Dark Money Investigations: Investigation

Why did a popular UK news site run anonymous propaganda about Russian oil?

Exclusive: The London Economic praised BP’s stake in Russia’s state-owned Rosneft and ran other flattering articles about controversial people and firms

Dimitri_Headshot.jpg profile2.jpg
Dimitris Dimitriadis Martin Williams
31 March 2022, 2.58pm
Vladimir Putin with the CEO of Rosneft, Igor Sechin.
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Kremlin

A popular UK news website has launched an internal review over its decision to run a flattering anonymous article about BP’s investment in a Russian state-owned oil firm.

The website, the London Economic, is also investigating two other similar cases of alleged ‘reputation laundering’ following an investigation by openDemocracy.

The London Economic claims to be “independent”. It is owned by a venture capital firm and chaired by a former oil and gas executive with links to the Conservative Party, and boasts of promoting a “kinder, more compassionate politics”.

But multiple sources in the PR industry have told openDemocracy they have been involved in paying the London Economic to publish favourable articles about wealthy clients. They said the aim in each case was to “push down” negative publicity on Google rankings.

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The London Economic is one of more than 20 online publications identified by openDemocracy that have hosted flattering pieces touting the achievements or credentials of businesspeople, oligarchs and companies that have experienced scrutiny or negative publicity in the past.

Often the sites publish very similar stories to each other, with hyperlinks to similar positive reports creating a web of self-reinforcing coverage, although this was not the case in the BP coverage.

For those with the means, there are a multitude of ways to burnish reputations or hide a chequered past

Transparency International

When questioned by openDemocracy, the London Economic admitted that it sometimes published “paid-for content” – but did not confirm if this included so-called ‘puff pieces’ about disgraced millionaires and corporations.

A spokesperson said the articles highlighted by openDemocracy would be reviewed by a committee, whose considerations will be communicated to all contributing journalists.

Responding to openDemocracy’s findings, Transparency International said some parts of the UK media had become a “laundromat for dirty money and reputations”.

The London Economic article about BP’s investment in Rosneft was published before the government pressured BP to cut ties with the Russian state-owned energy producer, and was credited only to an anonymous “Guest Contributor”. It is not clear whether money changed hands.

Rosneft’s CEO, Igor Sechin, was recently placed under UK sanctions and BP announced it would sell its stake in Rosneft.

But the article, published by the London Economic in February last year, said that arguments against BP’s involvement with Rosneft “don’t hold up to closer scrutiny” and are “hopelessly out of touch”. 

Instead, it said, Russian oil was vital for the energy firm’s “green future” and that BP could not afford to “sacrifice Rosneft’s financial contribution”.

Rosneft was “the first Russian company to lay out a comprehensive plan for curbing greenhouse gas emissions by 2035,” it says.

Content ‘from PR firms’

In response to our story, the London Economic is also reviewing an article written by an anonymous contributor about the Egyptian steel magnate Ahmed Ezz. 

Ezz was convicted of money laundering in 2012 and fined nearly £2bn. Criminal proceedings against him were dropped in 2018 after he paid millions to authorities.

But the London Economic failed to mention any of this in its biography. Instead, it claimed that Ezz was “praised” for proposing reforms to Egypt’s financial accountability.

Similar articles about Ezz were published on the same day by other websites – including ABC Money, News Anyway and Fortune Herald – leading to speculation among sources in the PR industry that they were part of an orchestrated reputation management campaign. 

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In another case, the London Economic published an article commending a new business in DR Congo, founded by Israeli mining billionaire Dan Gertler.

The piece praises Gertler for “leading by example” – saying his latest business was a “positive step” and suggests “a more sustainable blueprint for the future”.

But Gertler was placed under US sanctions in 2017 over allegations of huge-scale corruption in DR Congo. He denies the allegations and hired Donald Trump’s lawyer to successfully remove the sanctions – before they were re-imposed last year.

The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) requires sponsored content to be clearly marked as “paid for”. When asked directly, the London Economic did not confirm or deny whether money had changed hands for any of the articles, but vowed the site would focus “with more intensity” on ensuring editors knew about ASA regulations.

Transparency International’s head of advocacy Rachel Davies told openDemocracy: “Whether it be buying favourable media coverage, rubbing shoulders with those in high office or silencing critics in the courts, for those with the means there are a multitude of ways to burnish reputations or hide a chequered past.

“The result is that even those who become wealthy through crime or corruption overseas can become fully embedded and influential members of British society.”

The London Economic website says it “prides itself on transparency, openness and accessibility” and claims it does its “utmost to ensure all information is accurate and verified”.

But a source said: “The London Economic publishes content which has come from PR firms trying to do reputation management and SEO [search engine optimisation] for their clients.”

In a statement, the London Economic said that paid-for content represents less than 0.1% of all articles it publishes, adding: “In all cases we apply the same editorial standards as we do to our internally generated content.”

Political connections

The London Economic is chaired by David Sefton, a former oil and gas exec who teamed up with the Conservative MP Damian Collins at the start of the pandemic to set up a COVID “fact-checking service”, Infotagion.

Sefton is also a director of Greencastle TLE Ltd., which has majority owned the London Economic since 2020.

Infotagion was also backed by Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, but stopped publishing articles after just a few months. In that time, it claimed that face masks “will not prevent transmission” of COVID.

The London Economic covered Infotagion’s launch in 2020, saying it would help combat fake news. The article did not mention that Infotagion and the London Economic were linked through Sefton.

Collins and Sefton also appear to share another business interest: they are listed together in company documents for Game Plan Management LLP, which is not listed in the MP’s official register of interests.

Collins told openDemocracy he has never been involved with the London Economic – and that Infotagion’s posts were “based on accurate information at the time of posting”.

The MP added: “With regards to Game Plan, that is inactive, has never been an active business, has no value, and I have never derived any benefit from it, which is why I haven’t included it on the register of interests.”

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