in the report is the introduction of a US-style foreign agents registration act in the UK, which would require lobbyists and PR firms to register and disclose work on behalf of foreign principals.
Any UK scheme, the possible introduction of which was hinted at in last year’s Queen’s speech, should cover both hostile states such as Russia but also “individuals with close links to hostile states”.
Browder submitted evidence to the intelligence and security committee inquiry into Russia, published by the Guardian earlier this year, accusing Russia of hiring a network of British politicians and consultants to help advance its criminal interests and to “go after” Vladimir Putin’s enemies in London.
A NatWest spokesperson said: “The decision was made a number of years ago and was simply a commercial decision, based on a number of different factors all of which were considered extensively and with great care. The matter was subsequently revisited and the decision remained, with appropriate notice periods given.”