Putin's People journalist and publisher settle Roman Abramovich libel claim

Putin's People journalist and publisher settle Roman Abramovich libel claim

Putin's People Roman Abramovich

Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich has settled his libel claim against the journalist and publisher behind the book Putin’s People.

The 55-year-old billionaire had sued former FT Moscow correspondent Catherine Belton and HarperCollins over claims made in the 2020 book, including that he “was acting under Kremlin direction” when he bought Chelsea for £150 million in 2003.

Abramovich (pictured) has received an apology and the promise that several points of contention within the book will be amended. HarperCollins also agreed to make a charitable donation in lieu of damages.

Last month High Court judge Mrs Justice Tipples ruled that nine statements in the book were defamatory of Abramovich, including that readers would understand him 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”.

Mrs Justice Tipples 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”.

‘Certain passages’ amended

HarperCollins said on Wednesday it had settled the dispute with Abramovich over “certain passages” in the first edition of Putin’s People that contained “some inaccurate information” about him. It has now amended the text “to record the position more accurately”.

The publisher said the new edition will include a more detailed explanation of Mr Abramovich’s motivations for buying Chelsea, although it noted the book always contained a denial that he was acting under anybody’s direction.

It has also been made clear in the book that there was no evidence relating to the purchase of the football club beyond what three individuals had told Belton.

The publisher also said: “Statements in the book that Boris Berezovsky had in fact been an owner of [Abramovich’s former oil company] Sibneft have been corrected to make clear that, although this was a widely held view in Russia, this was found to be untrue by a UK High Court following an extensive trial in 2012, which (as the book always noted) found Berezovsky to be an ‘inherently unreliable witness’. In recognition of this error, HarperCollins has agreed to make a payment to charity.

“The book has also been amended to make clear that Berezovsky was the public source of rumours regarding the splitting of proceeds from the sale of Sibneft and that this is not established fact.

“HarperCollins and the author apologise that these 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.”

Abramovich ‘not punitive’

Abramovich’s spokesperson said in a statement to PA: “We are pleased that HarperCollins and the author have apologised to Mr Abramovich and amended the book, removing several false claims about him. These statements lacked evidence and were indeed false.

“This follows the English High Court’s determination that the book did indeed include several defamatory claims about Mr Abramovich. In total, amendments resulting in the deletion or addition of over 1,700 words have been agreed.

“As Mr Abramovich stated when issuing his claim earlier this year, its sole purpose was to refute the false allegations published regarding his name and have them corrected, including the false statements made about the nature of the purchase and activities of Chelsea Football Club.

“In contrast to events relayed in the book, Mr Abramovich’s ambition with Chelsea Football Club has always been clear and transparent: to create world-class teams on the pitch and to ensure the club plays a positive role in all of its communities.

“The club’s successes and activities over the years speak for themselves, including the trophies won, expansion of the Chelsea academy, development of the women’s team, and the Chelsea Foundation becoming the largest charitable organisation within the Premier League.

“We are pleased that today’s changes and the resulting apology address the false allegations made on this subject and look forward to further developing Chelsea’s many positive initiatives in the UK, most notably our programmes combating anti-Semitism and racism.

“HarperCollins should be, and now have been, held to reasonable publishing standards and have ample financial resources to withstand a well-founded legal claim that seeks to correct the record.

“As the objectives of this legal claim have never been punitive, we have not asked for any damages to be paid. We have, however, asked that HarperCollins makes a donation in lieu of damages to a charitable organisation, to which they have agreed.”

‘War of attrition’

Belton said in a statement: “This last year has felt like a war of attrition in which HarperCollins and I have been bombarded from all sides with lawsuits from four Russian billionaires and the Kremlin’s oil champion Rosneft. Though the claimants have denied it was coordinated, it has seemed to me similar to the Kremlin’s multi-pronged campaign against Ukraine in which it has sought to exhaust the West into making security concessions over NATO’s expansion. Thankfully, the fate of my book does not involve the lives of tens of millions of people.

“So, we have been glad today to reach a settlement on the one remaining lawsuit by making some further amendments to Putin’s People. We have agreed essentially to add to comments already made by Roman Abramovich’s spokesperson, correct an error involving Mr Abramovich’s ownership of Sibneft and make clearer the reporting over the much-disputed motivations for Mr Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea – to show this was never intended as a statement of fact.”

Belton added: “Throughout, HarperCollins has staunchly defended the book. I could not have wished for a better or braver publisher more committed to public interest journalism.”

Belton has ‘knowledge, tenacity and bravery’

HarperCollins said in its own statement: “There is no one more qualified than Catherine Belton to document the workings of modern Russia. Miss Belton’s knowledge, tenacity and bravery and seven years of research have resulted in a highly regarded and critically acclaimed work. It is commonplace for books of this depth and scope to be amended as new information emerges, and both publisher and author are happy to reflect such changes in Putin’s People.

“As has been widely reported, in addition to the claim by Mr Abramovich, Putin’s People and Catherine Belton have been under attack from four other Russian oligarchs and the state-controlled oil giant, Rosneft, all with vast resources at their disposal. Each of those claims has been resolved with no damages or costs payable by HarperCollins.”

SLAPPs

A group of 19 press freedom and journalists’ organisations had raised serious concerns about the case, claiming it amounted to a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” (SLAPP), a type of legal action used by wealthy and powerful entities to silence journalists and other public watchdogs.

The groups, including Article 19, the National Union of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and Index on Censorship, said: “SLAPPs are used to drain their targets of as much time, money, and energy as possible in order to bully them into silence.”

HarperCollins said it is “committed to publishing high quality investigative non-fiction and to defending free speech” and supported such condemnation of SLAPPs, which it said “quell freedom of speech and deter others from publishing material in the public interest”.

Picture: Reuters / Dylan Martinez / Livepic

SIGN UP HERE FOR

FUTURE OF MEDIA

Press Gazette's must-read weekly newsletter featuring interviews, data, insight and investigations.