A journalist who was sued by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich over claims of his close relationship with Vladimir Putin has been made an MBE.
Catherine Belton, the author of Putin’s People, has urged the Government to introduce a law to tackle strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps), which see wealthy individuals or organisations launch costly cases against critics.
Ms Belton and HarperCollins settled a defamation case with Mr Abramovich after her book included Russian billionaire Sergei Pugachev’s claims that Mr Abramovich purchased Chelsea football club in 2003 at Putin’s command.
It was one of several lawsuits the author and publishers faced from Russian billionaires as well as oil company Rosneft.
Speaking to the PA news agency about being made an MBE in the wake of the cases, Ms Belton said: “It’s really incredible.
“You couldn’t really have a greater contrast between now and last year when we were just emerging from a really bruising settlement with Roman Abramovich.
“It was the end of the year when we’d faced four legal cases from four Russian billionaires and one from the Kremlin’s oil company.
“It was so stressful and I was so grateful to Harper Collins for standing behind me and fighting them all the way but at the end of it, we had to reach a settlement with Roman Abramovich.”
Ms Belton said she thinks that Mr Abramovich being sanctioned by the UK for his ties to the Kremlin has “shown that I was right”.
In March, Abramovich was hit with an asset freeze and a travel ban after ministers came under sustained pressure to target him over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Government said Mr Abramovich had obtained “a financial benefit or other material benefit from Putin and the government of Russia”.
The court settlement, which followed a High Court ruling that Ms Belton’s book made nine defamatory statements, included an amendment to the book which, Mr Abramovich claimed, resulted in the deletion or addition of more than 1,700 words and an agreement to a charitable donation in lieu of damages.
Ms Belton, who described the legal actions as “really intimidating”, said her team thought they had a “very strong public interest case to defend” but added that it was going to cost HarperCollins millions more to continue fighting. She said the amendments to the book represented minor changes most readers would not notice.
A HarperCollins statement at the time said: “HarperCollins has been made aware that the book contained some inaccurate information concerning Roman Abramovich.
“HarperCollins has now amended the book to record the position more accurately.”
Mr Abramovich’s spokesperson at the time said he was “pleased” the book had been amended and “false claims” removed, adding: “These statements lacked evidence and were indeed false.”
Ms Belton, who described the lawsuits as “really intimidating”, said they thought they had a “very strong public interest case to defend” but it was going to cost HarperCollins millions more to continue fighting.
She said she hopes her MBE will encourage recognition that the UK Government needs to “defend our democracy” by introducing anti-Slapp laws that prevent abusive lawsuits and gives the media freedom to investigate the super rich without fear.
“The whole process of the case against us last year illustrated very clearly everything that’s been wrong with the UK legal system, which has lead to many journalists to self-censor themselves because its too expensive to fight any legal case here,” she said.
“It means the odds are stacked against journalists when anyone with deep pockets can bully and harrass journalists into silencing themselves and censoring themselves because they just can’t afford to fight these claims.”
She also spoke about what it has been like to cover Putin and Russia this year after the invasion of Ukraine.
“Before he’d always kept this aura of deniability whether plausible or not,” she said.
“When you start bombing innocent civilians in Ukraine then that’s quite a different matter.
“And I think Putin has done more than any book, or anyone else, to undermine his reputation than what he’s done this year and it’s really horrifying and shocking to see.”