HarperCollins settles with Abramovich Putin’s People book case, agrees to substantial corrections and to pay a donation to charity

HarperCollins settles with Abramovich Putin’s People book case, agrees to substantial corrections and to pay a donation to charity
The law suit made by several oligarchs against HarperCollins and author Catherine Belton for defamation in the book Putin's People has ended with the publisher agreeing to make substantial changes and deletions to the text as well as to pay a donation to a charity of Abramovich's choice. / wiki
By Ben Aris in Berlin December 22, 2021

The British publisher HarperCollins has settled with Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in a defamation case and agreed to delete or change over 1,700 words in the book Putin’s People authored by veteran Russian reporter Catherine Belton, Abramovich’s press service said in a statement released on December 22.  

HarperCollins also apologised in a statement released on the company’s website at 10 a.m. the same day and has agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to a UK-registered charity of Abramovich’s choice.  

Among the most significant changes to the book is the claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Abramovich to buy Chelsea Football Club, which has been significantly reduced to a simple quote by oligarch Sergei Pugachev and his reliability as a witness has also been qualified as part of the amendments. Other claims made by the late Boris Berezovsky, another oligarch, have also either been deleted or qualified.  

The publisher and Belton were sued by several of Russia’s most famous oligarchs and businessmen over sensational claims made in the highly acclaimed book that dived into the inner workings of the Kremlin under Putin. HarperCollins has reached settlements with all of them in the meantime and offered apologies and agreed to correct the content of the book in each case. Abramovich’s case was the last of the outstanding cases and is the only one where the publisher agreed to pay any sort of money.  

“We are pleased that HarperCollins and the author have apologised to Mr Abramovich and agreed to amend 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,” Abramovich’s press service said.  

The settlement follows on from a decision by High Court Judge Amanda Tipples that nine statements in the book concerning Abramovich were defamatory. She said on November 24 that the court was only deciding on the meaning of the passages at that time and not whether or not the allegations made in the book were true or not.

However, that statement set the stage for the settlement, as under British law the onus of proving the statements are true then falls on the author, not the claimant.  

Given the lack of hard evidence in any exposes of the inner workings of the Kremlin, HarperCollins’ defence was based on the principle of reporting on information that is not well supported, and even rumour, but that is “in the public interest” and so is not defamatory. As a result of this position the publisher has never attempted to conclusively prove the statements concerning Abramovich are true.  

The most high-profile of the changes that will be made to the electronic copy of the book and all subsequent editions of the hard copy is the claim made by Pugachev, and repeated to Belton, that Putin personally ordered Abramovich to buy Chelsea FC as part of a Kremlin’s soft power strategy.  

The Pugachev quote was retained but other references to the claim were deleted and Pugachev’s creditability was “clarified”, according to an Abramovich spokesperson in comments to bne IntelliNews. Pugachev had previous made the same claim during his own court case in London, where the judge during his own High Court appearances concluded that his evidence was “totally unreliable” and alternately branded it as “self-serving” and “impossible to believe”, as bne IntelliNews has reported in a Pugachev profile.  

“Pugachev offered no supporting evidence then or later. He just said it. We are happy to leave the quote in the book, as we don't really care what Pugachev said, but the context was clarified with additional information,” the spokesperson told bne IntelliNews.  

At the start of the legal process against HarperCollins, 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,” Abramovich’s press statement said.

“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,” the statement continued. “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 combatting antisemitism and racism.”  

Belton also included several quotes from an interview she took with Berezovsky in 2005, where he claimed to be the owner of Sibneft, a Russian oil company he founded together with Abramovich in the 90s. The two oligarchs later fell out after Abramovich took the company over, only to be sued by Berezovsky later in London, claiming he was still the owner. The London court ruled that the deal between them was legitimate and Abramovich was the lawful owner of the oil company; however, the conclusion of this case was not acknowledged in the book.  

“We further welcome that several other false statements published about Mr Abramovich have been corrected or deleted as part of today’s settlement. This includes the misrepresentation of events surrounding the creation and sale of Sibneft – including false statements regarding the litigation brought by Mr Berezovsky against Mr Abramovich and the subsequent ruling in Mr Abramovich’s favour,” the statement said. “During the court proceedings, Mr Berezovsky’s false claims to ownership of Sibneft were categorically rejected by the High Court.”

The spokesperson complained that the book refers to Berezovsky as the owner of Sibneft throughout despite the fact that the case between Abramovich and Berezovsky was concluded well before Putin’s People was published.  

“Regarding the profits from the sale of Sibneft, speculative statements made in the book that these were to be considered someone else’s, mainly based on an interview the author conducted in 2005 with Mr Berezovsky, are entirely false. Mr Berezovsky’s statements on this matter were made prior to the lengthy legal proceedings he brought against Mr Abramovich, where subsequently Mr Berezovsky was not able to produce any of the evidence he referred to in his interview and was further found by the court to have “deliberately fabricated” evidence,” the statement said.  

Putin’s People was highly acclaimed on its release as the most authoritative expose yet on the inner workings of Putin’s Kremlin, and meticulously researched over eight years of work by Belton, a former Financial Times correspondent in Moscow who has been covering the country for more than two decades. However, the case launched in March brought several oligarchs together against HarperCollins and Belton and was denounced as an abuse of the UK’s legal system to try to muzzle investigative reporting into “Putin’s Russia” and it was even suggested that the attack was co-ordinated and/or directed by the Kremlin. In addition to Abramovich, the oligarchs from Alfa Group, Mikhail Fridman and Pytor Aven, and Uzbek-born metals tycoon Alisher Usmanov also asked HarperCollins for changes and got them. State-owned oil company Rosneft and its CEO Igor Sechin also brought a law suit but after the judge ruled that the comments regarding the company in the book were not defamatory, the company dropped its complaint. In the other cases HarperCollins admitted mistakes had been made in the book, corrected them and offered an apology.  

Abramovich said that he was satisfied the mistakes and errors in the book have been corrected and did not claim any damages but did insist that HarperCollins made a donation to a charity.  

“This book was published, for profit, by one of the world’s largest publishing houses. Publishing false, sensational or defamatory statements about a public person in the pursuit of sales is wrong. 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,” the Abramovich statement said. “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.”  

Russia’s oligarchs have become less tolerant of the accusations and claims made about them in the UK press and have become more litigious recently. They have begun to demand the same high standards of reporting and objective, verifiable information, be used in their cases as is expected in reporting on British and European business people. Abramovich has won in all of the half a dozen suits he has brought against British papers this year, including two cases against The Times, The Telegraph, the Mail Online and the Daily Mail. All have been made to publish corrections, offer an apology and pay undisclosed amounts to charity.