David Davis MP comments on the chilling effect of the super-rich taking libel action on free press


As published in The Daily Mail:

Former Tory cabinet minister David Davis has warned that libel action by Russian oligarchs and the super-rich is having a ‘chilling effect’ on press freedom in the UK.

Mr Davis, 73, made the comments under Parliamentary privilege in a debate on ‘lawfare’ – a term used to describe wealthy foreign businessmen using British courts to pursue their critics.

The Tory MP cited the example of ex-Financial Times journalist Catherine Belton who was left with a £1.5 million bill after Russian oligarchs brought libel actions against her for her book Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Turned on the West.

Several wealthy individuals, including Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, brought the action against Belton and publisher HarperCollins over her book Putin’s People. As well as apologies and amendments to the book, Ms Belton was left with a huge legal fee, according to Mr Davis.

Ms Belton’s book includes claims that in the early 2000s Abramovich bought Chelsea for £150million in 2003 on the personal orders of the Russian president.

The former Financial Times journalist’s publication quotes exiled oligarch Sergei Pugachev – once dubbed ‘Putin’s Banker’ – as the source of the Chelsea FC claims, but Abramovich maintained the allegations were untrue and damaging both to him and the club.

Mr Davis said: ‘We are rightly proud of our legal system in this country. However, what is attractive to legitimate businessmen is also attractive to those with nefarious intentions: there are those with exceptionally deep pockets and exceptionally questionable ethics.

‘These people use our justice system to threaten, intimidate and put the fear of God into British journalists, citizens, officials and media organisations.

‘What results is injustice, intimidation, suppression of free speech, the crushing of a free press, bullying and bankruptcy. It results in protection from investigation and gives encouragement to fraudsters, crooks and money launderers.

‘It has turned London into the global capital of dirty money. In extreme cases, it can undermine the security of the state by allowing people to act as extensions of foreign powers.’

Liam Byrne, a former Labour minister, added: ‘For nearly a thousand years our courts have been sanctuaries of justice, now they are becoming arenas of silence, places in which the truth is killed.’

Ms Belton’s case, and others, have left journalists afraid of strategic litigation against public participation, or SLAPP, Mr Davis added.

He called on the government to follow the example of 31 American states and introduce a ban on rich individuals using ‘strategic litigation’ to curb free speech.

He noted that some of the US laws allow ‘journalists and media organisations to file motions to dismiss suits at an early stage on the grounds that the case involves protected speech on a matter of public interest’.

He said: ‘It is not wrong to sue journalists – sometimes they make serious mistakes or behave maliciously – but billionaires and multimillionaires should not be able to use the law to shut down legitimate criticism.

‘Even if someone defends their case successfully, in this day and age they face material costs so huge that they will further deter others from following a story, and they can even destroy lives.’

Mr Byrne suggested judges should be able to dismiss a SLAPP case.

He said: ‘”Follow the money” is the oldest and wisest advice given to journalists who are pursuing the corrupt, yet this dictum, which has served us so well since Watergate, is now being smothered, suffocated and strangled in courts by allies, associates and friends of President Putin, who is pursuing a hybrid war against the west and against us.

‘What totalitarians, autocrats and kleptocrats fear most is the truth, so what they are seeking to do is to murder the truth, and we are letting them do it in English courts.’

Mr Davis also raised concerns about reporters facing ‘reputational and financial ruin’ in defending themselves.

Tom Burgis, Investigations correspondent for the Financial Times, is currently being sued by the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation over his book Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World.

Meanwhile, the debate saw a Tory tycoon and a senior Conservative adviser accused of trying to ‘bully’ former MP Charlotte Leslie.

The comments came during an explosive Commons debate regarding her treatment.

MPs across the parliamentary divide criticised prominent Conservative adviser Carl Hunter and multi-millionaire Tory donor Mohamed Amersi.

Ex-Bristol North West Tory MP Miss Leslie fell out with Mr Amersi last year after she claimed he tried to use his wealth to take over a Tory group run by her which aims to boost UK-Middle East relations.

Mr Amersi, who then launched his own Tory Middle East group, Comena, to rival Miss Leslie’s Conservative Middle East Council, fiercely denies any wrongdoing.

It follows Wednesday’s disclosure by the Daily Mail of shocking leaked phone calls between Mr Hunter and Miss Leslie.

In the calls, Mr Hunter told her she needed to ‘consider being able to walk the dog at night’ if she refused to apologise to Mr Amersi. Miss Leslie complained to the police about the ‘sinister’ calls.

There is no suggestion Mr Amersi was aware of the nature of Mr Hunter’s conversations with Miss Leslie or instructed him to speak to her in the way he did. During yesterday’s debate, ex-Tory Cabinet minister David Davis said Mr Hunter ‘engaged in bullying and egregious behaviour’ towards Miss Leslie when he ‘tried to broker peace’ between her and Mr Amersi.

And Labour MP Liam Byrne said: ‘What on earth is going on in this country when people like this are able to issue threats to anyone – never mind former MPs?’

Last night Mr Amersi denied trying to ‘intimidate’ Miss Leslie and accused her of ‘trying to portray herself as the victim when the reverse is true’.

He claimed Mr Davis and Mr Byrne had ‘hidden behind Parliamentary privilege to recycle false allegations’ against him in a dossier compiled by Miss Leslie.

He hoped to meet the two MPs to ‘explain the truth’ about his ‘business dealings and relationships in Russia so they can retract their remarks’. Mr Hunter declined to comment.

Mr Davis told MPs that Mr Amersi ‘tried to force his way to becoming CMEC chair – ‘because he saw it as his route to a knighthood’ and had ‘used his wealth and influence to try to bully Miss Leslie into silence.’

He continued: ‘Mr Amersi is used to getting his way. He throws money at a problem in an attempt to make it go away. Ms Leslie has been subject to this legal harassment for a year now.’

Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the Commons Justice Committee, told the debate she had been subjected to ‘utterly disgraceful intimidation.’

Labour MP Liam Byrne said Mr Hunter told Miss Leslie that if she did not apologise to Mr Amersi her legal dispute with him had ‘all possibility of going further to a really gruesome stage.’

Mr Byrne said: ‘What on earth is going on in this country when people like this are able to issue threats to anyone – never mind former MPs?’

The remarks by the MPs were made under Parliamentary privilege in a debate on so called ‘lawfare’ – whereby wealthy foreign businessmen are accused of using British courts to pursue their critics and undermine press freedom.