The Andrew Taits of this world are of deep concern, yet relatively easy to identify and hold to account.
Billionaire think tank donors, political strategists and media moguls, on the other hand, who hold certain ministers and politicians enthralled like gasping teenagers, are subject to far less scrutiny, despite the uber-influence they wield.
For example, the UK’s GB News channel, granted a licence (along with the right wing media mogul, Rupert Murdoch’s Talk TV) in January 2020, announced a significant change of ownership in August of last year with barely a reaction.
The original licence had been granted by the media regulator, OFCOM, under rules that stipulate that owners cannot be from a “disqualified category”. This refers to section 5(1) (a) of the Broadcasting Act 1990 which bans certain persons from holding licences. A useful analysis of the removal of Star China Media Ltd’s licence explains:
Specifically, this provision excludes a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature and/or who is controlled by a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature. [Univ of Essex]
Indeed, explaining its 2021 decision OFCOM stated “we consider that [Star China Media Ltd] would be disqualified from holding a licence, as it is controlled by a body which is ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”
Perhaps comfortingly, the original winners of the GB News licence were, by contrast, primarily established major media investors with a broad portfolio of communications interests, linked to the major business concern Liberty Global.
However, the investors also included the hedge fund multi-millionaire Paul Marshall, a major Conservative donor and supporter of Brexit (who considers he speaks for the country telling one reporter “Most people in Britain do not want to become part of a very large country called Europe. They want to be part of a country called Britain”).
The other major investor in the holding company of GB News, encouragingly named All Perspectives Ltd, was a Dubai based entity represented by a director who sports a Maltese passport. This is the hugely wealthy and influential Legatum Group which is the vehicle of the little known New Zealand billionaire, Christopher Chandler.
Given the context for the launch of the new channels was the Boris Johnson government and Conservative complaints over alleged ‘left wing/anti Brexit bias’ at the BBC and Channel 4, there had been an assumption that GB News and Talk TV were attempts to move public debate more in favour of right wing and Brexit views, despite the OFCOM restrictions by which they must abide.
Talk TV’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, has always been associated with the political right and controls the exposed and beleaguered Fox TV in the United States, now facing multi-billion dollar law suits for knowingly promoting the fake news that Donald Trump won the 2020 election.
Yet, as even he was not apparently disqualified under the OFCOM provisions over political bias, it would seem there could be no obvious complaint against GB News, then primarily controlled by Liberty Global.
Ongoing tests are first whether programming and the presenting of news has continued to abide by the rules pertaining to balance and objectivity and second whether the station has proven able sustain itself as a viable business, as opposed to a Star TV style propaganda outfit (which OFCOM concluded it was).
There are concerns over both the above matters as has been widely reported. GB News, whilst still loss-making, has started to appoint a swathe of Conservative MPs and right leaning figures as presenters on fat retainers. The latest being none other than the controversial new deputy chairman of the party Lee Anderson, who once sneered at MPs who took second jobs but has now accepted a £100,000 pa contract with the station.
Anderson is a former Labour Party member who styles himself as a representative of working class impatience with hand wringing liberals from the ‘metropolitan elites’. He is celebrated by the Conservative leadership as someone who can connect with the so-called Red Wall seats won from Labour in 2019, thanks to the Brexit issue, but which they now fear they could lose.
Others appointed in the past few months include the aloof multi-millionaire old Etonian, Jacob Rees-Mogg (described by the GB News CEO as a man who best knows how Red Wall working class voters think) and, of course, Nigel Farage.
Whilst the station also sports traditional presenters and claims it abides by OFCOM rules on balance, there are criticisms that the style of the station evolves from a more regular presentation of the news towards a more inflammatory and right wing nuance during the course of the day.
It has also been pointed out that balance within items does not address a focus of the station’s news agenda towards issues regarded as being rallying calls for the Conservatives, particularly the growing narrative that there is an ‘immigration crisis’, which the government says it is seeking to address in the face of alleged obstruction by left-wing supporters of the Labour Party.
Some more traditional presenters have fallen away. Andrew Neil, a respected veteran broadcaster who has combined senior posts in right of centre publications with roles at the BBC and elsewhere, exited from a top job at the station early on, clearly finding himself at odds with the agenda of GB News. The presenter Alastair Stewart has also just announced he is retiring.
Many of the more eyebrow raising developments in terms of appointments and apparent bias have taken place in just the past few months, following a major change of shareholder control over GB News that seems to have attracted little attention on its own.
Last August the investor Legatum Ventures Ltd stepped up to extend its financing of the floundering station which had experienced disappointing viewing figures by buying out the original shareholders from Liberty Global.
The persons with significant control over All Perspectives Ltd are now cited as being Marshall and a Richard E Douglas who is a Cayman Island lawyer with offices in the same Dubai centre as Legatum Group. The controlling individual behind this off-shore trust manager is accepted as being the billionaire owner of Legatum Group, Christopher Chandler, who is now effectively bankrolling a loss-making concern.
If the ‘white knight’ in this case had been say the GMB union and the station had then proceeded to appoint a large number of Labour MPs as presenters and to focus its coverage on wealthy Tories with off-shore accounts or dodgy Covid contracts as the leading news agenda, one would have expected a considerable hew and cry from the present government. At the very least the attention of OFCOM would have been drawn.
So, who is Christopher Chandler and does he have an agenda beyond running a successful communications business within the terms of the OFCOM licence?
For a man who has bought into the bright lights Chandler is in fact barely known by the wider public, despite his billionaire status. This is because he and his brother and business partner, Richard Chandler, are known for avoiding personal attention. They are often described as ‘secretive’ and publicity shy.
Yet, whilst reluctant to endure scrutiny there is no doubt both brothers have sought to use their money to influence public policy and the direction of the nation and beyond that global governance to an increasing degree over the past decade.
Richard Chandler has founded the Chandler Institute of Governance to “enhance government performance” in the course of which “we partner with governments at the national, state or city level, to support them in the important work they do”.
The Singapore based institute does not cite democracy in this mission statement focusing instead on “the practical aspects of governance and nation building, rather than abstract theory”. Neither does it mention transparency:
We are one of the few privately funded non-profit institutions that support governments and public leaders across the world. Our programs place a strong emphasis on the practical aspects of governance and nation building, rather than abstract theory.
We engage experts with deep government experience and expertise, and with a track record of practical excellence. We also adopt a multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary approach to policy analysis and research, and we always keep the practical, pragmatic realities of policy implementation in mind.
Christopher Chandler himself supports the Legatum Institute Foundation, a think tank based in London and likewise focused on influencing public policy. It states itself to be dedicated to “creating pathways to prosperity” by providing “authentic new leadership to deliver social and economic wellbeing” – through policies that one assumes Mr Chandler approves of, removing trade barriers and regulations and leaving the single market.
The conspicuously well funded entity, supported by Chandler and undisclosed others of apparent similar leaning, has been situated in the heart of Westminster since 2010. It is regarded as having achieved an increasing level of influence over Conservative ministers in recent years, and has become the object of growing concern by transparency groups.
In 2017 Open Democracy drew attention to Legatum’s extraordinary access and influence over ministers in the wake of Brexit. The institute had backed the Vote Leave campaign and its prominent trade advisor, dubbed in some quarters as the Brain of Brexit, advocated a hard Brexit until 2018 when a reprimand was issued by the Charities Commission.
The ruling stated that a Legatum report did not present “balanced, neutral evidence and analysis” and was “not consistent” with the charity’s objectives to promote education.
[Update (14/4/23): responding to this article a spokesman for Christopher Chandler admonished Sarawak Report that the think tank has “not done any work around Brexit since 2018″.
The spokesman insisted that, despite Chandler’s role as the major funder of Legatum, there is no evidence available to show that the publicity shy billionaire himself supports Brexit.
The spokesman said that Chandler does not exert influence over the direction of the policies promoted by the institute.
Objecting to an observation that, whilst the think tank was supporting Brexit, Chandler and a colleague (the present director of GB News Mark Stoleson) had in 2015 procured a Maltese passport, the spokesman directed Sarawak Report to a number of online apologies by entities who had suggested the billionaire was a hypocrite for doing so or that he had supported Brexit.]
Meanwhile, Open Democracy has extensively quoted other open governance groups complaining that pro-hard Brexit representatives from the think tank had unparalleled access to the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. One was Spinwatch :
“Brain of Brexit has risen from nowhere. It is amazing how easy it is for partisan think tanks to gain charitable status and to do so while mostly funded by a single secretive offshore donor. The Charity Commission has been pushed into investigating these kind of issues before with groups like the Taxpayers Alliance. It should be rapidly investigating Legatum and its offshore connections.”
The conflict over Brexit prompted a further wave of publicity in 2018 after Conservative MP Bob Seeley MP used parliamentary privilege to publish concerns cited in a Monaco report that Christopher Chandler was a ‘money man’ and even an alleged ‘spy’ for Vladimir Putin.
Russia is widely considered as having promoted both Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump for Russian strategic interests.
In a rare interview with the Times, Chandler rebutted the claims saying the report was the product of flawed research and mistaken identity, explaining he was merely “a shy billionaire“.
He specifically denied the company the Chandler brothers had owned in Russia, Sovereign Global Holdings, which by the late 1990s had accumulated the largest foreign portfolio of assets in Russia and was the forth largest shareholder in Gazprom – had had any direct dealings with Putin or the Russian intelligence services, as alleged in the Monaco report:
The dossier states that Chandler laundered money personally for former president Boris Yeltsin and, in March 2002, was given a “direct order” from the director of the SVR [Russian Intelligence Service] to “acquire $10m worth of Gazprom and Yukos shares for President Putin”. According to the file, these were then deposited in a Swiss branch of Crédit Agricole, a French bank.
“Not even remotely,” said Chandler. “Never met them. Never spoke to them. No one in my organisation has ever talked to anyone in their organisation. What is fascinating about the dossier is that there is not one photograph, not one share certificate, we were never in the same restaurant at the same time. This is what is so damnable about the whole thing.” [Times 13/05/18]
Unfortunately, an article appearing in the Mail on the same day appeared to identify contradictory evidence, showing that Christopher’s brother Richard had recently boasted of direct collaboration with Putin relating to Gazprom in a pamphlet published online by his own Singapore company, Clermont Group (the claim has now been removed in an apparent amendment).
The Goodness of Business, a pamphlet published last month by Richard Chandler’s Clermont Group, states that after he and Christopher placed their own director on the board, they teamed up with Putin to launch a management coup at Gazprom.
A separate document, an investor profile of Gazprom, tells how Sovereign ‘assured the Presidential administration’ it could rely on its support to reform the energy giant.
It led to a modernising drive which turned the company into the £37 billion energy giant it is today.
The revelation is a further embarrassment for Christopher Chandler, who was described by MPs in the Commons earlier this month as an ‘object of interest’ to the French. [Mail 13/05/18]
The following year Christopher Chandler complained about two related articles by the Mail to the Independent Press Standards Organisation [IPSO] saying “[they] had seriously misled the public concerning a matter of great public interest“.
However, based on the evidence provided by the Mail, IPSO dismissed the complaint that the articles had “created a wholly misleading impression of [Chandler’s] role, the Legatum Institute Foundation and – insofar as connected to them – Russia in the UK’s Brexit planning”.
The adjudication said:
During the course of IPSO’s investigation, the newspaper provided a prospectus which had been published by the complainant’s brother’s company, Clermont Group, in April 2018, which described how the Chandler brothers had made reforming changes at companies in which they had a stake, including Gazprom. The newspaper said that the document revealed how the complainant had installed Mr Fyodorov, and then appealed directly to President Putin regarding the changes he wanted to make at Gazprom. …..
The newspaper also provided an investment profile of Gazprom published by a company owned by the complainant, Orient Global, which was created in 2006 following the demerger of Sovereign Global. It said that this document set out how the complainant had been instrumental in forcing reforms in Gazprom’s governance: the complainant ensured that Mr Fyodorov was appointed to the board and, in turn, he was important in the boardroom coup that gave advantage to Mr Putin and his allies. The document stated:
“Sovereign, being the largest shareholder in Gazprom after the Russian government, assured the Presidential administration that they could rely upon the support of minority shareholders whose votes could be essential in providing the crucial swing seat on the Gazprom board.”
Given this background, at the very least the British public surely have a right to expect is that a full scrutiny ought to have been undertaken into the origins of Chandler’s immense wealth and possible political motivations for taking on a UK TV station by OFCOM?
Indeed, when lecturing on its approach to good governance, Richard Chandler’s Institute of Governance emphasises the importance of strong institutions and the rule of law, which plainly means that the public interest guidelines should be implemented and possible political motivations screened out during the handing out of broadcast TV licences.
In fact, there is limited transparency as to how the two New Zealander brothers apparently managed to convert $10 million in cash raised from their family business in 1987 into over $5 billion when they withdrew from their Russian investments just two decades later.
This is how one investment site described their story in December 2018:
The Chandler Brothers: The Greatest Investors You’ve Never Heard Of
Two secretive brothers from New Zealand have perhaps THE best long-term track record in the investing world. Starting in 1986, the two turned $10 million of family money into over $5 billion just 20-years later. That’s an astounding 36% CAGR.
Compare that with Buffett (19% over 50yrs), Klarman (20% over 34yrs), Lynch (29% over 13yrs), Soros and Druckenmiller both around (30% over 30yrs).
Yet, hardly anybody has ever heard of these guys. I live and breathe markets and I just came across them for the first time this year. [Alex Barrow]
Barring an audit one is left to merely wonder if the Chandlers’ rise to riches through their off-shore companies was a combination of genius and luck or if, for example, their sudden access to investment muscle might also have benefitted from New Zealand’s Trustee Amendment Act of 1988 (repealed following numerous scandals including 1MDB in 2021) which enabled the wealthy of Asia and beyond to hide their money through trusts set up on those islands?
Secret billionaires exposed by Sarawak Report, including the Malaysian fugitive Jho Low, the IPIC crook CEO, Khadem Al Qubaisi, the Samling timber tycoons from the Yaw family and thousands of others, poured ill-gotten wealth into vehicles based in New Zealand from where they sought to re-invest.
Given the lack of transparency of the Chandler brothers’ off-shore businesses – Sarawak Report was unable to locate the word “transparency” during its search of the Chandler Institute of Governance website – it is impossible to know in the absence of disclosure.
However, what we do know from histories provided by the brothers, for example on Richard Chandler’s Clermont Group website, is that they say they first invested in Hong Kong real estate and then in the burgeoning, if lawless and chaotic economy of the post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s.
A Clermont ‘heritage segment’ entitled ‘Adventures In The Developing World‘ states that Sovereign Group invested in Russia under Yeltsin because of an altruistic motive “Sovereign’s aim was to help establish a culture of integrity.”
“Alongside a number of other foreign investors, the company fought a series of corporate governance battles, winning a string of landmark legal victories“, the narrative continues. It goes on to explain that the brothers divested their investments and exited the country after “the promise of Russia becoming a European democracy led by the reforms of the Yeltsin era diminished”.
The account neglects to mention the separately acknowledged collaboration with Putin to alter control of Gazprom (now removed from Clermont’s online document) and also fails to mark the irony that the two institutes founded to preach “good governance’ as the route to prosperity are funded by billionaire brothers who built their own shadowy fortunes in one of the least well-governed regions of the planet.
Ought not clear transparency rules therefore be established to ensure that heavily financed lobbying think tanks and media organisations, such as those funded by the Chandlers do not possess hidden political or corporate agendas that might secretly conflict with the public interest or indeed their published values?
Right now too little is known about the Chandlers’s off-shore companies, the origins of their wealth and their private agenda, given the influence they hold and now their TV licence.
Whilst OFCOM rules prohibit the issuing of TV licences to any entity whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature, there are numerous further indicators that the overriding purpose of Legatum Group in acquiring the loss making GB News is indeed political.
This is evidenced by the often expressed purpose by senior executives and directors of Legatum of connecting with and influencing working class voters to switch to or stay with the Conservatives based on a nationalist agenda.
At the same time, the Legatum Institute think tank has continued to lend its well funded support to the wing of the party that supports hard Brexit, the removal of trade barriers and the deregulation of environmental protections.
Take for example the statement published in the Telegraph and on Legatum Group’s own website by the Maltese passport holding director of GB News, Mark Stoleson, where he explains “why we invested in GB News, free speech in the U.K. and Legatum’s global mission.”
In this he accuses the UK ‘establishment’ media corporations of “displaying an intolerance for the views of Brits who live beyond the M25“, which he as a Dubai based American/Maltese passport holder together with the Australian chief executive, Angelos Frangopoulos, consider they better understand and relate to.
Stoleson adds 41% of voters think the BBC is biased – reflecting the popular Conservative complaint that the public funded broadcaster is left wing, despite copious evidence that it is currently effectively controlled and influenced by sympathetic senior personnel placed by the Conservative government.
And he complains about alleged ‘Cancel Culture’ in the UK which purportedly silences views, again a generally right wing accusation against its opponents, particularly those who protest against perceived intolerance.
Finally, Stoleson explains that Legatum has a mission to “set people free across the UK and the world” as the “only way” to “drive us all towards prosperity“. He says “GB News is one integral part of our [Legatum’s] mission to deliver freedom.”
Speaking recently to the Guardian, Angelos Frangopoulos himself pushed an even clearer party political approach. The article details how screens around the newsroom show live graphs of audience trends and breakdowns.
Though only measured in the low tens of thousands, there is data to suggest that GB News now routinely outperforms Sky News and the BBC news channel in the former “red wall” seats of the north-west and the north-east, where the next election will probably be contested.
This elates Frangopoulos, according to his own admission and for that very reason, telling his interviewer you can best measure GB News’ effect in those constituencies by the fact that Labour politicians, who initially steered clear of the channel, now appear on its sofas.
“They come on because they have the same data we have,” Frangopoulos says. “They know that whole patch is going to win or lose them government.”
It is a somewhat devastating admission of political intent by a TV channel that the (left of centre) Guardian points out uses “a sketchy network of lone regional correspondents, aims to reach that audience not by close local reporting, but by feeding it divisive lines from London.”
Given the channel’s latest figures have revealed a £31 million loss on a £3 million turnover the Guardian’s observation that “The losses – and the nature of recent appointments – point to the idea that the owners are measuring the progress of the channel not by its bottom line but by its influence in shifting debate to the right – more as a political than a media organisation” seems justified.
Such indications of political intent, apparent deception and lack of transparency surrounding the new ownership ought to be sufficient to trigger the OFCOM regulator.
If not, it will be clear to not only those who have long argued for lobbying transparency that this is one of the very many areas of secret influence mongering which needs to be urgently addressed by a reforming government to keep this country safe.