What do you do when an Uzbek businessman with a questionable background (Alisher Usmanov) wants to take over a UK football club (Arsenal)? Well, as a start you put together an opposition alliance comprising a dissident former British Ambassador to Tashkent, a few hundred bloggers, and a UKIP MEP in a debate about Russian energy supplies in the European Parliament. Throw in some expensive libel lawyers and a disgruntled Tory candidate for London Mayor and you have quite an interesting case study of how to use the internet for political campaigning. This is not news as such (it’s been going on for the last month) but I’m trying to draw the strands together.
Anyway, to the essence of the story. Alisher Usmanov, Uzbek tycoon, has made no secret of his desires to take over Arsenal football club. He has upped his stake in the club to 24%, but so far the board has held firm in their opposition to a takeover. As a fan of the Gunners and Arsenal’s multi-cultural approach presided over by Prof. Wenger this was already of some concern. That was before I knew anything more about Usmanov.
Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, was removed in 2004 as a result of his criticisms of the UK and US governments’ support for the Uzbek regime that, he alleges, was torturing people by boiling them in vats of water. Usmanov was one of Uzbekistan’s top businessmen and did not escape criticism, and Murray has subsequently written about him in his book Murder in Samarkand, and also specifically on his own blog when the dealings surrounding Arsenal first started.
Cue legal action from Usmanov’s libel lawyers, Schillings in London, who hastily phoned up Murray’s web host – FastHosts – and managed to get them to shut down the server hosting Murray’s website. The result? Plenty of other websites were taken offline too (FastHosts were seemingly incapable of shutting just one account), including that of Tory candidate for London Mayor, Boris Johnson, who railed about how such behaviour was inappropriate in a Western Democracy and that this is London, not Uzbekistan. The BBC reported about Johnson’s difficulties, but put a cordon sanitaire around the rest of the issue, presumably fearing Schillings themselves – try this search to see.
Bloggers subsequently rallied in support of Murray, copying and pasting the text of his allegations onto their blogs on servers across the internet, making it next to impossible for Schillings to send threats to all concerned – an object lesson in how the rules for protection of reputation in the offline world cannot always be applicable in the same manner online.
Yet that was not enough; the legal threat remained against those repeating Murray’s allegations. So who should come to the rescue? None other than Member of the European Parliament for UKIP, Tom Wise, who repeated Murray’s allegations almost word for word in the European Parliament in Strasbourg during a debate on EU-Russia relations and energy policy (Usmanov has dealings with Gazprom – that’s the link). Anything said in the EP is under Parliamentary Privilege, i.e. it can be repeated by the press without threat of libel action.
I reckon this must be about the only useful thing any UKIP MEP has done in the EP since 2004 but credit where it’s due – it was a clever move, most probably driven directly by Murray. I also played a small role in it, providing blogger Matt Wardman who was leading the support for Murray with the transcripts of the debate he had asked me to dig out from the depths of the EP’s gargantuan website.
So where do we go from here? Labour left-winger Jeremy Corbyn has taken up the case in Westminster. Arsenal’s stadium is in his constituency, and he is pressing the FCO to find out what they know about Usmanov. The FCO is not coughing up any information as yet. Meanwhile Arsenalâ€™s board are trying to hold firm. At the end of the day – I fear – money will end up winning and Usmanov will get his wish and manage a buyout. But the debacle so far is an interesting case study for internet politics.