Proceedings brought by three Russian billionaires and a state-owned oil company against publishing house HarperCollins in the English High Court began today, with lawyers for Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich rebutting allegations that the claim is an ‘attack on free speech and public interest journalism’.

HarperCollins Publishers Limited and journalist Catherine Belton are being sued for the publication of the 2020 book Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West, which covers the emergence of Putin’s regime and the renaissance of the KGB. Earlier this year, lawyers for Abramovich issued a statement alleging that the book contained a ‘number of false and defamatory claims’.

In a preliminary hearing in the Royal Courts of Justice this morning, Hugh Tomlinson QC, for Abramovich, rejected the characterisation of the claim as an attack on free speech, arguing that the book repeats ‘lazy inaccuracies’.

Today’s hearing deals with the wording of the disputed passages and whether the passages are defamatory. Tomlinson argued that the judge, Mrs Justice Tipples, should approach the words complained of from the perspective of an ordinary, reasonable reader, who does not have a detailed knowledge of the situations described.

He added that the judge should focus specifically on the disputed passages – as opposed to the 600-page book as a whole – and said the ‘defamatory allegations’ were not diluted by the fact that they were attributed to sources.

Tomlinson cited a passage relating to the purchase of Chelsea FC, which states in ‘clear and unequivocal terms’ that Abramovich was directed to buy the club by the Kremlin to increase Russian influence.

‘At no stage is the reader told that actually Abramovich is someone who is distant from Putin and doesn’t participate in the many and various corrupt schemes that are described,’ Tomlinson said. ’On the contrary, he’s described as making corrupt payments.’ 

Mikhail Fridman, Pyotr Aven, and Public Joint Stock Company Rosneft Oil Company are also bringing claims in the High Court.  The libel and data protection law suits all name HarperCollins as a defendant, while some also name Belton, a former Financial Times journalist.

Firms acting for the claimants include Carter Ruck, Harbottle Lewis, CMS and Taylor Wessing. Wiggin is representing HarperCollins and Belton.

Harper Collins said it will ‘robustly defend’ the book. The trial continues.