A British journalist who faced a barrage of litigation from Roman Abramovich and other oligarchs over her book detailing the rise to power of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has told MPs that libel cases in England and Wales are stacked in favor of “deep-pocketed litigants”.
Catherine Belton, author of Putin’s People, told the House of Commons foreign affairs committee on Tuesday that her case was the “tip of the iceberg”. She said there needed to be better defenses for journalists who face being sued for libel in English courts by rich and powerful litigants using so-called Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPPs).
MPs have raised concerns that wealthy companies and individuals, including Russian oligarchs, have been using England’s strict libel laws to sue journalists and silence their critics. There have been calls for ministers to introduce legislation to prevent the misuse of the legal system to intimidate reporters.
Belton, a former Financial Times reporter who now works for Reuters, and her publisher were sued for libel last year by four oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich, and Russian oil company Rosneft over her book. She told MPs that her case cost her publisher HarperCollins £ 1.5mn in legal fees to defend and could have cost £ 5mn if the case had gone to trial. Abramovich settled his lawsuit last December and the other lawsuits were also settled or withdrawn.
“The case shows just how important it is that there are better defenses for journalists because no matter how good the sourcing is on some of these claims and how great the public interest is, the cases are just too expensive to defend,” Belton told MPs , adding that the “system is stacked in favor of deep pocketed litigants from the outset.”
Belton said the report by the press since Russia invaded Ukraine and oligarchs with links to the Kremlin, including Abramovich, were sanctioned, was as “different as night from day.”
She told MPs: “Before it was almost a reign of terror. A lot of these oligarchs were deploying these aggressive reputation managers, the lawyers. . . You certainly never heard about Abramovich being close to Vladimir Putin or being an enabler of his regime until very recently, ”she said.
Tom Burgis, a Financial Times journalist, who also gave evidence, dubbed the English libel system “war by costs” and said it was having a “chilling effect” on free speech. He described an “inequality of arms” between the limited resources of publishers to defend cases and the “limitless money” of global kleptocrats to bring lawsuits.
Burgis and the FT were sued by Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation Ltd (ENRC), part of a Kazakh mining group, over his book Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World. ENRC dropped the lawsuit this week just days after a High Court judge threw out another lawsuit brought against Burgis and HarperCollins, which published his book.
Burgis called for reform of the legal system to allow SLAPPs to be dismissed at an early stage in the courts before costs got too high for publishers. He spoke of the “psychological pressure” of receiving intimidating letters from law firms representing oligarchs.
Arabella Pike, publisher at HarperCollins, called for a “tweak in the law” to allow public interest criteria so a judge could decide whether a libel case was in the public interest and allow them to dismiss lawsuits if an individual could be given a right of reply instead.
Liz Truss, foreign secretary, has signaled that she wants to find a way of curbing the proliferation of SLAPPs. Some US states have passed legislation to deter lawsuits by giving the courts the power to dismiss cases or cap legal costs if the lawsuits involve matters of public interest.