Roman Abramovich’s lawyer said it was defamatory to describe the businessman as having “a corrupt relationship” with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and that he had acted “covertly at his direction” in key business deals such as the purchase of Chelsea football club.
Speaking on the first morning of a preliminary hearing of a high court libel claim against a bestselling book about the modern Kremlin, Hugh Tomlinson QC said the 54-year-old billionaire did not “bring this claim lightly” and understood it could be characterised as “an attack on public interest journalism”.
The lawyer also accused the author Catherine Belton in her book Putin’s People of repeating “lazy inaccuracies” about his position in Russian politics and society.
The barrister said Abramovich was complaining about 26 extracts in the book at the beginning of a two-day hearing in the high court aimed at determining the meaning of key passages ahead of a full trial, in a case that is being seen as a test of England’s libel laws and their impact on investigative journalism.
Belton, a special correspondent with Reuters, is also being sued for libel by the Russian state-owned energy giant Rosneft.
At the heart of Abramovich’s complaint is that the billionaire’s £150m purchase of Chelsea FC in 2003 was “directed” by the Russian president. Tomlinson said the words in Belton’s book meant that Putin had ordered Abramovich to purchase the club as “part of a scheme to corrupt the west by corrupting local elites” and to “build a bulkhead of Russian influence”.
“The ordinary and reasonable reader would inevitably come out with the view that Roman Abramovich was instructed to buy Chelsea … so he was being used as the acceptable face of a corrupt and dangerous regime,” Tomlinson said.
He added: “At no stage is the reader told that actually Abramovich is someone who is distant from Putin and doesn’t participate in the many and various corrupt schemes that are described,” Tomlinson said. “On the contrary, he’s described as making corrupt payments.”
Andrew Caldecott QC, acting for Belton and HarperCollins, argued that Belton’s argument about the purchase of Chelsea FC was more nuanced. The book cited three sources for the proposition that Abramovich bought the club at the direction of Putin, Sergei Pugchaev, a former member of the president’s inner circle, and two others.
But he added that Belton herself did not draw a firm conclusion. “Now this is a case where we say the authorial position plainly leaves it open,” Caldecott said, indicating that Belton wrote “But whatever the truth of the matter, Abramovich’s choice of Chelsea became a symbol of Russian cash that was flooding into the UK.”
Caldecott said Belton had also incorporated a denial of the claim – from a friend of Abramovich’s in the text – to make clear the position was contested. But Tomlinson argued the phrasing was cursory, that it was “a bare denial”.
In the afternoon, the court also heard that a settlement had been reached in two other related cases: one involving the Russian businessman Mikhail Fridman, 57, who had brought a similar libel claim against HarperCollins, and a data protection claim brought against the publisher by Petr Aven, 66, the head of the Russian lender Alfa-Bank.
Tomlinson told the court the publisher had “agreed to remove” the material in dispute and had agreed to apologise.
Lawyers for HarperCollins said the changes the publisher made to settle Fridman and Aven’s claims were minor, covering three paragraphs. HarperCollins added it had “amended some statements” and expressed regret that the disputed points had not been put to the two men prior to publication.
Earlier, Tomlinson, who is representing Abramovich, as well as Fridman and Aven, had said there was “no relationship” between the claims. He told Mrs Justice Tipples he was instructed to act for the three men “coincidentally and entirely independently” and that there was “not any kind of coordination between these claimants”.
In the week prior to the hearing, the anti-corruption campaigner Bill Browder said the case “threatens to be the biggest legal pile-on I’ve ever seen and it risks deterring future journalists from writing about Putin’s wealth”.
The hearing is expected to continue on Thursday examining Rosneft’s claim. A judgment relating to the hearing is expected in a few weeks, while a full trial in the libel case is not likely until 2022.