The book Putin’s People is an apt metaphor for the state of freedom of speech in modern Britain.
By Nick Cohen
This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic.
Catherine Belton was a Moscow correspondent from 2007 until 2016: one of the best reporters in a competitive field. But before I go any further, I wish to make it absolutely clear that I have no intention of praising her. Belton’s achievements should not in any way imply that she has not gravely maligned entirely innocent, if also fantastically rich, influential and powerful, Russians.
After the Financial Times brought her back to London, she finished Putin’s People, a book backed by enormous amounts of research. Before I continue, I find I must stop myself again and make it clear that I will not discuss her book in any detail except to say in the broadest and most banal terms that it describes how the former agent in Dresden and his fellow KGB men took control of Russia. It would be unfair to name names and discuss who seized which business, as Putin crushed what freedoms Russians had gained since the fall of communism, and went on to subvert Europe.
Are my clarifications as clear as a polished windowpane? I hope and pray that they are.
You must understand that I am not giving this book a good review, or a lukewarm review or any kind of review. I am reviewing a book that cannot be reviewed. Libel lawyers tell me that, if I recommend that you read it, I could open this magazine and myself to court action. Not in Russia where the judiciary has been the loyal servant of the Kremlin since the early 2000s, but here in England, a land we once assumed possessed a modicum of freedom.
I have been over each word in this piece and worried about how a barrister enjoying the refresher fees of a Russian billionaire might interpret it. Honestly, it takes far longer not to review a book than to review it. The struggle to purge the text of anything that might be construed as critical of the litigious takes days.
Putin’s People is more than an account of the decline of Russia into sinister decadence. It has become an apt metaphor for the state of freedom of speech in modern Britain. The UK opened to oligarchical wealth from Russia and all over the world in the 1990s. The result is we cannot write in our own country about a book on oligarchical wealth without risking legal action in what we naively assumed were our own courts. The UK would have done better to have kept the freedom and lost the estate agent commissions on Mayfair property sales and boosts to partners’ profits in London law firms.
In 40 years in journalism, I have never seen a serious work — an “allegedly serious work”, I should say — subject to such a sustained attack. Belton and her publishers HarperCollins are facing libel and breach of data protection actions from Rosneft, the Russian oil giant controlling much of the Kremlin’s most important strategic asset, along with Roman Abramovich, the Putin ally and Chelsea FC owner, Mikhail Fridman, the banking, retail and telecoms billionaire, and his partner Petr Aven, and the Russian real estate tycoon Shalva Chigirinsky.
I should make it clear before I go any further — in fact I find I must make it clear — it is possible that Belton has traduced Rosneft and the billionaires, and every word she has written about them is a lie. We must wait on an English judge to settle the matter. I should add that a spokesperson for Fridman and Aven denied that they were part of a coordinated assault with other litigants on a critical book. “They have had no contact with, and did not co-ordinate a legal strategy with, the other plaintiffs or their lawyers,” the spokesperson said.
Maybe that’s true. Maybe assorted oligarchs and executives of one of the world’s largest oil firms, or their PR people, stopped to read a highbrow account of Russian corruption and subversion and decided unilaterally to threaten legal proceedings. Maybe London lawyers drummed up business by going through the book and contacting injured or allegedly injured parties.
But as a thought experiment imagine that the Russian state wanted to use the English law to target its critics. The thought isn’t fanciful, and little would stand in its way. Russia uses its espionage services to target dissidents living in the UK with chemical weapons, and its propagandists target the conspiratorial and the bovine with lies about Covid vaccines and the massacres of Syrian civilians.
In 2013, a police officer in Putin’s interior ministry sued Bill Browder, the London-based fund manager, who organised global financial sanctions against Russian state gangsters who killed his accountant, Sergei Magnitsky. The judge threw out the case, but the Russian police officer disappeared without paying Browder’s costs. In effect, the English legal system allowed Russia to impose a £650,000 fine on one of its most effective critics.
The menace of what Americans call SLAPP actions — strategic lawsuits against public participation — is that they silence what ought to be urgent debates by spreading a pervasive fear. Newspapers, broadcasters, publishers, and their insurers, back away from writing about a subject who threatens to sue. This is the first part of the answer to anyone who wants to know why reporters cannot just defend their work in court. Belton and HarperCollins intend to fight but many publishers won’t take the risk of losing two million pounds on a libel case that goes wrong.
The second part of the answer is that the delay caused by taking a case to court is a victory in itself. If you are rich enough not to care if you lose in the end, you can still be happy to see debate silenced for a year or two years as a case goes through the courts to
be heard by a judge, whose nice home and fine education give him little understanding of life in gangster states.
Foreign Office ministers once warned of the “Wykehamist fallacy”. The FCO would send nice young men, educated at Winchester College, off round the world. In their well-bred innocence, they would believe that screaming leaders could not really mean their bloodcurdling threats, and would hold on to the delusion until the body count became too high to deny.
Now we rely on well-educated judges from Oxbridge colleges and the Inns of Courts to settle disputes from dark and dangerous countries they must struggle to understand. The real reason why ministers need to consider a British law against SLAPP actions is not only that our courts should not try to dictate a judicially approved reading of modern Russian history, but they cannot.