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Review: ‘Cuckooland’ by Tom Burgis

Reviewer: Mary Fitzgerald (Financial Times)

Cuckooland by Tom Burgis
ISBN: 9780008564759
Format: Trade Paperback

A pacy, sordid tale that is a stark warning of how ‘the rich can buy everything — including the truth’

“I will prove to you . . . that everything you’ve written is ninety-five per cent bullshit, lies and bias,” the Tory donor, businessman and self-styled “thought leader” Mohamed Amersi tells journalist Tom Burgis halfway through this savagely funny new book. “I hope your publishers are going to view this tape recording, so they know before they publish shit what it is.” Evidently HarperCollins took a different view: Amersi’s obscenity-laden threats against Burgis sparkle through the buoyant prose of Cuckooland.

The book charts Amersi’s colourful career and tells a wider tale of how corruption and influence-peddling works in the modern world, and how, in the age of social media manipulation and expensive lawsuits, “the rich can buy everything — including the truth”.  It starts by alleging how Amersi got rich helping to fix lucrative telecoms deals involving associates of controversial figures: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Galina Karimova, daughter of Uzbekistan’s late autocratic leader, and the rulers of Nepal, to name a few. (Amersi maintains that he didn’t know who the ultimate beneficiaries were in these transactions.)

Burgis shows how Amersi then deployed his wealth to acquire more influence and power in the UK. Cue massive donations to the Conservative party, to Oxford university, to a pet project of the then-Prince Charles — plus pricey legal threats against critics. If, like me, you’ve been threatened by rich people trying to silence your journalism, this book will be cathartic. When you’re facing financial or reputational ruin yourself, it’s hard to see the funny side. But Burgis, a former FT journalist, has somehow managed to make this meticulously researched, sordid tale entertaining. Written as a pacy thriller that communicates the deluded, self-important tone of its subjects, he renders Amersi as both menacing and ridiculous: preening, thin-skinned, panicky.

But does Amersi’s story prove that, now more than ever, the rich can buy the truth? In fact, he has abjectly failed to impose his version of reality upon the world: he’s just lost an expensive libel case against former Conservative MP Charlotte Leslie, thereby widely publicising the unflattering information he was seeking to hide. In Cuckooland, we read that he threatened Burgis with being sued. Something similar happened with the separate subjects — not Amersi — of Burgis’s last book, Kleptopia: the publicity of the lawsuit they launched boosted his sales, and they dropped the case after the judge ruled against them.

This is where my quarrel with this enjoyable book lies. Burgis ably narrates how power and influence is abused across the world, and how this is facilitated by British institutions. We learn, for instance, how much dinner with the prime minister typically costs (reader, it’s shockingly cheap). But Amersi is also somewhat limiting as a narrative device. For a start, he’s not as effective as others have been: the expensive lawyers didn’t silence Leslie or Burgis, the lavish donations haven’t protected his reputation. (Granted, without Leslie’s defamation insurance this book might never have seen the light of day.) And I was left wanting to know more about issues that Burgis briefly touches upon, like the murky world of private investigators deployed by others.

Burgis unearths key things — for example that Amersi made questionable donations to the Conservatives in 2017. And he shows how breathtakingly easy this is to do, directly facilitated by party officials. What other cash has been funnelled into our politics in this way, and for what potential gain? These are vital questions and, as we head into another UK election where record amounts of money are likely to be raised, Cuckooland is a timely prompt. You might quibble (as I did), when Burgis proclaims that “for something like two centuries — since Darwin, we might say — the pursuit of truth grew steadily more democratic”. That really depends on where, and for whom. 

Yet Cuckooland is nonetheless an important reminder of how corruption continues to impoverish millions of people across the world, and a stark warning that the very wealthy appear to be eroding and capturing democracies — through buying access to elected rulers, and through using the courts to try and stifle free speech. Addressing the reader after another one of Amersi’s tirades, Burgis says: “I’ll leave it to you to judge if writing this — and, more importantly, reading it — is in the public interest.” I encourage you to take up his invitation.

Cuckooland is available at the following retailers:

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