Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich claimed victory on Wednesday in the first stage of a High Court libel suit against the publishers and author of a bestselling book about the modern Kremlin, as a judge ruled that passages were defamatory.
Judge Amanda Tipples found that allegations in journalist Catherine Belton’s best-selling book — that the 55-year-old billionaire bought Chelsea FC on Vladimir Putin’s orders to gain influence in Britain — are defamatory.
Judge Tipples found that all nine of the meanings that Abramovich had complained about were defamatory. She also ruled that the allegations in the book are presented as statements of fact rather than expressions of the opinion, as Belton and the book’s publisher, HarperCollins, had argued.
The judge had been asked to give a ruling on the “natural and ordinary meaning” of 26 extracts from “Putin’s People” about the businessman after a two-day preliminary hearing in July ahead of a full trial. The court is not at this stage deciding whether the statements were true.
Belton wrote in her 2020 book that Abramovich “was acting under Kremlin direction” when he bought the Premier League club for £150 million ($200 million at today’s rates) in 2003. She said he had “a corrupt relationship” with the Russian president and that he had acted “covertly at his direction.”
Abramovich’s lawyers complained that the businessman is described in the passages as Putin’s cashier and the custodian of Kremlin slush funds.
Judge Tipples wrote in her judgment on Wednesday that she gave her decision based on what “would have been conveyed to the ordinary reasonable reader reading those passages once.”
She found that readers would come away understanding Abramovich 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.”
The book gave the impression that Abramovich would have lost his wealth to the Russian state if he had not complied and could have been exiled or jailed, Judge Tipples wrote.
Readers would understand the book to allege that Abramovich had bought approximately $300 million of shares in Russia’s state-owned oil producer Rosneft on Kremlin orders so that an initial public offering would not fail.
Readers of the book would also think that Abramovich moved to New York on Putin’s orders to influence the family of Donald Trump on the Kremlin’s behalf, Judge Tipples wrote.
Rosneft is also suing Belton for libel over 19 passages in the book that include references to suspicions that it had overpaid for an oil company so that money could be siphoned off to Putin and his associates at the KGB.
In a separate judgment, Judge Tipples found that one of the four meanings complained about by Rosneft is defamatory. This concerned the allegedly inflated purchase price of $600 million paid by the oil company for Severnaya Neft in 2003
Judge Tipples said that readers would understand the book to allege that Rosneft paid twice the accepted valuation of the company, so that the overpayment could end up in the hands of Putin and his associates in the KGB for their own use.
“This imputation is, in my view, actionable as it had a tendency to cause a substantial adverse effect on people’s attitudes to the company,” Judge Tipples wrote.
Whether the company can prove serious financial loss or its probability on reports of events that happened 18 years ago is a matter for another day, Judge Tipples said.
A HarperCollins spokesperson said that the preliminary judgment “only decides what ordinary readers would understand the relevant passages in the book to mean. The current state of English law means that all investigative journalists run the risk of having to defend defamation claims when they report critically on matters of public interest.”
Abramovich is represented by Hugh Tomlinson QC and Ian Helme of Matrix Chambers, instructed by Harbottle & Lewis LLP.
HarperCollins and Belton are represented by Andrew Caldecott QC, Godwin Busuttil and David Hirst of 5RB, instructed by Wiggin LLP.
Rosneft is represented by Desmond Browne QC and Clara Hamer of 5RB, instructed by Carter-Ruck.
The cases are Abramovich v. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. and another and Public Joint Stock Company Rosneft Oil Company v. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. and another, case number QB-2021-001025 in the Media and Communications List, Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice of England and Wales.