When RT – the Russian state-owned broadcaster formerly known as Russia Today – reported that its UK bank accounts had been frozen last year, Russian officials rushed to condemn the action as a crackdown on freedom of expression by the British state.
The broadcaster's editor-in-chief tweeted: “Our accounts in the UK have been closed. The decision can not be reversed. Long live freedom of speech!”, while Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko told journalists the shutdown of the accounts was a move against press freedom.
“There is a problem of free speech in this country,” he said. “The clear conclusion is that the Russian alternative point of view is not welcome here. Their aim is to make the work of this channel impossible in this country.”
However, more than 20 pages of correspondence released to BuzzFeed News under the Freedom of Information Act show the reality was very different, with senior officials blindsided by the sudden account closures and scrabbling to work out what was going on.
The release of information after almost six months shows correspondence between more than a dozen senior Treasury officials, Foreign Office (FCO) specialists, anti–money laundering officials, and others.
Some material was redacted from the cache because its disclosure could "prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and any other state", and other material was withheld on the grounds it could "damage the commercial interests" of Natwest, the bank that made the decision to shut down RT's accounts, while other material was withheld because it related to how the Treasury enacts sanctions.
The names of all but the most senior officials on the emails were also redacted, as is routine under FOI.
However, the correspondence reveals how the Treasury became aware Natwest had chosen to close RT's accounts after the story was picked up by the BBC, with at first a handful and then numerous officials across government struggling to find out what was going on.
"Morning both," said a first email at 11:53am from an FCO official to two Treasury staffers. "Just seen this. Any other info?"
Within less than half an hour, the email thread had extended to include 25 staff across the FCO and Treasury, including the UK's ambassador to Russia Laurie Bristow and other senior officials from the Russia directorate. "[Treasury] are finding out more about this case, i.e. what bank, why decision was taken, whether it is sanctions related etc," the note informed them.
A few minutes later, Treasury staff and anti–money laundering officials were coming to the conclusion the bank's decision may have been the result of sanction decisions made by the UK government – though later walked back this view.
"[I]t seems likely that in this case it is linked to the sanctions and the best guess is that this will link to a bank making a judgement that there is an ownership/control link between a DP [Designated Person, a term for someone subject to sanctions] and the entity/indivduals that have been frozen," the email noted.
"FI's [Financial Institutions] are required to freeze funds that are owned or controlled by a DP."
By 13:28, Giles Thomson – the Treasury's deputy director for sanctions and illicit finance – was weighing in. "Given this story is going to attract a lot of interest, if we're not already, can we speak to the bank(s) reported to be involved to find out on what basis they've frozen the accounts?" he asked.
"As there are no new Russian sanctions designations, and OFSI [the office that handles sanctions] haven't been notified of a sanctions-related asset freeze by the banks, presumably the most likely explanation is that the bank has decided to close RT's accounts as it's too high risk for them to be worth the effort – i.e. a commercial decision."
The next section of Thomson's email is redacted for reasons of potential damage to international relations.
Nineteen minutes later another Treasury official emailed round to warn colleagues the news was spreading fast. "I have done a quick check and it appears that a lot of the media (across the piece from the Mail to the Guardian) has now picked up this story," they wrote. The remainder of their email is again redacted under FOI's international relations exemption.
Further emails circulated between the officials, included one redacted almost entirely under grounds it could harm the commercial interests of Natwest, before the final email in the cache – timestamped 14:01 – agreed the final on-the-record and on-background statements officials would make, including that the UK government was not involved in Natwest's decision, a short statement attributable to a bank spokesperson that they were reviewing the decision, and an assertion that the Treasury "does not comment on individual cases".
“It was a state-owned bank that shut it down after 10 years but that’s all resolved," a spokesperson for RT told BuzzFeed News of the incident.
James Ball is a special correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London. PGP: here
Contact James Ball at James.Ball@buzzfeed.com.
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