Catherine Belton, Journalist and Author of ‘Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West’
STATUS: Concluded – Four cases filed between May-March 2021, meaning hearing in July, during which two cases were settled, one case discontinued in November and the last case settled in December 2021.
Catherine Belton and her publisher HarperCollins were subject to several legal cases in connection to the book ‘Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West’, published in 2020. Between March/May 2021, four Russian oligarchs and the Russian state owned oil company, Rosneft, stated their intention to sue. Of these five cases, four made it to a preliminary hearing held in July 2021. During this hearing, HarperCollins decided to settle two of the cases, which had only been brought against them, by the Russian billionaires, Petr Aven and Mikhail Fridman. They claimed the book contained inaccurate personal data concerning them, with Fridman also suing for libel. HarperCollins agreed to make minor amendments to wording within four paragraphs and a footnote in future editions of the book, but there was no acceptance that the texts had been defamatory.
In November 2021, the judgments regarding the ‘legal meaning’ in the cases brought by the Roman Abramovich and Rosneft were handed down by Justice Tipples. In relation to the claims brought by Rosneft, Justice Tipples found that three of the four passages complained about were not defamatory and two days later Rosneft decided to discontinue its claim. In relation to the claims brought by Abramovich, Justice Tipples ruled against Abramovich on one meaning claiming that the book meant that he had a corrupt relationship with Putin. Instead, she found the book said that he was under Putin’s control. However, on other meanings she ruled that the allegations in the book were presented as statements of fact, rather than expressions of opinion, and would have needed to be defended as such at trial.
A month later, on 22nd December 2021, it was announced that Abramovich had decided to settle the case with HarperCollins and Belton. The settlement meant that both sides covered their own legal fees and no damages were awarded, minor amendments were made but the main claims remained intact in the book. As part of the settlement, HarperCollins agreed to make a payment to charity in relation to one error involving Abramovich’s ownership of the company Sibneft. In a statement the publisher offered an apology that “some aspects of the book were not as clear as they would have liked them to have been and are happy to have now clarified the text”, adding: “While the book always included a denial that Mr Abramovich was acting under anybody’s direction when he purchased Chelsea, the new edition will include a more detailed explanation of Mr Abramovich’s motivations for buying the club.” In an additional statement shared by HarperCollins, the publisher commented that they had been “under attack” from five oligarchs and a state owned oil company all with “vast resources at his disposal”, and stressed that “each of these claims has been resolved with no damages or costs payable by HarperCollins”. HarperCollins and Catherine Belton’s lawyer Caroline Kean, a partner at the law firm Wiggin, later commented that while she had “worked on cases as complex as one of these…never ever have we come across a coordinated attack on a book in this way”.
In June 2021, Abramovich had also lodged a defamation action against HarperCollins in Australia and, while that was withdrawn as part of the settlement, HarperCollins asked the Australian courts to rule on whether filing the same claims in two jurisdictions was an abuse of process. It has been estimated that if the libel trial had gone ahead in the High Court and Australia the legal bill was likely to have exceeded over £5 million. While the cases linked to Putin’s People were significant in highlighting the issue of SLAPPs in the UK, they also demonstrated issues within the UK media for reporting on complex legal cases. In March 2022, while giving oral evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Belton noted that “On the Abramovich case, we were able to keep in the book most of the main claims that he attacked. For instance, on the Chelsea purchase, when we settled, Mr Abramovich’s presspeople got most of the UK press to write that we had admitted that it was a false claim and that it had been removed from the book. In fact, that wasn’t the case— far from it. In fact, that claim is still there— the quotes are still there.”
At an event held at the Frontline Club, in February 2022, Arabella Pike, Publishing Director at HarperCollins, has commented on how there were a number of “disobliging” articles in the tabloid press that “utterly distorted” what had happened in court. Pike acknowledged that they were perhaps not adequately prepared for the challenge of informing journalists “up against a deadline to get 800 words up on to a website, within half an hour, [how] to deal with an 80 page, very complex legal judgement.” How a case is reported is important, because otherwise it can play into a spinning exercise by the claimant, which further undermines the journalists’ credibility, even if as in Belton’s case, the changes were very minor and the main thrust of the claims under question remained in the book.
The use of GDPR claims by Fridman and the Aven, was also an interesting aspect to these cases. Belton, again in her oral evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, stated: “In the Fridman and the Aven cases, for instance, they were essentially using GDPR claims…to whitewash their histories… It was a reputation issue for [Aven]. He did not want to be seen as having supported Putin in any way. However, because he personally was behind on the statute of limitations [for libel]—it was already beyond the year, his lawyers issued a data protection claim saying it was inaccurate. It was accurate. It was an issue of reputation rather than accuracy.” Belton added: “The changes we made were absolutely tiny, but again, they made much hay of this in the press, claiming victory even though we had made very small changes indeed. Essentially, these changes were made because we had too many cases to deal with and not because there was anything wrong or we couldn’t defend them.” To note, there is a much longer statute of limitations on filing a GDPR claim of six years, compared to one year for libel cases.
All the claimants who brought cases against Belton and HarperCollins have since been sanctioned in the aftermath of the Russian invasion in Ukraine in February 2022. Speaking to the Committee for the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill in October 2022, Belton explained: “The UK, like many other countries, really welcomed capital from places like Russia with open arms for the past twenty years. It’s certainly a place that Russian oligarchs have flocked to, partly because they want to be part of the UK establishment, but partly because they have obviously taken advantage of our lax legislation and lax regulation… Without enabling journalists, and other financial watchdogs to look at these entities without fear of getting crushed by enormous lawsuits, that are going to cost more than anyone’s budget allows, then we are going to be open to this type of abuse of our system forever.”
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