Four Russian billionaires and the country’s state-owned energy giant have filed lawsuits against HarperCollins over a book it published last year about the rise of Vladimir Putin.
The libel and data protection lawsuits in regard to the book have been filed all within a few weeks of each other, including by Mikhail Fridman, the banking, retail and telecoms tycoon, and Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club.
The litigation highlights the high-stakes nature of writing about powerful oligarchs and the role of London-based lawyers in defending the interests of the global elite.
Now the most important issue this story reveals is how London’s courts are becoming the venue of choice for legal action designed to “quash critical journalism, not only in the UK, but around the world”, said Jessica Ní Mhainín at the Index on Censorship.
Nick Cohen, an Observer columnist, in his opinion piece for the Guardian, names London “the censorship capital of the democratic world, where you must watch your step and bite your tongue if you know what’s good for you.” “The costs and risks of our wretched legal system mean the rich can use it more easily than you and me.”
Both Fridman and Aven have resorted to the UK law with defamation claims just recently. Last year, a trial took place in London between them and a former British spy Christopher Steele, who in his dossier alleged ties between them and Donald Trump’s campaign.
They denied any ties, and filed a defamation claim against Steele both in British and US courts to “clear their names” and claim compensation for misuse of data.
In April 2018, Fridman and his business-partners filed a defamation lawsuit against Mr. Steele in D.C. Superior Court, and claimed that Mr. Steele falsely accused them of corruption. Their case was tossed just four months later.
While in London, in July 2020, the central allegation by the former British spy was pronounced “inaccurate and misleading.” Mr Justice Warby awarded Mr Friedman and Mr Aven £18,000 in damages each.
The Russian super-rich are bringing their cases to London, taking advantage of its conservative laws that do not match the open information era of today. A free society must be free to examine the phenomenally wealthy without fearing the chilling effect of legal action, Cohen concludes.