Pistorius granted bail, but when are the rich a flight risk?

It's easier for a millionaire to disappear than anyone else, but it still isn't a walk in the park.

Paralympian Oscar Pistorius was yesterday granted bail until his trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, but some fear he's a flight risk.

If Pistorius decided to jump bail, what would he have to do next, Spear's wondered? The wealthy have a history of trying to flee justice, and so we sent Oliver Thring to investigate how to disappear:

Flight has a long and inglorious history, of course, for men in trouble. Lord Lucan vanished in 1974, his blood-stained car found abandoned at an English ferry port shortly after his children’s nanny had been bludgeoned to death. Asil Nadir spent seventeen years in Northern Cyprus evading prosecution in the British courts for the theft of at least £34 million from Polly Peck.

And just last June the Brazilian-born industrialist Guma Aguiar, who had been embroiled in a billion-dollar business dispute, disappeared from his yacht. His wife claims he may be hiding in the Netherlands, but she and his mother are now scrapping over his $100 million fortune nonetheless.

Reading Thring's piece, it doesn't seem very likely Pistorius would succeed in going underground — he wouldn't be able to use any emails, or use a credit card, and he'd have to throw away all of his electronic devices, for a start.

Oliver Crofton is the director of technology security firm Vigilante Bespoke. ‘It’s nigh-on impossible to have an existence where you aren’t tracked or traced by technology,’ he says. John McAfee’s precise location in Guatemala, for example, was determined by the GPS co-ordinates embedded in a photo taken of him then posted online.

‘If the person really wanted to hide,’ says Crofton, ‘they’d need to change their name and chuck every device they had in the river. They couldn’t even open any emails, and they certainly couldn’t use a credit card — just a suitcase full of dollars.’ Crofton believes that people who flee their country without trying to stay hidden are ‘relying on people losing interest in them because tracing them, and their money, might get a bit complicated. I don’t think that’s a particularly failsafe plan.’

And it would require forward planning: he might want to try and gain citizenship for a country that won't seek to extradite him. Unless he can make a suitcase full of dollars last a lifetime, there would be the problem of trying to set up a complex enough financial structure to hide his money away.

‘I would always ask a prospective client why he wanted to hide his assets,’ says Bharat Pindoria of Pindoria Solicitors, who specialises in asset protection. (Pindoria emphasises that his firm ‘does not do asset protection to help criminals’.) ‘If the client said he’d ballsed up and might be in trouble, we wouldn’t be able to advise him, but if he lied and said it was to move abroad or because he had better opportunities elsewhere, that would be a different matter.’ For an unscrupulous person, then, another lie here is no trouble.

The best way to store stolen money or property is to transfer ownership offshore, adding as many degrees of remove as possible. ‘There would be no bank account in your name,’ says Pindoria. ‘You’re in Panama and you have power of attorney to withdraw money from a company in Mauritius, which might have a bank account in the Dutch Antilles. The Mauritius company is owned by a Belize company, which is owned by a Dutch Antilles trust.’

All of this, of course, would require expert legal advice — at a time when Pistorius might just struggle to find a lawyer.

Even if he did manage to disappear, just as the world's media is focussed on him, the psychological trauma of a lifetime spent hiding might just be too much to bear, and the stress could exacerbate any borderline personality disorder, or underlying psychological problems, he might have.

As Oliver Thring learned, many have tried, but not many have succeeded in disappearing.

An earlier version of this piece was posted on Spear's.

The hands of South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius are pictured as he appeared at the Magistrate Court in Pretoria on February 22, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

John Moore
Show Hide image

The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.