By Paul Robinson, a professor at the University of Ottawa. He writes about Russian and Soviet history, military history and military ethics, and is author of the Irrussianality blog. He tweets at @Irrussianality.
Responsible journalism is a delicate balance. Reporters need to expose misdeeds, but avoid unjust accusations. A high-profile case involving a British reporter and a Russian billionaire shows the press doesn’t always get it right.
Psychologists sometimes speak of a “fundamental attribution error.” It works like this: if I do something wrong, I attribute it to forces beyond my control – it was an accident, I didn’t have all the right information, I was misled. But if somebody else does something wrong, I attribute it to them – they were incompetent, negligent, or just plain evil.
One can observe this phenomenon at work in the world of international affairs: the invasion of Iraq was a “mistake”, the “annexation” of Crimea “aggression.” If the Russian press says something incorrect about the West, it’s a deliberate act of disinformation. But if the Western press says something false about Russia, it’s an unfortunate error, but one that it was reasonable for people to have made in the circumstances – or just goes entirely uncorrected.
A case in point is an ongoing libel trial in the United Kingdom involving Russian business tycoon Roman Abramovich and the Rosneft oil company, on the one hand, and journalist Catherine Belton and her Rupert Murdoch-owned publisher, HarperCollins, on the other. At issue is Belton’s book ‘Putin’s People’, which Abramovich and Rosneft claim defamed them.
Abramovich and Rosneft aren’t the only ones to have made such a complaint. Previously, Belton and HarperCollins settled out of court after being sued by Russian businessmen Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven. The defendants admitted they lacked evidence to support various allegations Belton made about the two Russians, apologised to them, and agreed to amend the book to remove the offending passages.
Belton and HarperCollins have not settled with Abramovich and Rosneft, who figure more prominently in the work, meaning their cases have moved onto the British courts. Last week, Mrs Justice Tipples, the presiding judge, issued an important ruling: nine statements in Belton’s book about Abramovich, and one about Rosneft, were defamatory, she said.
Belton had claimed the statements in question were opinions, not fact. Mrs Justice Tipples disagreed, stating that readers would interpret them as being fact. She did not make a judgment as to the truthfulness of the words in question, but her ruling was still a definite setback for the defendants.
It remains to be seen how Belton and HarperCollins will fight the case hereafter. They have the option to argue that the statements were true. This may be difficult, given the lack of corroborating evidence provided in the book and that Belton had previously said they were opinions not facts. One suspects the defendants will instead argue that, even if Belton can’t prove the veracity of what she wrote, it was reasonable for her to have believed it was in the public interest to hear it.
This is the line being taken in another case by Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who is being sued for libel by British businessman Arron Banks in response to allegations that he funnelled money from the Russian government to the Leave campaign in the UK’s Brexit referendum. A year ago, Cadwalladr withdrew her defence of ‘truth’, but she is continuing to fight Banks’s suit using the ‘public interest’ argument.
In essence, what’s being said here is something along the lines of ‘Sure, I got it wrong, but it wasn’t malicious – it was a justifiable error given what I knew, and it was reasonable for me to think it was in the public interest to publish the story.’
Whether this will work remains to be determined. One wouldn’t want a world in which journalists fail to print important stories for fear of being sued. British libel law is notorious for favouring claimants and for being abused by the rich and powerful to silence opponents. In this sense, the public-interest defence has some value.
That said, it has to be balanced against the duty not to blacken people’s reputations for no good reason. Belton and HarperCollins have to show they got this balance right. While some reviewers, many of them perhaps showing media “solidarity,” have praised Belton’s book, others have slammed what they believe is its poor methodology, including its heavy reliance on anonymous sources and the testimony of exiled Russian millionaire Sergey Pugachev, who Belton admits in her book was “found to have given false evidence” to a British court. Pugachev has since distanced himself from what he told the reporter.
In the cases of Fridman and Aven, the author has in effect admitted she couldn’t verify her allegations against them. Journalistic freedom goes hand in hand with journalistic responsibility. Making serious charges of the type Belton has made against Abramovich and Rosneft requires serious evidence. If she cannot provide it, then it’s hard to see how her work can be defended.
Nevertheless, the journalistic community has rushed to do so. In the process, it hasn’t covered itself in glory, failing to provide its audience with key evidence to put the case in context. The Guardian, for instance, ran a story about the recent judgment in which it described Belton’s book as “widely acclaimed” while ignoring the more negative comments the work has received.
It also mentioned that two “oligarchs” (i.e. Fridman and Aven) had “settled their legal actions”, but failed to point out the details of the settlements – details that don’t make Belton and HarperCollins look desperately good. The article gives the impression that everyone thinks ‘Putin’s People’ is a wonderful book and that other lawsuits against it have been dismissed. This is misleading.
So, too, is a statement issued last week by the organisation Index on Censorship. Signed by 19 international journalistic bodies, it likens Abramovich’s lawsuit to “a form of legal harassment used by wealthy and powerful entities to silence journalists and other public watchdogs”. But it makes no reference to what wealthy people are meant to do if journalists defame them.
Index on Censorship adds that, “Five separate claims were initially filed against Belton and HarperCollins, but three have since been resolved without the need for costs or damages being awarded to the claimants.” This is true, but also highly disingenuous, as the wording suggests that Belton and HarperCollins came out on top in their fight against these other claims, when in fact the opposite is the case.
All of which makes one wonder: if RT were to publish a series of defamatory articles about British businessmen, would The Guardian, Index on Censorship and the rest of the journalistic community rush to its defence? Or would there be screams of ‘Russian disinformation’? I think you know the answer.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.