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Peter Oborne: HSBC closures of pro-Palestinian accounts part of US 'attack on democracy'

In December, Peter Oborne, then the chief political commentator at The Telegraph wrote a long, thorough and well-researched piece with Alex Delmar-Morgan about several prominent British Muslims whose bank accounts had been unceremoniously closed by HSBC.

The people involved were activists, journalists, charity workers and business people. They included Anas Altikriri, head of the Cordoba foundation, and Azzam Tamimi, a well-known Palestinian journalist and academic, who makes no bones about his rhetorical support for Hamas, Palestine's Islamic resistance movement.

Many are also known for speaking against anti-democratic Arab regimes in the gulf. In the article, Tamimi says they all have one thing in common: "We participate in pro Palestine or pro-democracy rallies. That's what we do and that's common amongst all of us. So probably someone has been monitoring."

But the piece was published on the website openDemocracy. What few realised at the time was the reason it had not seen the light of day in The Telegraph.

The truth only became clear last month, when Oborne sensationally used the openDemocracy platform to announce his resignation from the paper. The coverage of HSBC in the Telegraph is "a fraud on its readers," he wrote. The paper, he said, had allowed the giant bank's advertising contracts to significantly and fatally influence its news coverage. Negative stories about HSBC were almost all spiked, even at the same time that the paper's competitors were all leading on stories about allegations of money laundering and tax avoidance perpetrated by HSBC or its subsidiaries.

The nail in the coffin for Oborne, it seems, was when it was made clear that the piece about the closed Muslim banks accounts he co-wrote with Delmar-Morgan would not see the light of day. At first, he was told there were legal problems: but when he checked, the paper's legal department said they knew nothing about that. After a bit of pushing, Oborne was told that "there is a bit of an issue" with HSBC that was holding up publication. In despair, they offered the story to openDemocracy instead.

I talked to Peter Oborne this week and asked him how important the killing of the story was in his decision to quit. He was rather reticent to talk more about the paper, having had several weeks now of talking about little else. He seems to feel he has said his piece. The reasons for his resignation were laid out in great detail in the article itself.

But he was most forthcoming about "Open for business," his investigation into the HSBC account closures. As the concluding paragraph of the piece states, the article was intended as the first part of two. Oborne tells me that part two is well under way and should hopefully be done and published by openDemocracy "within the next few weeks." It will draw on "Uncharitable Behaviour" a recent Demos report by Tom Keatinge, director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies.

According to the Guardian media columnist Roy Greenslade: "Anger festers within Oborne and often explodes." Insofar as this applies to a kind of righteous indignation against injustice, that certainly seems to be that case. Speaking to me, Oborne is still outraged that the bank could have closed the accounts of British citizens, who were not accused of any crime, and were given no recourse or chance of appeal. They were merely told by the bank that their accounts fall "outside our risk appetite".

As Tamimi said, all those targeted were involved in pro-Palestinian activism, and Oborne says that their investigation points towards the US government as the source of the pressure on the bank. For what ends, he is not yet sure, but suspects it may have something to do with the fact the bank is already in hot water over alleged money laundering for Mexican drug cartels.

If people have committed a crime, Oborne says, let them stand trial, but such draconian measures should not be tolerated in a democracy like Britain. While George Osborne is very quick to make a show of standing up to EU bureaucrats, very similar, or worse anti-democratic pressure from the USA is allowed to succeed unhindered. This pressure on HSBC by the US represents an "attack on democracy," Oborne says.

I certainly agree with Oborne on this, and personally suspect that the US government has in mind the defence of its its regional allies, especially the Gulf dictatorships and the apartheid state of Israel.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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