Abramovich claim in HarperCollins book defamatory, preliminary judgment finds

Abramovich claim in HarperCollins book defamatory, preliminary judgment finds

The claim Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea FC on Vladimir Putin’s orders, as made in Catherine Belton's Book Putin's People (William Collins), is defamatory, a high court judge has ruled in a preliminary judgment. 

HarperCollins says it is “carefully considering” the judgments made on Wednesday (24th November) by Mrs Justice Tipples. 

The judge ruled nine of the meanings in the 26 passages contested were defamatory against Abramovich, including an allegation that Abramovich purchased Chelsea on Vladimir Putin’s orders. 

Mrs Justice Tipples found that readers of the book would understand Mr Abramovich to be “under the control of President Vladimir Putin and, on the directions of President Putin and the Kremlin, he has had to make the fortune from his business empire available for the use of President Putin and his regime."

The judge also said an ordinary reader would understand the book to allege “the claimant purchased Chelsea Football Club in 2003 at the direction of President Putin so that Russia could gain acceptance and influence in the UK”. 

She ruled that the allegations in the book are presented as statements of fact, rather than expressions of opinion as HarperCollins and Belton had argued. 

Following the judgment, Abramovich’s spokesperson told the Press Association: “We welcome today’s judgment which rules that the book Putin’s People indeed makes several defamatory allegations about Mr Abramovich, including false allegations about the nature of the purchase of Chelsea Football Club. 

“We are pleased that the judgment has found that the book carries a total of nine defamatory allegations against Mr Abramovich, in line with the arguments in Mr Abramovich’s initial claim.” 

The spokesperson continued: “Today’s judgment further underscores the need for the false and defamatory claims about Mr Abramovich to be corrected as soon as possible.” 

In a separate libel claim brought forward by state-controlled oil giant Rosneft over the book, Mrs Justice Tipples found three of the four passages complained of do not bear a meaning defamatory of the company and therefore will not proceed.  Rosneft’s complaint relates to claims that they participated in the expropriation of Yukos Oil Company, which had been privately owned by businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Mrs Justice Tipples found the meaning of the extracts to refer to the way Rosneft was a “a beneficiary of what happened, but that was a consequence of the plan driven by others”. She said: “It was not a strategy ‘engineered’ by the claimant and it is fanciful to suggest that a reasonable reader would understand it was." 

However, she did accept that the meaning that “Rosneft, then a state-owned Russian oil giant, paid $600m to purchase Severnaya Neft, being twice the accepted valuation, so that the overpayment of $300m would be paid to President Putin or his associates in the KGB for their own use” was defamatory. She said: “This imputation is, in my view, actionable as it has a tendency to cause a substantial adverse effect on people’s attitudes to the company."

In July HarperCollins settled with Russian billionaires Pyotr Aven and Mikhail Fridman, who brought their own legal action against the publisher but not Belton herself and agreed to amend some passages in the book about them. 

Commenting on today’s judgements, a spokesperson for HarperCollins said in a statement: "HarperCollins is carefully considering the judgement on the meaning hearing handed down this morning by Mrs Justice Tipples regarding the book Putin’s People by Catherine Belton, an acclaimed work of considerable public interest. We are pleased that the judge has found three of the four passages complained of by the Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft do not bear a meaning defamatory of the company and therefore will not proceed, and that several serious meanings in Mr Abramovich’s claim have also been rejected." 

In a further statement, the publisher added: "Mr Abramovich has not won his claim against HarperCollins and Catherine Belton. The judge found, in relation to the majority of Mr. Abramovich’s complaints, that he had exaggerated the meaning of the words he complained about and rejected one complaint in its entirety. Today’s preliminary judgment only decides what ordinary readers would understand the relevant passages in the book to mean. Any trial is not expected to take place for at least a year. The current state of English law means that all investigative journalists run the risk of having to defend defamation claims when they report critically on matters of public interest."

It also said it would be "seeking an appropriate order for costs against Rosneft."

In a separate move, 19 organisations including Index on Censorship, The National Union of Journalists and English PEN have signed an open letter to condemn the lawsuits brought against Belton and HarperCollins, calling them “SLAPPs” or strategic lawsuits against public participation. These refer to a form of legal harassment used by wealthy and powerful entities to silence journalists and other public watchdogs.

The organisations said: “SLAPPs are used to drain their targets of as much time, money, and energy as possible in order to bully them into silence. The individual may be sued personally and several lawsuits may be brought at the same time, including in different jurisdictions”. 

“We, once again, urge the UK government to consider measures, including legislative reforms, that would protect public watchdogs from being subject to burdensome, lengthy, and financially draining legal actions, which can stifle public debate,” the organisations concluded. “Our democracy relies on their ability to hold power to account.”