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By John Helmer, Moscow

The Russia bunker-buster information bomb, Catherine Belton’s (lead image) Putin’s People, proved to be a dud at a London ceremony last week.  In its award for the best non-fiction book about Russia for 2020, Pushkin House announced the winner was a retiring Oxford don whose “long and distinguished career” had displayed  “wisdom and insight.”  

Despite lobbying by Belton’s supporters and the publisher, Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins, Belton’s book was relegated.  Pushkin House doesn’t have a prize for fiction about Russia.

Sources familiar with the book prize review believe that HarperCollins’s recent acknowledgement of fabrication and unprofessional conduct by Belton in an out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit by Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven,  and ongoing lawsuits from Roman Abramovich and Rosneft in London’s High Court,  cast  doubt on the veracity of the book and of the author. After accepting a donation from Alexei Navalny in 2018, and a sharp fall in investment income last year, Pushkin House’s trustees and donors decided they could not afford to risk fresh political controversy.

The High Court case against Belton and HarperCollins is continuing. If it proceeds to a full hearing of witnesses and evidence, with appeals, London lawyers estimate it will cost all sides about £100 million. The risk of penalty damages and cost indemnity judgement against HarperCollins doubles the potential cost to a figure roughly equal to last year’s accumulated earnings for the publishing company, $303 million (£220 million).   

But last week, in a fresh signal that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is concerned at the financial losses British exporters and investors are paying for Whitehall’s information war against the Kremlin, he told President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call “the UK’s current relationship with Russia is not the one we want.”  In the matching Kremlin communiqué, Putin said he and Johnson “expressed the shared opinion that, despite obvious problems, it is necessary to establish cooperation between Moscow and London in a number of areas.”  

The “obvious problem”, both understand, is the faction of British government, military and secret service officials who are running the information war, continuing their engagement in the Skripal and Navalny Novichok operations.  But official support for Belton’s book is waning, sources close to the High Court case believe.  It is likely to weaken further as new evidence and witnesses appear, and as defence lawyers worry that Belton will be unable to withstand cross-examination in court.

The High Court proceedings against Belton and her publisher are still in a preliminary stage. After hearing courtroom argument by the lawyers at the end of July, the presiding judge, Justice Amanda Tipples, must decide whether in the passages Abramovich and Rosneft have cited, Belton reported fact or opinion; and whether the meaning of the words she wrote can be tested in a trial of proof, truth, and libel of those she targeted.  

Excerpt from the High Court presentation by Andrew Caldicott QC, defence lawyer representing the defendants, Belton and HarperCollins.  

There have already been High Court tests of the evidence Belton reported in a case of allegations by a group of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s subordinates against a group of US investors; the investors won; Belton’s evidence was dismissed by the court, and her sources rejected as untruthful and dishonest; read more here.  

In another series of High Court cases, Belton’s principal source Sergei Pugachev was condemned as a faker and perjurer.  Pugachev fled to France, where he entertained Belton while the book was being written. Belton cited Pugachev 411 times in her book, and recorded at least 13 interviews with him – three in 2013; two in 2014; four in 2015; one in 2016; one in 2018; and two in 2019.  The Pugachev case dossier can be followed here.

Khodorkovsky was cited 334 times in Belton’s book. She reports three interviews with him after he was released from prison – in May 2014, September 2015, and July 2016. She does not report in the book, as she has told a source, that a decade earlier,  Khodorkovsky had flown her on his private jet; and that he financed the Moscow Times when Belton was employed there.

In this week’s Gorilla Radio discussion, Chris Cook leads with questions about info-bombs, fact-faking, truth-telling, and the role of the London High Court to distinguish between the two.  Click to listen.

Gorilla Radio is broadcast every Thursday on CFUV 101.9 FM from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.  The radio station can be heard here.  The Gorilla Radio transcripts are also published by the Pacific Free Press and on the blog.  For Chris Cook’s broadcast archive, click to open.   

Part of the evidence mentioned in the discussion can be opened in the annual financial reports of Pushkin House. Here is the financial report of 2018 revealing that Alexei Navalny’s political party, “Future of Russia”, made a donation of £25,000.

Source: https://register-of-charities.charitycommission.gov.uk/
The report omits to say who Future of Russia was, and Navalny’s name is not mentioned. The trustees refused to respond to questions about the Navalny donation; for more on this story, read this.

Pushkin House’s latest financial report, filed in April of this year,  shows that donations have dwindled in total from just over £80,000 in 2018 to just under £30,000. However, Pushkin House and its auditors now keep the identities of its donors secret. The secret value was £17,107 in 2019; in 2020 it jumped to £29,512.

Two grants amounting to £37,592 are reported as underwriting the annual book prize of £10,000. The first is from the Polonsky Foundation, a father-and-son charity whose income comes from Russian investment operations and whose financial records can be followed here.  The second grant is from Douglas Smith, a former Soviet affairs analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at one time an interpreter for President Ronald Reagan;  and his wife, Stephanie Ellis-Smith, an advisor to charity funds.  

Source: https://register-of-charities.charitycommission.gov.uk/

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