Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, along with two other Russian billionaires and the state-controlled oil giant Rosneft, are suing HarperCollins UK and its author Catherine Belton over allegations in her book Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West.
Abramovich’s lawyers Harbottle & Lewis say the book “falsely alleges that our client has acted corruptly and makes false claims about our client’s purchase, and the activities, of Chelsea Football Club…Such claims are totally unacceptable and are without foundation.”
Two other Russian billionaires, Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven, as well as lawyers for Rosneft, have also issued claims against the publisher too over allegations made in the book.
Belton is a special correspondent for Reuters and the former Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times. The book was published last year by William Collins and is published in the US by Picador. Interestingly, the individuals bringing the case in the UK are not taking similar action in the US. This is because the US has a different libel system to the UK. In the States, the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff, the person bringing the case, while in Britain, the burden of proof lies with the defendant. Under English law, any individual can come to court claiming that a published statement is defaming. High-profile cases are often brought in the UK for this reason, leading to the phrase ‘libel tourism’.
In the current case, observers say the outcome may come down to whose pockets are deepest. HarperCollins is part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, and thus a company with wealthy backers – but is News Corp rich enough to sustain a long battle with some of Russia’s wealthiest individuals?