Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich was accused of buying Chelsea FC as “part of a scheme to corrupt the West” on Vladimir Putin’s orders in a “seriously defamatory” book about the Russian president’s regime, his lawyers told the High Court today.
The 54-year-old billionaire is suing journalist Catherine Belton over her best-selling book Putin’s People: How The KGB Took Back Russia And Then Took On The West, which was published by HarperCollins last April.
Belton, the former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, said Abramovich “was acting under Kremlin direction” when he bought the Premier League club for £150m in 2003.
His barrister Hugh Tomlinson QC told the High Court on Wednesday that readers of the book would conclude that Abramovich “had been used as the acceptable face of a corrupt and dangerous regime”.
Tomlinson argued that Putin’s People said Abramovich was “part of a scheme to corrupt the West … aimed at building a block hold in the UK for Russian influence”.
A reader of the book would conclude that “rather than being interested in football, he was just doing the president’s bidding to infiltrate British society”, Tomlinson added.
In written submissions, Tomlinson said the book “states in terms” that Abramovich bought Chelsea “to corrupt and manipulate the British elite” – an allegation he described as “serious and sensational”.
He also said the description of Abramovich as the “cashier” to the family of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, and later to Putin, meant his client was portrayed as “clearly corrupt”.
But Andrew Caldecott QC, representing Belton and HarperCollins, pointed out that the reference to Abramovich being a cashier was “in quotation marks, suggesting it is someone else’s observation”.
He argued that readers of Putin’s People would believe that “there are grounds to suspect Abramovich was acting at the Kremlin’s direction” when he bought Chelsea, not that he definitely was.
Caldecott also told the court that the book “records a firm denial from a ‘person close to Abramovich’” that he bought Chelsea on Putin’s orders.
Belton is also being sued for libel by Russian state-owned energy giant Rosneft, while Russian businessman Mikhail Fridman, 57, brought a similar claim against HarperCollins over Putin’s People.
Petr Aven, 66, the head of Russian lender Alfa-Bank, also brought a data protection claim against HarperCollins over the book.
But the court heard that the pair have settled their claims against the publisher during the course of Wednesday’s hearing.
Tomlinson said Fridman and Aven “have reached an accommodation with HarperCollins”, whereby the publisher has “agreed to remove effectively all the material on which the actions are based from future editions of the book”.
A reference to Fridman having allegedly been “cultivated by the KGB” will be removed from Putin’s People, as will a reference to Aven having allegedly “protected Putin”, according to an order submitted to the court.
HarperCollins will also “apologise for not having approached (Mr Fridman and Mr Aven) before they published”, Tomlinson added.
The publisher will also “publish a statement on their website” confirming the settlement, the court heard.
The statement will say that HarperCollins and Ms Belton “recognise and regret that comment was not sought earlier from Aven and Mr Fridman in relation to statements suggesting Aven or Fridman had connections with the KGB in the early part of their careers in the late 1980s”.
In a statement, a spokesman for Aven and Fridman said the pair were “pleased that HarperCollins has recognised that the book Putin’s People was inaccurate in what it said about them, in particular that there was no significant evidence that they had connections with the KGB”.
At a two-day hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Mrs Justice Tipples is being asked to determine the “natural and ordinary” meaning of the allegations about Mr Abramovich and Rosneft.
Tomlinson, who represents Mr Fridman and Mr Aven, as well as Mr Abramovich, said there was “no relationship” between the claims, saying he was instructed to act for the trio “coincidentally and entirely independently”.
The barrister also rejected the suggestion the claims were an “attack on free speech and public interest journalism”, arguing the book “holds itself out as a serious work of contemporary history, but unfortunately it repeats lazy inaccuracies”.
The hearing before Mrs Justice Tipples is due to conclude tomorrow and it is expected that judgment will be reserved.