By John Helmer, Moscow
Catherine Belton (lead image, left), a reporter on Russia for the Financial Times and Reuters, was abandoned this week by her publisher, Rupert Murdoch’s (right) HarperCollins, and obliged to sign an out-of-court settlement in London with Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven of Alfa Bank and the LetterOne group.
The publisher has agreed to admit there was “no significant evidence” for Belton’s allegations of KGB connections in the early careers of Fridman and Aven; and that she had failed to check her claims with Fridman and Aven before publishing them. “HarperCollins and [Belton] recognise and regret that comment was not sought earlier from Mr Aven and Mr Fridman… and to apologise that the subject was not discussed with them prior to initial publication.”
HarperCollins will publish this statement within a week of the High Court issuing its order. Three months ago, the publisher had announced it “will robustly defend the claim and the right to report on matters of considerable public interest”. The publisher has now agreed to remove Belton’s allegations against Fridman and Aven from new printings of the book, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West.
The hardcover edition was published in April 2020 in the UK; the following June in the US. The American publisher is a subsidiary of the German Holtzbrinck publishing group, which produces the anti-Russia newspaper Die Zeit. The paperback edition of Belton’s book has not yet been published, delayed indefinitely by the London court action and by the publishers’ loss of confidence in Belton’s veracity.
Reuters has so far failed to publish Belton’s admission of her lying in print and the manipulation her publisher has now acknowledged. Instead, the news company, now run from New York, reported from the court in Belton’s defence that she “repeatedly gave several points of view on disputed events and avoided making a [sic] conclusive judgements.”
Reuters reporter Guy Faulconbridge and the lead for his published report. In 2015, Faulconbridge promoted Pugachev’s fabrications in this story which Pugachev reprinted on his personal blog. Reuters has dropped it.
The Financial Times has reported that Fridman and Aven “both settled their own claims against the publisher”, but did not disclose the admissions Belton has now signed.
Kate Beioley was reassigned to report from the courts three months ago.
Belton, who was present in the High Court on Wednesday, told Reuters she refused to comment. In her Twitter account, Belton published an endorsement from William Browder, saying the court case against Belton “threatens to be the biggest legal pile on I’ve ever seen and it risks deterring future journalists from writing about Putin’s wealth.”
Browder himself was dismissed by the Swiss Attorney General earlier in the week for having pursued the Magnitsky allegations of fraud and money laundering by Russian government officials. A 10-year investigation of Browder’s allegations, the Swiss official announcement said, “has not revealed any evidence that would justify charges.” The Financial Times and Reuters have also concealed the Swiss judgement against Browder in their reporting.
Left, William Browder; right, Deputy Swiss Attorney General, Ruedi Montanari; for more, click.
Belton and HarperCollins have been sued in the High Court by Roman Abramovich; the Rosneft oil company; and Shalva Chigirinsky, a former Moscow property developer and oil refiner, each of them alleging fact-faking and libel. A two-day preliminary trial began on Wednesday for lawyers to present their cases.
The lawyers for Belton and HarperCollins are Wiggin solicitors and barrister Andrew Caldecott QC; in a recent case he was unsuccessful in his defence of actor and wife-beater Johnny Depp. Caldecott told the court on Wednesday that Belton is now defending her claims on the grounds she has reported “honest opinion” and has not falsified fact. Caldecott asked the court to extend by at least five months the time Belton and HarperCollins say they need to gather more material before they decide whether their defence in the main trial will be based on reporting the truth; the “honest opinion” of Belton’s sources; or the public interest in assessing political propaganda, true and false.
The lawyers for Abramovich and Rosneft told the court on Wednesday that Belton herself emphasized in her book that hers were statements of fact, not of opinion. In levelling her accusations of fraud, theft, extortion, and corruption, the lawyers argued, she and her publisher are guilty of defamation. Presiding in the court is Justice Amanda Tipples (right), appointed to the bench in November 2019.
The Fridman-Aven lawsuit was filed in parallel but charged violations under the UK Data Protection Act of 2018 (DPA). The two Russians were also successful in a DPA suit against Christopher Steele, the ex-MI6 fabricator of the Golden Showers dossier against Donald Trump; read more on that case, decided in July 2020, here.
The focus of the libel hearings this week is fabrications by Belton in her book, which she says was funded by the Financial Times, publisher’s advances, and loans from her friends; as well as by extensive support from Sergei Pugachev, the runaway Russian bank robber convicted of lying in the High Court. Click for the book; for details of the Abramovich libel lawsuit, read more here.
Belton had faked her book, according to Abramovich’s lawyer Hugh Tomlinson QC, with the help of men who were sworn enemies and plotters against the Kremlin, all of them abroad and on the run from prosecution for stealing their fortunes from Russia. Belton had “relied extensively upon sources that were obviously untrustworthy, including individuals who had obvious axes to grind and had been found to be unreliable and dishonest witnesses by judges of the High Court, namely Sergei Pugachev, Boris Berezovsky and Leonid Nevzlin.”
For her source of the KGB fabrication against Fridman, Belton cited an “author interview with former government official, June 2014.” For Belton’s fabrication that Aven had told her in a May 2015 interview he had hired the Kroll company to find allegedly missing Communist Party gold, HarperCollins now says it “recognises” this is not true. It “has amended the text accordingly”, the publisher has confirmed. Belton and HarperCollins have also retracted as false her allegations in print that Aven had “protected” and “cover[ed]” for President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s.
Murdoch’s London newspaper The Times claims Belton’s book is a best-seller; the Amazon and the New York Times best-selling book charts for 2020 do not substantiate this and make no mention of the book.