Her acclaimed book is under attack from Russian billionaires. Are they out to silence her?
Sat 8 May 2021 13.00 EDT
Welcome to London, the censorship capital of the democratic world, where you must watch your step and bite your tongue if you know what’s good for you.
Everyone here who writes or broadcasts about plutocratic power should be honest with you before getting down to business. We’re pretty much free to say what we want about Boris Johnson, for example, or Dominic Raab. They’re only our prime minister and foreign secretary, after all: nobodies when put alongside the big boys. However badly we think they govern, they won’t hurt us.
When we turn to the super-rich, well, that seems like a different story. And more often than not, a story we are strongly encouraged not to run. It’s not just F Scott Fitzgerald’s old line that “the rich are different from you and me”. The costs and risks of our wretched legal system mean the rich can use it more easily than you and me. Before you read what follows, you should know that here at the Observer we have been wondering what we can safely say about the cases of assorted Russian billionaires v Catherine Belton. Something? Anything? Nothing at all? Even in England, I think we are OK to tell you that the critics acclaimed her book, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West. The Guardian called it “groundbreaking”. The New York Times praised Belton’s “elegant” account.
Belton opens with a picture of a capital city that has grown used to Russian money paying “the rent and wages of London’s well-heeled PR and legal firms”. She says her book is presented as much about the west as Russia.
The former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times now faces a pile-on from Russian billionaires on a scale this country has never witnessed. Rosneft, the Kremlin-dominated oil producer (market capitalisation circa $75bn) whose chief executive, president and chairman, Igor Sechin, began his rise to power as Vladimir Putin’s secretary in the 1990s, has lodged an action for libel. No further details were available at the court at the time of going to press.
Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea football boss (estimated net worth $15.3bn) is suing because of what he says are “false and defamatory” statements about his purchase of Chelsea FC. Mikhail Fridman, owner of Russia’s largest non-state bank (net worth about $15.6bn) is suing for libel. Fridman’s business partner, Pyotr Aven, (net worth a paltry $5.3bn) is suing for breach of data protection. Aven and Fridman told the Financial Times they “had no contact with, and did not co-ordinate a legal strategy with, the other plaintiffs or their lawyers’’. Finally, there is a legal action by Shalva Chigirinsky, a former property tycoon (net worth unknown) with no details on record.
They have brought their cases to dear old London town, with its quaint judges in 18th-century wigs and gowns and gothic courtrooms, and with laws that can look as if they are made to match, for all their claims to modernity. As Belton appeared to foresee, London’s lawyers are hard at work. Carter-Ruck, CMS, Harbottle & Lewis and Taylor Wessing have a billionaire apiece in a kind of socialism of the litigious.
Belton’s publishers, HarperCollins, say they will “robustly defend” her. Putin’s People remains available to buy and read uncensored – for now, at any rate.
Rosneft and Abramovich are not only suing HarperCollins, they are suing Belton personally. If they are successful, they could strip her of what few assets she owns. You can see why journalists walk around on tiptoes.
Last week, Raab promised to fight “with the staunchest resolve” Russia’s “malign activities aimed at undermining other countries’ democratic systems”. If the foreign secretary is serious, perhaps he should take a look at London’s high-class service sector for the super-rich. He is unlikely to be able to rely on the legal profession to ask the hard moral and political questions for him.
I learned that in 2013 when I sat through a libel case arising from the death of Sergei Magnitsky in a foul Moscow prison. He worked for the Hermitage Capital fund and died suffering from horrible illnesses after he showed how former Russian officials and gangsters (a distinction without a difference if ever there was one) stole about $230m from the Russian taxpayer. His friend and boss at Hermitage, Bill Browder, began a successful global campaign to freeze the western holdings of corrupt Russians.
One official, Pavel Karpov, sued Browder for libel in London. Browder won, but Karpov stayed in Moscow and refused to pay Browder’s costs of £600,000. In other words, Russia, an actively hostile foreign power, appeared able to use the English legal system to impose the punishment of a huge fine on one of its most effective critics.
Whatever the merits of the different cases against Belton, a free society must be free to examine the phenomenally wealthy without fearing the chilling effect of legal action. It should be alert to the possibility that at least some of what is unfolding in the courts could be Russian state action. Given the involvement of the Kremlin-dominated Rosneft, perhaps the thought is not too fanciful.
Leaving that aside, the EU is under pressure to act against what Americans call strategic lawsuits against public participation. Slapp actions grant access to the courts to powerful individuals or organisations that are less interested in actual verdicts than the prospect of extraordinarily expensive legal costs browbeating critics. My friends at Index on Censorship tell me that Britain has shown no interest in following suit.
On the one hand, the UK government promotes a global Media Freedom Coalition. On the other, the UK is denounced by the Foreign Policy Centre as “the most frequent country of origin” for foreign legal threats against investigative journalists.
If the case of Catherine Belton does not interest Dominic Raab, perhaps he should reflect on what will happen when the Chinese Communist party realises what London has to offer.
Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist