A tale of the rise of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and his ties with oligarchs, was always going to be risky, particularly if told in England. Unsurprisingly, lawsuits have been filed in London by four Russian businessmen and the country’s state-owned energy giant against the publisher HarperCollins, and Catherine Belton, the author of Putin’s People.
The surprise is what took them so long. This implies no criticism of the work of Belton, formerly a Financial Times journalist. Rather, it is an indication of the enduring attractiveness of English courts to those with deep pockets and much to lose. Despite reforms curtailing so-called libel tourism, England remains a venue of choice for claimants. Unlike in the US, there is no constitutional protection of free speech and fewer requirements for public figures to meet before they can successfully sue.
International billionaires are some of the English legal system’s best clients: their interests are carefully managed from London by a legal industry promoted abroad by the government. As foreign entrepreneurs’ stature grows in the UK, reputations have become key assets to defend, not least because relationships with lenders depend on an ostensibly squeaky clean background.
Reputation management has enjoyed an evolution beyond public-relations firms. Tactics to neutralise criticism are increasingly sinister. Tales of intimidation, from trolling on social media, to being surveilled, to threats of private prosecution abound among reporters. If libel claims must be resorted to, they can be bolstered by allegations of data protection misuse over supposed online inaccuracies, even if not libellous; a use of data-privacy laws far from their main purpose of safeguarding personal information from Big Data.
New depths were plunged by libel lawyers in 2018, who tried to stop the dissemination in the UK of a book by two Wall Street Journal reporters on the 1MDB scandal, by using the aggressive strategy of targeting booksellers.
The issues go beyond a self-serving argument of a newspaper that reports without fear or favour: how the rich and powerful fight critics matters. Similar tactics are deployed against underfunded advocacy groups and even state law-enforcement agencies. Campaigns for measures across the EU limiting so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation, known as SLAPPs, deserve to be heard, particularly when being a journalist in Europe can be a deadly business.
A simple step to deter any lawsuits designed to silence critics would be to cap costs. This was explored in 2013 during the most recent overhaul of libel laws, but was ultimately shelved beyond tweaks in 2018 around “no win, no fee” deals. The idea deserves to be dusted off: the cost of defending a libel claim in the English courts — with a system that has both solicitors and barristers, and where the loser generally pays the other side’s legal costs — can be ruinously expensive.
Rich claimants are not put off by costs, and can ratchet them up by drawing out proceedings in another intimidatory tactic. By contrast, the prospect of a big legal bill can chill freedom of expression, particularly among freelancers and small outlets, even if there is a public interest in publishing.
Claimants must be able to vindicate their rights in court where claims are well founded. But the costs of the current system hand the super-rich an advantage and can distort outcomes. The scales of justice must balance accuracy with greater tolerance of free speech. Without a recalibration, the system could enable privatised censorship.